The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was the biggest winner in Sunday’s by-elections as it made major gains in the National and Punjab Assemblies, significantly boosting the party’s prominence in the National Assembly.

While the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and the PML-N won four National Assembly (NA) seats each, the latter not only managed to retain the two that its candidates had won earlier, it also snatched two other seats from PTI. The two seats were among the four won by Prime Minister Imran Khan a few months ago before being vacated.

Under Pakistan’s election system, party leaders can contest more than one seat in a general election. When they win more than one, they have to give up the extra seats, which then go for by-elections. Sunday’s polls were held for 11 National and 24 Provincial assembly seats, most of which were vacated by candidates who had won multiple seats during the July 25 general election.

Neck-and-neck contest

The most prominent among these was Lahore’s NA-131, where Saad Rafique beat PTI’s Humayun Akhtar in one of four seats vacated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Rafique’s was among the loudest complainants who claimed that the July polls had been rigged after PTI chief Khan beat him by a mere 600 votes.

“The Election Commission of Pakistan needs to wake up. We’ll have to take matters into our own hands if the polls are rigged again,” Rafique said during the polling on Sunday.

The PML-N retained its seat in Lahore, as former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gained over 75,000 votes to beat PTI’s Ghulam Mohiuddin in NA-124. The seat was vacated by Hamza Shehbaz, the opposition leader in the Punjab Assembly and the son of PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, who was arrested on the eve of the by-elections.

The PML-N’s other National Assembly wins were in Faisalabad, where the NA-103 by-election had been called off owing to the death of one of the contestants, and Attock’s NA-56, which had originally been won by the PTI.

The PTI won in Islamabad’s NA-53, along with NA-60 and NA-63, both of which are in the capital’s twin city of Rawalpindi. The ruling party also retained NA-243, the Karachi seat that had been won by PM Imran Khan.

As Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) retained its NA-65 and NA-69 seats in Chakwal and Gujrat respectively, the Islamist coalition Mutahhida Majlis-e-Amal won Bannu’s NA-35 vacated by Imran Khan, making it a total of three National Assembly seats that the PTI relinquished in the by-elections.

The leadership of the PML-N, which won two of the three, is interpreting the PTI losing its seats as a “verdict on the government’s 50-day performance.”

“This is a rejection of Imran Khan’s politics and the PTI government’s performance during its first 50 days,” said PML-N leader and former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Provincial assembly

As in the case of the National Assembly, the two parties fought close battles in Punjab. The PML-N won six seats, edging out PTI which only took three out of the 11 seats contested. The remaining two Punjab seats were won by independent candidates whom both major parties will be looking to get aboard.

The PTI maintained its stronghold over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, winning five of the nine contested seats. The major gainer in the region, however, was the Awami National Party (ANP), which won three seats in the provincial assembly. Among the winners was Samar Haroon Bilour, the widow of late Haroon Bilour, the ANP leader killed in a terror attack during election campaigning.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which leads the government in Sindh, won both of the provincial assembly seats. Balochistan National Party-Mengal’s (BNP-M) Akbar Mengal won PB-40, with former Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Khan Raisani winning PB-36 as an independent candidate.

PTI wins but PML-N major gainer

While the PTI won 13 national and provincial assembly seats, observers see the PML-N as the major winner in the by-elections. This is because while the PTI won four NA seats, it failed to retain three, with the ruling party also being edged out in the coveted and most populous Punjab Assembly.

The PML-N leadership is also buoyed by the fact that it made tangible gains in the by-elections despite what the party interprets as attempts by the Army, judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau to sabotage them by arresting party president Shehbaz Sharif.

While the PTI insiders confirm that party chief and PM Imran Khan is not pleased with the showing, the party leadership will continue to assert itself as the winner in the weekend’s polls.

“The result would’ve been a lot different if the party leadership had been allowed to campaign,” says PTI spokesperson and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, referring to the Election Commission barring government officials from campaigning.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan is central to the PTI’s electoral strategy and if he had been rallying, the PTI would’ve won a lot more seats,” he claims.