This article was published in Dawn on October 29, 2018 and is available at the following link
IT is rare that by-election results generate as much interest and prompt as much commentary as was the case with the polls in the national and four provincial assemblies’ constituencies held on Oct 14 and 21 — just short of three months since the PTI swept the general election, emerging victorious at the centre, and in KP and Punjab. At stake in the by-election were 12 National Assembly seats and 26 provincial assembly seats, leading to a total of 38 contests.
Despite national-level interest, however, voter turnout in the by-election dropped sharply to 32 per cent, compared to the general election. The percentage of invalid votes, which was around 3pc in the general election, dropped to 1.77pc in the by-election, indicating a welcome but rather surprising improvement.
There are several angles of looking at the by-election. First, one can look at these polls from the viewpoint of the fairness of the electoral process. There was a visible improvement in the quality of electoral process in the by-election compared to the general election, both before and on the day of polling, including the counting, transmission, consolidation and announcement of election results.
The polls seem to indicate that voters have not been swayed by the incumbency factor.
In the past, ruling parties made intense efforts to influence by-elections, despite the ECP code of conduct barring such practices. This time, one should concede that there was no apparent effort by the PTI governments to influence the outcome of the by-election, despite the fact that the results could have critically impacted their numerical strength in the assemblies.
Generally, it is believed and observed that voters tend to vote for the ruling parties in by-elections. Since a change in government is not anticipated, voters tend to be pragmatic and support the ruling party candidates in by-elections, in the hope of receiving their patronage in day-to-day governance-related problems.
The results of the recent by-election, however, indicate that voters have not been swayed by the incumbency factor. Rather, the opposition party has somewhat benefited in the by-elections. In terms of percentage of votes, the main opposition party, the PML-N, has increased its vote share from 26pc in the general election to 33pc in the by-election held on Oct 14, in nine out of 11 National Assembly constituencies where polls were held on July 25. A Gallup calculation indicates that this rise was not entirely at the cost of the PTI, whose share of votes has declined just by one percentage point — from 34pc in general election to 33pc in the by-election.
Another way of looking at the by-election is by assessing its impact on the strength of the recently formed governments in the respective assemblies. Since the present ruling coalition had a narrow majority in the National Assembly and a razor-thin majority in the Punjab Assembly, there was a lot of interest in seeing whether the ruling parties would be able to improve their position in the two legislatures, or whether their position would become even more precarious after the by-election.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was elected to office by securing 176 votes in the National Assembly on Aug 17 — barely four more than the 172 required to command a majority in the 342-member house. The PTI had only 151 votes in this tally, whereas the remaining 25 votes came from seven allied parties and independent members. The combined strength of the ruling coalition in the National Assembly was 175; following the by-election, this collective tally has improved to 182. The PTI, meanwhile, has increased its own tally from 151 to 156. Within the opposition, the PML-N added four seats to its total bringing its strength to 85, and the MMA added one seat to its previous 15, taking the total strength of the opposition parties to 156.
The ruling coalition has, therefore, increased its lead after the by-election, but the PTI continues to be heavily dependent on its allies for holding on to the federal government. In that sense, the by-election has not materially changed the power balance at the centre.
The PTI-led coalition could barely muster 186 votes for its candidate for chief minister of Punjab. This was the minimum number required to command a majority in the 371-strong house. The Punjab ruling coalition has added three seats to its total of 187, bringing it to 190 after the by-election. On the other hand, the PML-N has added six seats after the by-election, bringing its tally to 168. The ruling coalition lead in the Punjab Assembly has therefore declined after the by-election and, by the same proportion, its dependence on the PML-Q has also increased.
One aspect that has probably received the most attention is the number of seats lost by the ruling party in the by-election, especially in its KP stronghold. Among the 21 seats that the PTI had won in the general election, it could retain only 10 in the by-election. The PTI lost 10 of the seats in the by-election that it had won in the general election. This impression of a setback to the PTI in the by-election was further reinforced by the high-profile nature of three keenly contested seats, which it lost.
NA-131 Lahore, which Imran Khan had narrowly won in the general election, was reclaimed by PML-N candidate Khawaja Saad Rafique in the by-election. Another National Assembly seat in Bannu, which Imran Khan won on July 25 by defeating the JUI-F’s Akram Durrani, was lost in the by-election by the PTI candidate and claimed by Akram Durrani’s son. A seat in the KP Assembly won by the PTI’s Shah Farman in the general election was vacated after he became the governor of KP. The PTI candidate for that seat in the by-election, who happened to be Shah Farman’s brother, had to suffer defeat.
These setbacks and gains for various parties aside, the fair and peaceful conduct of the recent by-election may have somewhat improved public trust in the electoral process, which had suffered during the general election.