The by-election in the National Assembly constituency NA-4 Peshawar attracted countrywide attention as it was being seen as the barometer of support for the political parties nine months before the 2018 general election.
Heads of all major parties except the PML-N addressed public meetings in the constituency to drum up support for their candidates. PTI Chairman Imran Khan, ANP President Asfandyar Wali Khan, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Jamaat-e-Islami Ameer Sirajul Haq sought votes for their parties. The PML-N campaign was led by its provincial President Amir Muqam, who came armed with gas supply and electrification schemes to oblige voters.
Despite apprehensions, the by-election was peaceful, the turnout was a reasonable 33.67 per cent, and the participation of women was beyond expectations. This rural Peshawar constituency had suffered from violence due to militancy in recent years and armed civilians with support from the government had raised lashkars to defend their villages against the militants.
The participation of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the Milli Muslim League (MML) in the NA-4 by-polls posed a challenge to the rightwing parties and dented the vote-bank of PML-N and Jamaat-e-Islami. The latter in particular saw its share of votes dropping to 7,668 compared to 16,493 in the 2013 polls. The TLP, which ran an emotional campaign seeking votes in the name of Mumtaz Qadri by portraying him as a martyr after his execution for killing Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for committing blasphemy, polled 9,935 votes and stood fifth in the contest. Hafiz Saeed’s MML failed to make an impact despite putting everything into the by-election.
Much like the NA-120 Lahore by-election in September, the NA-4 by-poll was initially billed as a contest between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In a way, it was also a contest between the federal government headed by the PML-N and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government led by the PTI as both injected whatever official resources they could into the constituency to undertake development projects to attract voters.
Winning the NA-120 was a must for the PML-N because it was being held after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the party leadership wanted to show that it continued to enjoy public support despite the court verdict. A lot was at stake as it was Nawaz Sharif’s traditional seat that he had never lost and his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz had been fielded to retain it. Her loss would have meant lack of trust by the voters in the Sharif family and an endorsement of the apex court’s verdict that Nawaz Sharif had hidden his wealth and was therefore not honest enough to rule the country.
For the PTI, a loss in NA-4 would have been interpreted as no-confidence in the performance of its provincial government and drop in its vote-bank in the province after its spectacular victory in the 2013 general election. In particular, the PTI had swept the 2013 polls in Peshawar city and district, winning all four National Assembly and 10 out of the 11 provincial assembly seats and losing NA-4 Peshawar would have been a huge setback. Also, the PTI had convincingly won from NA-4 in 2013 as its candidate, retired senior bureaucrat Gulzar Khan, had polled 55,134 votes to defeat PML-N’s Nasir Khan Musazai, who was the runner-up, by a margin of nearly 35,000 votes. The PTI couldn’t afford to lose the seat in the by-election, held to fill the vacant seat after Gulzar Khan’s death, if it were to mount a strong challenge against the still formidable PML-N and other parties to capture power in the 2018 polls not only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also the other three provinces.
However, the resurgence of the Awami National Party (ANP) in NA-4 made the by-election a triangular instead of a straight contest between the PTI and PML-N. In the end, the ANP candidate Khushdil Khan edged past PML-N’s Nasir Khan Musazai by a mere 84 votes to emerge as the runner-up to the winner, PTI’s Arbab Amir Ayub. In fact, the largely rural NA-4 constituency has traditionally been an ANP stronghold for years. The late Arbab Mohammad Zahir had won this seat four times for the ANP before and after its delimitation. The family has drifted from one party to another as Arbab Zahir’s father, Arbab Noor Mohammad Khan, was a veteran Muslim Leaguer while his younger brother, Arbab Amir Ayub, recently joined the PTI, got the party ticket to contest the NA-4 by-election and was elected member National Assembly (MNA).
The ANP has lost from NA-4 on two occasions in recent years. The six-party religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), won the seat in 2002 when Sabir Hussain Awan of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was elected MNA. At the time, the anti-US sentiment sweeping the deeply conservative province due to the US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan benefited the MMA as it campaigned against America and in favour of the Afghan Taliban. The ANP also lost in 2013 when Imran Khan’s popularity enabled the PTI to sweep the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ANP is now gradually winning back its estranged workers and supporters, though its revival isn’t strong enough to threaten the PTI. Still the 2018 polls would present an absorbing contest between the two parties, particularly in the Peshawar valley where the ANP has been traditionally a vibrant political force.
The outcome of the NA-4 by-election proved that the PTI has spread its roots and gained further support since elections in 2013 in places where it didn’t really have a proper organisational structure and big-name candidates in the 2013 general election. It is now obvious its victory in those polls wasn’t a one-time phenomenon. By polling an impressive 45,734 votes in the by-election, PTI’s Arbab Amir Ayub defeated the second-placed Khushdil Khan of the ANP by a margin of 20,859 votes. The incumbency factor didn’t really harm the PTI. Rather it may have benefited the party as its MPAs from the constituency used their development funds and political clout to undertake schemes to serve the electorate and win them votes in the by-election.
However, the PTI share of votes dropped by 9,400 votes if compared with its vote-bank in the 2013 polls. The ANP and the PML-N, on the other hand, managed to get more votes than those obtained by their candidates in the 2013 polls. The drop in the PTI share of votes could be due to the candidature of Asad Gulzar, the son of late lawmaker Gulzar Khan, who joined the PPP just before the by-election after realising that he won’t be able to get the PTI ticket due to his father’s estranged relationship with the party leadership. His father had become inactive in the party after refusing to resign as MNA on the direction of Imran Khan and taking the plea that the PTI MPAs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should also offer resignations, and the party’s provincial government ought to quit so that pressure could be mounted on Nawaz Sharif to give up power and call fresh elections.
The PPP didn’t have a strong candidate in NA-4 and the party leader Asif Ali Zardari promptly gave Asad Gulzar the ticket in the hope that he would do better than the previous PPP candidate, Misbahuddin, who had polled 12,031 votes in 2013. Asad Gulzar got 13,200 votes in the by-election and gave a better performance than Misbahuddin, one reason being his late father’s services for the people of the constituency while serving in senior positions in the civil service.
The PTI too banked on the ‘electable’ Arbab Amir Ayub, who is a newcomer in the party and was given the ticket despite resentment among some of the old activists, who wanted to contest as independents but were persuaded after hectic efforts to withdraw. As the July 2018 polls approach, it is possible many ‘electables’ would join the PTI and also get party tickets to contest the election. The party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would have to do better in the remaining period of its five-year term as voters in the province are known for making their rulers accountable if they fail to deliver on their promises.