The Lodhran reality

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The PML-N has caused an upset in the NA-154 by-election by defeating Jahangir Tareen’s son with a clear margin. This defeat is a political setback for the PTI.

The voters in this Lodhran constituency in southern Punjab surprised everyone, including the PML-N’s leaders, and proved almost all the election experts wrong, who had been predicting a comfortable victory for the PTI.

Jahangir Tareen had won the seat in the 2015 by-election by a margin of over 40,000 votes, and now his son has lost it by 25,000 votes. Something extraordinary has happened. We saw a swing of 65,000 votes in favour of the PML-N candidate. This turnaround should be a matter of serious concern for the PTI. This election result has sparked a debate over the factors that contributed to the PML-N’s victory. Different factors, both local and national, played their part in this surprising victory of PML-N candidate, Pir Iqbal Shah, and the shocking defeat of PTI candidate Ali Tareen. It would, however, be wrong to simply say that this victory has vindicated Nawaz Sharif’s narrative against his disqualification. The result in Lodhran cannot be declared as the voter’s verdict against his disqualification. Local factors played a decisive role in the final outcome of this election.

Infact, it was the Kanju factor – instead of Nawaz Sharif – that decisively swung the constituency back to the PML-N. The Shaheed Kanju group had won all the national and provincial assembly seats from Lodhran district in the 2013 general elections.Both the PLM-N and PTI had lost the elections. The Kanju group had joined the PML-N after the election. One of the leaders, Abdul Rehman Kanju, of this group now serves in the federal cabinet as a state minister. Jahangir Tareen was able to crack open fissures within the Kanju group in the 2015 by-elections and some influential figures of this group refused to support Siddique Baloch, the PML-N’s 2015 by-election candidate. The split in the Kanju group paved the way for Tareen’s victory.

Siddique Baloch refused to contest the election and cleared the way for Pir Iqbal Shah’s candidature. Abdul Rehman Kanju, on the other hand, worked hard to put his local group together. All the influential figures, MPAs, local representatives and different groups supported Shah in this election. Another former candidate, Rafi Shah, of the PML-N, also backed him. Rafi had campaigned for Tareen in 2015 against Baloch. Different local groups formed an alliance against Ali Tareen.

Some development work also helped the PML-N garner support. Lodhran is among the most backward districts of Punjab. It needs major development work so as to make basic facilities available to the people. Hence, the promises of more development projects helped.

Selection of candidates has become an important factor in electoral politics. No party can take voters for granted. On paper, Pir Iqbal Shah was a weak candidate but his reputation as a humble and modest man helped him defeat the business tycoon. Political parties have to do a lot of work to choose their best possible candidates for the upcoming general elections. This election shows that the reputation of a candidate does play a role.

The Chakwal and Lodhran by-elections made two things clear. First, it was generally believed that Islamabad sit-in and Khatam-e-Nabuwat rallies damaged the right-wing religious vote bank of the PML-N in Punjab. The general perception was that the rise of Khadim Rizvi and his movement would take the Barelvis away from the PML-N and help the PTI. But both by-elections proved this perception wrong. The PML-N might have lost a couple of thousand votes to the TLP, but at the same time the TLP’s votes were also a clear loss for the PTI. In the absence of the TLP, and an anti-PML-N extreme right-wing, Barelvi votes could have gone to the PTI as a viable alternate.

Second, the PML-N has recovered from the early setbacks and regained its lost ground. So far, the PML-N is intact as a party. Sitting parliamentarians and electable are still confident that they can win the next election from the PML-N’s platform. They are still not worried, shaky or doubtful about its future as a powerful electoral machine. The party firmly stood its ground and its symbol still helps it win the elections. The PML-N is still the dominating electoral party in Punjab.

The PTI’s flawed narrative has once again been exposed. The three by-elections since the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have made it clear that the anti-Nawaz rhetoric and corruption mantra are not enough to win the elections. The PTI is not campaigning around the real issues facing the masses instead continues to focus on Nawaz Sharif’s alleged corruption. The PTI has in general increased its vote bank in Punjab but it is not big enough to defeat the PML-N in its strong hold.

It seems that the decision to award the ticket to Ali Tareen did not go down well with the voters. This decision contradicted the PTI’s tall claims of being against dynastic politics. Imran Khan himself criticised other politicians for keeping important positions within a family. But the PTI did the same in this constituency.

Moreover, the by-elections in Punjab have become a nightmare for the PPP’s leadership and candidates. In the Lodhran by-election, the party’s candidate secured around 3,700 votes, despite the fact that he is the son of a former federal minister and MP from this constituency. The PPP leadership needs to rethink its political strategy for the revival of the party in Punjab. Public rallies and large public meetings are not going to help. It not just requires young and fresh faces, but also a new programme based on its original ideology and principles. The PPP will not be able to achieve its dreams of revival and recovery in Punjab without changing its politics and policies. The party needs a radical programme and slogans.

Article first appeared in on 16-February-2018