BY-ELECTIONS are usually not a good barometer of the mood ahead of a general election. With political governments in place, they are usually tilted in favour of incumbents. But the narrow victory of Abdul Qadir Gilani in Multan on Thursday to the National Assembly seat that fell vacant after his father, former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was disqualified by the Supreme Court in April has yielded some tantalising hints about the state of politics in Punjab. First, not all victories are equal and the few thousand votes by which the PPP held on to its former prime minister’s seat will have set alarm bells ringing in the party. Here, after all, was a district that the PPP via Yousuf Raza Gilani had lavished much attention on over the last four-and-a-half years. Here also was supposed to be fertile ground for two other factors the PPP will play up during the general election: a sense of victimhood, which the former prime minister embodies as yet another PPP prime minister ousted before his time, and the so-called Seraiki card, whose time is supposed to have come as an electoral factor. The election result, then, suggests all is not well in the PPP camp. It will not admit this publicly, but the party apparently still lacks a winning formula to overcome the woes of incumbency of a government often perceived as thoroughly incompetent and out of touch.
Second, the Multan by-election appears to have been a trial balloon for a possible revival of an alliance similar to the IJI, which fought it out with the PPP in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The runner-up in Thursday’s election, Shaukat Hayat Bosan, was supported by the PML-N, JI and PTI — all parties with similar politics and united to some extent by their opposition to the PPP. An electoral alliance may still be far off, but behind the scenes the debate over seat adjustments for the general election will inevitably pick up. Though it is far from a sure thing — at least publicly, the PTI and the PML-N are rivals — the lure of seat gains at the expense of the PPP will have Punjab’s eternally churning politics in a fresh state of excitement.
Third, the Multan by-election is a powerful response to the worrying speculation about care-taker set-ups and extra-constitutional interventions. The argument for recourse to the extra-constitutional has always been that the democratic process will not produce change. But as the highly competitive race in Multan has shown, the electorate isn’t so easy to manipulate and is ready to be wooed by other possible representatives.