Imran Khan Image Credit: AFP

Faryal Leghari, Special to Gulf News

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is not taking the results from Pakistan’s October 14 by-election well. The party’s lead has been eclipsed by its loss of crucial seats in both the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly to its arch rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Let’s talk numbers before delving into the implications of this crucial poll — that for the first time saw overseas Pakistanis casting their ballot online.

There were 11 National Assembly (NA) seats and 24 provincial assembly seats — of which 11 were in Punjab — that had been vacated. PTI lost seats in the NA while the PML-N made gains both at the centre and in the Punjab provincial assembly.

The current political standing of the PML-N is thus; the president of PML- N and former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif is in jail while his brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces an uncertain future.

Out on bail, Nawaz awaits judicial inquiry and trial over his alleged unexplained wealth divulged as part of the Panama Papers leaks.

However, the PML-N’s lowest point had been not so much the trials of the party’s bigwigs — over charges of corruption and misuse of power — but losing Punjab to the PTI.

Despite numbers, it failed to cobble together a government in the province, its seat of power following the general election in July this year.

For the PML-N this might have sounded a death knell.

There is a saying in Pakistan, familiar to those who are well-versed with the murky politics here, that — get Punjab and you get control.

The loss of Punjap in the July elections, despite having adequate numbers in the provincial assembly, amid aggressive PTI hustling and the cobbling together of a coalition, served a bigger humiliation for the Sharifs.

Thus any victory, however small in the by-election, would be a lifeline at this point. Especially, if there is any chance of regaining control of Punjab.

This is a real possibility as PML-N gains numbers in the assembly and, if the party displays acumen and political dexterity in fanning dissent, in the form of disgruntled members already sniffing around to unseat Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, PML-N could succeed in clawing its way up again.

Even if such a possibility does not materialise, it could recoup and form a formidable opposition to Buzdar’s government in the province.

Shahbaz’s untimely arrest before the by-election also induced sympathy for the PML-N in Punjab and went in its favour in the bypolls.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s justification for the PTI’s loss to PML-N in the by-election because of premier Imran Khan’s inability to canvass should serve a reminder to PTI for its political future.

It is also hard to ignore the alleged rigging of July blamed on the army despite the rejoinders issued by the Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR).

The by-election is being hailed as vindication of the rigging alleged by the opposition that has now re-emerged in strength.

However, if PTI numbers were boosted with help from other ‘sources’ in the general election, why was this not the case in by-polls?

It could be that those ‘sources’ believed that a clean sweep was necessary to break the PML-N and ensure a majority PTI government in July but, once the PTI was in place, it would be able to secure the few seats being contested in the by-polls.

The other objective of the July polls might have been to ‘help’ a compliant Khan, desperate for power after a long arduous struggle, and to once and for all cripple the old guard.

This does not mean that PTI lacked any strength or that the public were not desirous of a change of political leadership. But the way the electoral process was conducted in July was dubious to say the least.

And, as Chaudhry also noted in the case of Khan, personality led politics is a strong factor. The same goes for PML-N and PPP now being steadily reinvigorated after years by Bilawal Bhutto.

Anyone in Pakistan with political savvy knows how crucial it is to maintain good ties with the military, the most powerful institution in the country.

Despite the outward adherence to democratic norms, the balance of power between the executive, the judiciary and the military has been fragile and tricky.

All three need to be on board for formation of foreign policy, defence, governance and law and order. A head of state that knows how to balance this would be ideal. The problem is that power injects wilfulness and defiance. And thus, the circus begins.

Khan’s egoism and zero tolerance for advice, leave alone diktat, is legendary. Instead of baring fangs at opponents, PTI should focus on the economy and governance. Blaming past government policies while crying hoarse about its magic economy revival plan this past year has not helped either. For now, the PTI should draw a lesson from its own victory.

Faryal Leghari is the former deputy opinion editor, Gulf News