In the past 20 days we have witnessed a revolution in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Both revolutions were against the forces of the status quo and equally dramatic, but the main difference is that the Pakistani revolution took place through the ballot box, and that is no small feat. Shattering all expectations and mainstream media pundits, the PML-N fell victim to a bombardment and the PTI won an overwhelming majority in the by-elections. More importantly, voter turnout nearly doubled – 40% compared to a typical by-election of 20-25% – meaning the people of Pakistan came out and voted to be heard.
The question is, what were they trying to say? PML-N supporters argue that inflation and harsh IMF conditions, along with Lotas’ candidacy, were the main reasons they lost the election. While this may explain why a PML-N voter would choose to stay home, it does not explain why PTI voters and independents would turn out in droves to vote for the PTI. At best, the governance of the PTI was good in some areas, including Covid-19, the Ehsaas program or an independent foreign policy, but one outright success was not enough to ensure such a resounding victory.
There is something else at play and most observers attribute it to Imran Khan’s account. The question is, which narrative? Imran Khan, a master storyteller, was spinning multiple stories at the same time. There was a story about the American plot and another about the neutrals. This is where the story gets interesting. While the precarious narrative of the American conspiracy consumed mainstream media, pundits and the opposition, there was only one narrative that dominated: neutrality and neutrals.
For those who still cannot accept the fact that Imran Khan is now the brightest hope of establishing civilian supremacy in Pakistan, consider the pattern of actions that began while he was in power. Rejecting notifications, taking interviews and dictating deadlines – Imran Khan asserted civil supremacy for the second holiest date in the land of the pure last year. And before Imran Khan said no to America, he said no to Saudi Arabia.
First on sending Pakistani troops to Yemen, then on lowering pressure on the OIC for Kashmir, then again on recognizing Israel. Khan’s decisions were unpopular, but he stood his ground wherever he wanted, including Usman Buzdar. Meanwhile, the full-blooded Democrats continued to call him select and their supporters said they would rather have a competent PDM government, even if it was corrupt. For 50 years, Pakistani democracy has been monopolized by two families.
All challenges were demonized as always anti-democratic. Now, after the Punjab by-elections, Imran Khan has established that we can have a third force which can stand against all the forces of the status quo and fairly claim the democratic mandate. PML-N’s latest performance shows that their “competence” narrative is more misleading than reality. Many myths have been shattered by these by-elections in Punjab. Chief among them is the idea that Khan was selected and did not enjoy a popular mandate.
The false dichotomy of boys versus full-blooded Democrats meant no one could break their combined monopoly on power. The truth is, the two have ruled the roost while making the other the bogeyman. On Friday, the Punjab Assembly circus showed that all forces have been combined to eliminate the PTI as a third alternative. If this is what PML-N calls a victory and the PPP considers ‘aik Zardari sab pai bhari’ then it is the beginning of the end of their policy.
The people of Pakistan will vote and surprise the forces of the status quo again in the next elections. It looks like PDM is playing Ludo, while Imran Khan is busy playing chess.