Is the NA-120 by-election a preview of PTI’s prospects in the upcoming 2018 elections?

Published: September 18, 2017

NA-120 has its own local dynamics which are crucial in determining the voting pattern and the eventual outcome.

The voters of NA-120 have given their verdict and have elected Kulsoom Nawaz by a healthy, though reduced, margin of around 14,000 votes.

Although I have been following elections for decades now, I don’t recall any election of an individual seat in which the stakes were so high. Normally by-elections are predictable and frankly boring affairs. This by-election, however, was anything but boring or even predictable.

It is said that all politics is local and one should exercise a lot of caution in extrapolating the results of one seat to predict the future general elections. Like all constituencies, NA-120 has its own local dynamics which are crucial in determining the voting pattern and the eventual outcome.

However, given the fact this was the ousted prime minister’s home seat, which he had won numerous times in the past, the symbolic importance became extremely high. It became a clash of two narratives and an ultimate litmus test of Nawaz Sharif’s personal popularity.

The narrative perpetuated by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was that the prime minister had been unfairly dismissed through an establishment orchestrated court trial and that in reality he was still popular. In fact, some of the PML-N leaders had also claimed that his popularity got a boost after the Supreme Court (SC) verdict. “Respect my vote” became the main slogan of this narrative. Implicitly, this narrative also assumed that corruption was not a big issue and even it was, the electorate either presumed him innocent.

The counter narrative was that Nawaz was corrupt and the SC verdict had widespread public support. Imran Khan actually framed this election as a “referendum” on the SC verdict and went on to say that voting for his party would be a way to support the SC judges.

Besides deciding between these two narratives, this seat became an ultimate test of Nawaz’s personal political standing and even of PML-N’s future prospects in the upcoming 2018 elections. If PML-N lost this seat, then one could reasonably predict that its star was on the wane, because if your own local constituents reject you in such a crucial election, then your future electoral prospects in other urban areas would also diminish. Moreover, sensing the changing winds, the so-called electable would also desert you near the election.

The results have come in and PML-N should be relieved without being pleased. There is no reason to be excessively happy about this victory because their narrative that Nawaz’s popularity actually got a boost has been thrown out of the window. PML-N has not been able to increase its tally of votes which was a crucial criterion for the vindication of this narrative.

However, PML-N should still be relieved because it has won barely two months after the SC judgement and at a time when their party was and is still experiencing an internal rift. Their local powerful leaders such as Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz did not actively participate. Moreover, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) entire thrust was on winning this seat and it tried hard to sell the Panama Leaks verdict. Hence PML-N was on a weaker wicket on several counts.

This victory albeit with a reduced margin is still comfortable and has ensured that PML -N’s own vote bank is largely intact in its core constituency as it has behaved like it would in a normal by-election.

PTI’s narrative would have been vindicated if it had either won the seat or lost it with a very narrow margin. In case of a loss, it also needed to increase its vote tally compared to the last election. In 2013, it had won 52,000 votes and at a time when it did not focus so extensively on this seat. This time, it had several advantages such as a favourable SC verdict (which had given them a huge “moral” advantage), extensive support of some major channels in the electronic media and an internally divided PML-N.

Clearly, it has not managed to fully capitalise on these advantages. The consolation for them is that the margin of defeat has lessened but at the same time, their vote tally compared to 2013 has also reduced, despite the fact that at this time, they focused exclusively on this seat and campaigned hard. Their narrative, just like PML-N’s, has been thrown out of the window.

Even their logic, based on a reduced defeat margin, which revolves around “grounds are shifting” and that “PTI has made inroads” is not correct because they had to win a larger number of votes as compared to 2013. They have improved their vote share, which is different from increasing a vote bank, in a by-election which had a lower turnout, but this does not mean that they have made inroads.

In my opinion, Nadeem Farooq Paracha summed it best in the following tweet,

Thus, can we make some projections based on this result for 2018 elections? Can PTI actually make inroads into the PML-N vote bank?

Frankly, PTI will find it difficult to make inroads into the PML-N vote bank unless and until their supporters change their basic attitude. With all due respect, their attitude towards the common man is extremely condescending and during the campaign, they kept on referring to PML-N supporters as jahil (illiterate) and khotas (donkeys). After their defeat, their comments on social media platforms reeked of an even more condescending attitude:

On WhatsApp, I received pictures such as the following, from disgruntled PTI supporters, once again showing their frustration and condescending attitude:

Photo: Screenshot

Secondly, PTI also need to expand its core message. The results also highlight a schism between what the PTI-supporting urban, white-collar classes consider important and what others consider important. Issues such as corruption and international scandals resonate more with the former and therefore a successful election strategy would require PTI to expand its message beyond corruption in order to win voters from other demographics.

