Seldom has a by-election in Pakistan’s political history been so hotly contested. And for good reason. For the three leading parties, the MQM, the PTI and the JI contesting the NA-246 by-election, its outcome symbolically holds far greater significance than any single by-election in any constituency normally would. For the three parties, these are unusual political times.
The outcome of the electoral battle for NA-246 will be determined by several factors related to politics and the environment. It’s a by-election with a difference as it may witness a greater voter turnout than even at the 2013 elections. The constituency, essentially the MQM’s Larkana, covers densely populated areas, including Liquatabad, Azizabad, Bandhani Colony, Ayesha Manzil, Federal B Area, etc., and has more than 357,000 voters. In the last elections, MQM’s Nabil Gabol polled 137,000 votes. The Jamaat boycotted that election on the polling day and the PTI managed to poll 32,000 votes. The 2013 elections were not conducted in a fair and free environment, with the NA-246 constituency becoming a virtual no-go area for most contestants.
Today’s by-election is being held in a vastly different environment. The Rangers’ operation, approved by all political parties, has helped to relatively open up the constituency. Under Article 245 of the Constitution, the election commission has instructed Rangers’ presence on the polling day. Approximately 1,800 Rangers personnel will be stationed inside and outside the 56 polling stations. Inside the polling stations, if required by the presiding officers, Rangers will help ensure a free environment for the voters. Within the constituency as a whole, the police and Rangers will be deployed to prevent clashes and ensure free movement of citizens.
Today’s election will be held in a vastly different political environment than what prevailed in 2013. With the presence of the media and the Rangers, no major political intimidation or violence would be possible. The voters will be able to cast their vote in a relatively fear-free environment. For the MQM, NA-246 holds critical importance and it faces the most serious political challenge since its inception. The Karachi operation, including the Rangers action at its headquarters, the Saulat Mirza revelations, and the endless stories and arrests have raised fundamental questions regarding its future. The party leadership, therefore, looks at this by-election, being held in its home constituency, as an opportunity for the MQM to give its political response by winning. Only an MQM win can prove that fear alone isn’t the guiding factor for the voters, as has been repeatedly argued. Obviously the MQM is looking for a big win. After the PTI’s 126-day long dharna, its assertion that it has managed to create greater awareness among the voters; that people are fed up with corrupt politicians; and that the people of Karachi are ready for change, winning the NA-246 seat would be of great political significance. Imran Khan has personally led the PTI campaign to ensure a pro-PTI vote. Meanwhile, in the post-operation period, the JI believes it has a fighting chance to gain considerable support in a constituency where its candidates like Professor Ghafoor have also won.
Whatever the compulsions of the various contestants, the determining factors in who wins the by-election will be the political infrastructure of the parties, the inroads they have made among the local residents through the help and support they have provided to them, the parties’ awareness of the local issues that residents face and their ability to deliver to their voters in non-election times too. Indeed, the broader macro-political message of political parties, as well as their top leaderships, also influences voting patterns.
The MQM is likely to retain NA-246 but the margin with which it wins will indicate the extent of its political standing in the area. Equally, the PTI will find out the extent to which its message has had an impact in Karachi’s areas other than Defence. With the JI also in the run, the likelihood of it emerging as the runner-up cannot be ruled out.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2015.
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