When general polls are near
IT is amusing and at the same time sad how a by-election in Sahiwal last week is being used to back the theory that the PTI would be PML-N’s main rival in the next general election. It is not the assertion, nor the predicted effect but the changed premise that is really frustrating.
Earlier, what the PTI promised was a war against the status quo. Now it wants change to be symbolised by a man deeply immersed in status quo, a candidate who has the biradari and the votes and who, like a catering agent, is free to choose which party to serve.
Actually, all by-elections held in the old PML belt in Punjab last Tuesday had the stamp of status quo. These were contests to suit all varieties of political positions and stances, among them the stance that calls on the Election Commission of Pakistan to effectively control interference by the administration.
The Sahiwal (Chicha Watni) constituency stayed the course by coming up with the stereotype of a polling station on a by-election day. This one was found stuffed with 1,100 votes against a total of 1,125 people eligible to cast ballots here.
The Rai family of Sahiwal is known to have its vote-bank, which it delivers to the banner it chooses to contest a particular poll under. In the NA-162 by-election, Rai Nawaz lost to the PML-N nominee and a recent political aspirant, Chaudhry Zahid Iqbal. The margin was less than 10,000 votes.
Rai lacked a formal nomination from the PTI, but his election advertisements were adorned with the photographs of Imran Khan. In media reports Rai, due to his healthy family vote-bank, was identified as a PTI man who could pull it off against Chaudhry, a former PPP lawmaker who had only recently adopted Nawaz Sharif as his leader.
By local accounts Chaudhry Zahid is an agent of the old himself. He is a product of exile that had also given birth to the comparatively less successful and decidedly less neutral Charter of Democracy.
Chaudhry is said to have been a friend of both Benazir Bhutto and of Nawaz Sharif from the days in exile in England. In 2007, BB granted him the PPP nomination in the face of muted opposition from PPP cadres. He won, but four years into his term he was disqualified by the court.
Seeking to maintain his status above party affiliations — just like his local rivals, the Rais — Chaudhry then chose to ditch the PPP and walked over to his other well-placed friend, Nawaz Sharif. The incident consolidates an old, still holding order in which the Rais and Chaudries are partners. It also signifies a trend in central Punjab where even those who had in recent times sworn allegiance to the PPP are now reluctant to be associated with the Zardari party. PML- N is the first preference.
PPP central Punjab president Manzoor Wattoo tells the media to wait and see. He promises eventually he will be able woo some influential candidates. This vow can alternately be read as a resigned acceptance of reality. Isn’t he waiting to scour through the pile of leftovers and hoping to create something meaningful out of what he is able to lay his hands on?
The source behind the PPP high command’s declarations about guaranteed success in the next general poll remains unknown. If it is more than an effort in self-deception, the proud billing doesn’t quite conform to the conditions in central Punjab.
What is worse in the local context, a discovery of the truth here could lead the PPP to focus more obsessively on southern Punjab where it maintains an altogether different presence and on relying on the PML-Q.
The campaign for the NA-107 seat in Gujrat increased rather than closed the gap between the PPP and PML-Q. The Kairas did attend a few meetings of the PML-Q candidate, but by and large, PPP politicians stayed away from this Q show.
Back in Sahiwal, if the PPP had the time, it could have tried to find itself a heavyweight to take on the rebel in Zahid Iqbal. The party was denied the opportunity because Mr Iqbal made his clever lunge for the Sharif camp too late to leave time for anyone to react effectively. While all this may be true, a PPP election nominee — its MNA until only recently — ditching Mr Zardari and joining PML-N does go well with the Sharifian ‘we are the real alternative’ slogan that is first reflected in the local heavyweights’ choice of party .
Imran Khan’s supporters are claiming this is not at all a bad situation for the PTI. It is not bad politics that PTI members are now citing NA-162 Sahiwal as an example of just how real the PTI threat is. It was the rise of the IK brand which had restored some old-school common sense to PML-N’s conduct.
Under the modified plan, Nawaz Sharif was to retain his avowedly statesman-like presence in national politics and Shahbaz Sharif to continue on his typically arbitrary developmental road. Both brothers were to make sure they kept issuing those anti-corruption statements that stick well to the PPP.
The more dangerous half of the old establishment — comprising the jihadis or militants — was to be cajoled and pampered and not gifted to IK. Side by side, the PML-N was to make an effort to reach out to the influential men who had so far not gotten due attention from the Sharifs since their return to Pakistani politics.
With all its qualifications, the PML-N will take the pro-Imran Khan example of Rai Nawaz from NA-162 seriously and continue working on local heavyweights.
The PTI’s good politics around the 67,000 votes that its informal candidate got in the Sahiwal contest starts to somewhat fade as soon as the focus shifts to other by-elections held on the same day and inside traditional Sharif territory. The PTI, like PML-N’s traditional rival PPP, was hardly in the picture in the other half-a-dozen contests.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.