While a match between PTI and PML-N has ended up being a stalemate, for Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) it has proven to be completely disastrous. It is a real shame that a party which had won this seat in 1970 and 1977 by extremely comfortable margins now finds itself completely decimated in Lahore and also in Punjab as a whole.

The responsibility of this rapid descent into oblivion completely rests with Mr Asif Ali Zardari, as it was during his incompetent rule that PPP lost Punjab completely. Frankly, I am foreseeing a complete loss for PPP in Punjab in the 2018 elections.

What was even more shocking was that a candidate backed by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) actually ended up securing the third position. Although it was well behind both PML-N and PTI, the fact that it actually won more votes than PPP is a cause for concern for any reasonable person. I was also shocked when Hamza Ali Abassi of PTI actually tweeted the following:

This tweet merely reconfirmed my opinion about the reactionary outlook of PTI and its prominent members.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Israr Khan

    if u have access to data it looks like 42% voter casted vote compared to 52 % in 2013 meaning pmln who 92k should have got about 74.5K votes so my understanding is they lost about 13.5K votes
    where as PTI who got 52 K votes should have got 42 K votes meaning they gained 5K votes so over all the recent development cost pmln about 18.5K vote and they still managed to win, however one similar development will cost them their seat at the home ground … i think it was v close another 5-6K pmln voters turned out and voted PTI wow that would have been it … awesome and v heartening to see PTI and specially dr yasmin and IK working v hard for this election oo yeah and do not forget 29K still have to be verified or in short another 12180 (based on 42% of 29K voters) again sorry what was the lead 14 K wow that is it meaning only if 29K unlisted voters are checked and if they have been voting in kulsoom strong hold polling stations then that’s it the change is here and here to stay …Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    The 2018 elections would be military establishment vs PMLN, meaning all parties (PTI, PPP, Milli Muslim League, Labaik Party etc.) vs PMLN.Recommend

  • Hassan Mirza

    Allah says jisay tum hoo waisay tum per hukmaran musalat kiya jian gaa an ousted Ex prime minister and his family can win election so what it shows it shows with money can do any thingRecommend

  • Ahmar

    All the media channels were against PML-N. The courts were against PML-N. The establishment was anti-PMLN. Social media was anti-PMLN. Nawaz Sharif did not campaign for the election. Kulsoom Nawaz, the contesting candidate did not campaign for the election. Maryam Nawaz who ran the campaign is a newcomer to politics. N League is in a state of turmoil with in-fighting.

    Yet they won comfortably. That is an achievement.Recommend

  • Patwari

    The blogger of this blog should know that Maryam Sharif along with her husband has
    absconded to London. Did not show up in court. Twice. Possible arrest warrants will be
    issued for all the Sharifs, Father, sons, daughter, son in law and samdhi,…Dollar Dar.
    All the Sharifs are currently hiding in London. Well, when you own 19 properties in London…
    Maryam Sharif has disbanded her media pool. So no one is getting paid anymore.

  • Parvez

    I read this yesterday…… and today I read Zahid Hussain’s ( a seasoned, credible journalist ) piece in Dawn of 20th ( today ) titled ‘ The Maryum Factor ‘. Strongly suggest you read it as wellRecommend

  • RHR

    I have read it and on some parts I agree and on some I dont agree. The point is that first 2013 elections PML (N) got more than their normal share of vote in that constituency , It was an election where turnout was higher and people in Punjab voted in large number also to show their displeasure over PPP.
    Barring 2013, historically PML (N) has taken the same number of votes.
    Plus lets not forget that it was by-election where turnout is normally lower. And 14000 votes margin in a by-election is substantial given the fact that PML N is internally divided alsoRecommend

  • wb

    It’s okay. All your rulers are crooks, murderers, looters and plunderers. Doesn’t matter who comes.

    And Pakistanis are no different. Recommend

  • Patwari

    You should stick to peddling your diatribes at this pro
    Bharat ET. Because here in ET they print all the toxic poison.

  • Patwari

    Comment was edited by Pro Bharati ET.
    Had to do with Sonia Gandhi’s wealth.Recommend

  • Lapog.

    At Rs. 250 per vote. That is pocket change for a billionaire.Recommend

  • Golnath

    Nawaz is the deposed PM of Punjab. Not even that now.
    [was never accepted as PM in Sindh, K-P or Balochistan]
    They throw shoes and rocks at his motorcade in the rest
    of the country.Recommend

  • wb

    Patwari, don’t be so defensive. You know, I own you!!!Recommend

  • wb

    Hasan Nisar: “The leaders you get will reflect the people”

    Patwari (Keep changing your name ), all your leaders from all parties are crooks, thieves, murderers, looters and plunderers. Recommend

  • Patwari

    Banarsi Brahmini Mulla, thanks so much for the compliment.
    You getting paranoid? Every name has a Patwari behind it.
    Now, got one Hindustani desi worried! Mission accomplished!
    One billion 999,999,999 to go.