Battlefield Punjab 15

Battlefield Punjab

THE 20 by-polls due in Punjab on July 17 will be watched nationally, as their impact will be felt beyond the province.

The by-elections were necessitated after the ECP de-seated a number of rebel PTI provincial lawmakers for voting against the party line. The results of the by-polls, and subsequent re-election for the Punjab chief minister on July 22, will hopefully settle the administrative confusion that has affected governance in Pakistan’s most populous province.

Moreover, the electoral exercise will serve as a litmus test for PTI as well as PML-N, reflecting which way the political winds are blowing in Punjab.

Currently, Punjab CM Hamza Shehbaz, backed by the PPP and his assorted other allies, enjoys a razor-thin majority in the provincial legislature. Should the PTI claw back the majority of the 20 seats, Hamza Shehbaz’s short-lived tenure as provincial chief executive will surely be over, paving the way for Pervez Elahi — or whoever else the PTI nominates — to take the reins in Punjab.

On the other hand, if CM Hamza survives, his hands will be strengthened and he will be able to steer Punjab’s ship till the next elections.

Clarity is certainly needed in the province, as in the recent past we have witnessed the spectacle of two parallel Punjab Assembly sessions, one chaired by Speaker Elahi, and the other by Deputy Speaker Dost Mazari. This kind of political wrangling takes away the administration’s focus from more pressing matters, such as governance, law and order etc.

Beyond the chief minister’s election, the by-polls will be a barometer of the political situation in Punjab after the departure of the PTI’s government at the centre.

Former prime minister Imran Khan is currently on a whistle-stop tour of Punjab, breathing fire against the ‘turncoats’ who ditched him, and urging voters to return PTI candidates across Punjab. At this point, Mr Khan seems ahead of the PML-N and its rivals on the campaign trail. His electioneering has apparently unsettled his opponents, as the PPP offered its ‘unconditional support’ to the N-League’s candidates in the by-polls.

Whether voters will choose to buy Imran Khan’s rhetoric, or opt to believe the PML-N’s promises will become clear on July 17.

However, considering the incredibly polarised political atmosphere, particularly in Punjab, the ECP and the provincial administration need to be on their toes to ensure that the electoral process is free from violence and intimidation. After all, the violence and mismanagement seen in Karachi’s NA-240 by-poll, as well as the first phase of Sindh’s LG elections, has left a lot to be desired.

Both the PTI and PML-N must also keep political temperatures in check and ensure that their workers and supporters remain peaceful on election day.

The road to Islamabad indeed runs through Lahore, and the results of Punjab’s by-polls may well reflect national trends at least for the foreseeable future.

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