With the 2018 general elections only months away, the by-election in Lodhran was a showcase. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in a shock upset, lost the seat to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) after it fell vacant when incumbent Jahangir Khan Tareen was disqualified by the Supreme Court. He had won the seat in 2015 with a big margin of 40,000 votes; and in 2018 everyone thought it would be a walkover by Tareen’s son, Ali Khan Tareen. That was not to be. He lost by a shocking 20,000 vote margin despite the big money that had fuelled the campaign. The commentators are mulling over what went wrong and what it means for the future of the two parties.
The PMLN opponent was a “pir,” which shows how the countryside is succumbing to the “divinity” of the local saint. (The pir-dominated Barelvi Labbaik Party once again beat the Pakistan Peoples Party by a big margin in Lodhran.) Winning PMLN candidate Syed Iqbal Shah practices miracle-cures among his voters, who also depend on his charity for which he has dedicated some of his colossal feudal holding. Although the Tareens too have their finger on the popular pulse and spend big on each vote, they probably took it easy, living far away in Lahore and Islamabad. It was rumored that their voters ate at their camps but then went and voted for the PMLN pir.
The PTI is shaken by this defeat on an “easy” seat and their muffled intraparty critique complains of Imran Khan’s proclivity to favor “electables” and their “dynastic” politics. The PMLN is taking this victory as people’s verdict against the Supreme Court dismissal of its leader, Nawaz Sharif. The PTI is supposed to be the only real challenge to the PMLN in Punjab, and this defeat pushes back such optimistic projections, which means Imran Khan may once again lose the chance to rule Pakistan.