PAKISTAN POLITICAL REPORT:
JUST 21st Special Election (NA-151)
With general elections expected early next year, Thursday’s “by‐election” for National Assembly seat vacated by former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was watched closely as a bellwhether for what a post-2013 Pakistan government will look like. Based on the results of Thursday’s vote, it may look a lot like a present government.
Ten candidates appeared on the ballot, though the contest was really between two: Abdul Qadir Gilani, son of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who represented the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Shaukat Hayat Bosan, who ran as an Independent but was supported by both the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML–N) and Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI).
Gilani (PPP) won the election with 64,340 votes (51 percent) to Bosan’s 60,761 (48 percent). The other eight candidates combined account for the remaining 1,132 votes (1 percent).
Despite voter frustration with national issues like inflation, unemployment, load shedding, and violence, Thursday’s by-election saw only a 3 percent swing from 2008 when the PPP candidate (Yousaf Raza Gilani) won with 54 percent of the vote.
Turnout data suggest that the electoral support for PTI may be significantly overstated. Despite the presence of political heavyweights from Multan such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi in PTI’s leadership and an extensive membership and voter registration drive, turnout in the NA-151 by-election looked very much like it did in 2008.
While Pakistani voters are frustrated with national issues, they continue to vote for the candidate they believe will deliver more for their local district – a phenomenon that should be very familiar to American voters who collectively have a very low opinion of Congress, but regularly re-elect incumbents who deliver federal funding, contracts, and appointments to their districts.
The power of incumbency will provide some protection to PPP candidates in the next election, but it does not excuse government officials from dealing with critical issues. A 3 percent drop was not enough to unseat the PPP candidate in NA–151, but another 3 percent drop would. If the PPP is going to stay in office, it will need to assure voters that their concerns will be addressed.
NOTE ON POLLING DATA
Where available, this report uses official polling data published on the website of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).[i] Where official data is not available on the ECP website, we used polling numbers as reported in Pakistan’s mainstream media.
NA-151 is located in Multan, in southern Punjab. Though located in Punjab province, Multan is largely populated by Seraiki speakers (77 percent), with Punjabi speakers accounting for only 6 percent of the population. Multan’s motto is “The City of Saints,” due to the presence of several important Sufi shrines. Multan’s economy is largely agricultural, though there has been industrial growth in recent years.
In addition to being the home district of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Multan is also the home to two high-profile leaders of PTI – Javed Hashmi (President) and Shah Mehmood Qureshi (Vice Chairman) – who have previously held seats in parliament from adjacent National Assembly districts in Multan (NA-149 and NA-148 respectively). Both districts elected PPP candidates in by elections held earlier this year.
The adjacent NA-148 district, the home of former Foreign Minister, now PTI Vice-Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi, is now represented by Abdul Gilani’s brother Syed Ali Musa Gilani, who was elected in a by election held earlier this year.
In 2008, voter rolls for NA-151 contained 351,092 names. 145,641 votes were cast that year, of which 2,810 were rejected upon review bringing the total turnout of valid voters in 2008 to 142,831, representing 40.7 percent of registered voters in the district.
Following an extensive review of voter rolls by the ECP, voter rolls for NA-151 during last Thursday’s by-election were updated to contain 307,871 names. In last Thursday’s by-election, 127,777 votes were cast, of which 1,544 were rejected. The total turnout of valid voters was 126,233 – 41 percent of registered voters.
The PTI Factor
One of the most surprising elements of last Thursday’s by-election was how similar the vote looked to that of 2008. In addition to voter frustrations, many have expected to see big changes from the support gained by PTI.
Imran Khan, the former cricketer and PTI Chairman, has been conducting an extensive membership and voter registration drive across Pakistan, and his voter base is believed to be based largely in Punjab. PTI boycotted the elections in 2008 and previous by-elections since then, so it has been heard to measure PTI’s actual electoral strength until now.
While PTI did not have an official candidate in the NA-151 by-election, the party supported Shaukat Hayat Bosan whose brother, Sikander Bosan, contested the seat in 2008 and joined PTI in December of last year. Billboards were erected in the district depicting Shaukat Bosan with his brother Sikander and Imran Khan against a PTI backdrop.
But turnout in NA-151 did not look much different from turnout in 2008, suggesting that to the extent support for PTI is growing, it may be coming primarily from the existing voter pool – primarily marginal supporters of conservative opposition parties like PML–Q and PML–N.
The Power of Incumbency
Much has been made of the decline in voter turnout for the PPP candidate between 2008 and 2012, but this appears to be based on faulty math. Yousaf Raza Gilani did receive 77,664 votes in 2008 compared to Abdul Qadir Gilani’s 64,340, but the degree of change in the context of the total electorate is much less severe than it might appear.
The PPP candidate in 2008 received 54 percent of the total vote in NA-151. In 2012, the PPP candidate received 51 percent – a 3 percent change.
In 2008, the runner-up received 45,765 votes. In 2012, the runner-up received 60,761 votes. Again, this may look like a significant increase in support, but polling data suggests that this was due to opposition supporters splitting the vote in 2008.
The 2008 runner-up, Sikandar Bosan, contested the NA-151 election on a PML-Q ticket. But he was not the only major opposition candidate on the ballot. Another candidate, Malik Bucha, contested the election on a PML-N ticket and received 18,413 votes. Combined, major opposition parties received 64,178 votes in 2008.
In 2012, Shaukat Bosan ran as an independent, but was supported by both the PML–N and PTI. Despite combined support from PML–N and PTI and the lack of a spoiler candidate, Bosan was unable to turn out enough voters to overcome the PPP’s established voter base.
Some of the support for Abdul Gilani can certainly be attributed to Pakistan’s biradri culture in which extended kinship networks dictate political loyalties, but we should not underestimate the persuasive power of constituent services. News reports critical of the PPP government point to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment development projects in Multan and Southern Punjab by the PPP government.
Development projects like these bring jobs, opportunities, and improvements in quality of life that help solidify support for incumbent politicians. But they are not a substitute for good governance. Despite investing heavily in NA–151, the share of voters who supported the PPP candidate still declined by 3 percent.
This is an important lesson for incumbent politicians – patronage may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to maintain the support of the people. If incumbent politicians want to maintain voter support, they are going to have to develop sustainable solutions to issues such as load shedding, unemployment, inflation, and the threat of militant violence.