A battle ends, but the war continues

Two center-right parties are in a long-term campaign to win Punjab

A battle ends, but the war continues
A narrow win in the “super by-election” on Lahore’s NA-122 constituency and a defeat in the corresponding provincial assembly constituency PP-147 upset the Sharif brothers, prompting a series of angry phone calls and messages to party managers about what went wrong.

Sources close to them say the prime minister had initially opposed letting Mohsin Latif run for the provincial assembly by-election for PML-N. Latif happens to be the nephew of his wife, Kulsoom Nawaz. But Ayaz Sadiq and Hamza Shahbaz advised against changing the candidate lest it would affect the electoral campaign, insiders say.
PTI has lost eight by-elections since Imran Khan stormed Islamabad

Several party leaders told me in background interviews that they believed Mr Latif was a bad choice given his lack of interest in his own constituency. “He had rarely been seen among the people of the area since he won the seat in the last general elections,” said one PML-N leader, who had been sent to Lahore, with others, to campaign for the party’s candidates. “Even during the campaign, he was always in a hurry. He used to arrive late and leave early.”

Mr Latif’s defeat at the hands of PTI’s Shoaib Siddiqui was embarrassing for the ruling family. The prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, tweeted that Mr Latif lost the election because he failed to serve the people of Lahore and meet their expectations.

Former National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq’s victory was a respite for the party, but if NA-122 is the yardstick of public opinion before the upcoming local council elections, half of Lahore is backing the PTI.

A number of federal and provincial ministers had gathered in Lahore to stand alongside Mr Sadiq throughout the campaign. The chief minister was represented by his son, Hamza Shabaz. Days before the election, the prime minister visited the city and held a two-hour-long press conference in which he spoke about everything under the sun. He also took a joyride to NA-122 and nearby areas to “inspect how the Metro Bus was serving people” and “how important it was to start the new Orange Line train project”.

Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan, who hails from Gujranwala, says the outcome proves that Imran Khan’s rigging accusations were baseless, and the PML-N had defeated “lies and deceptions”. The PTI chairman had alleged Ayaz Sadiq got 53,000 bogus votes in the 2013 general elections, he said, but the two parties have received the same percentage of votes as they did in that election. Information Minister Pervez Rashid asked Imran Khan to “learn from the defeat and give up his habit of telling lies.”
"Only billionaires can afford to contest elections"

But only a day after the polls, Imran Khan resorted to his usual allegations. He said his party was not prepared to deal with the “tricks” of the PML-N. A number of voters registered in the area were reassigned to other constituencies, he alleged, vowing to approach the Election Commission after his party had collected evidence.

Independent analysts say the outcome of the NA-122 by-poll does not verify Imran Khan’s previous claims of rigging. The PML-N had obtained slightly more than 51 percent of the total votes cast in the constituency in the 2013 elections, while the PTI bagged a little more than 46 percent. In this by-election, the PTI secured slightly more than 48 percent votes, while the PML-N managed to get a little more than 50 percent.

Imran Khan’s party has lost eight by-elections since he stormed Islamabad in a bid of overthrow the Nawaz government. Since August last year, the PTI lost in NA-137 (Nankana), NA-246 (Karachi), NA-108 (Mandi Bahauddin), NA-9 (Haripur), NA-122 (Lahore), NA-144 (Okara), PP-196 (Multan) and PP-100 (Gujranwala).

In the simultaneous by-election in the NA-144 constituency in Okara, the PTI’s candidate was at number three, behind a PML-N candidate and an independent candidate formerly associated with the PML-N. Ashraf Sohna, who was a People’s Party renegade, had his surety bond forfeited because he obtained less than 10 percent of the total votes cast. Sohna was given a PTI ticket on the recommendation of the party’s vice president Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is now facing serious criticism from within the PTI.

The People’s Party has performed even worse. Its candidate, Barrister Mian Amir Hassan, bagged less than 2,000 votes in Lahore’s NA-122 constituency, which was once a PPP stronghold and where its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, veteran socialist Sheikh Rashid, and former chairwoman Benazir Bhutto had won in the past.

In Okara, the PPP candidate was not even among the top contestants, despite the fact that the party’s Punjab president Manzoor Wattoo lives here. The defeat raises serious questions about the recent efforts of party leaders to revive the PPP in Punjab.

Akhundzada Chattan, a leader of the party, says the amount of money spent in the NA-122 by-election had set new trends. “Only billionaires can afford to contest elections now,” he says. But he still hopes his party will bounce back in the local council elections and the next general elections.

Election laws restrict a person contesting a National Assembly election to spending no more than Rs 1.5 million on his or her campaign. According to some estimates, the two major parties spent more than Rs 100 million each on their campaigns in Lahore. The entire constituency was wallpapered with colorful posters. Countless election offices were opened, and there were even reports that workers visiting the houses of potential voters offered them motorbikes, sewing machines and cash. The ECP has already to look into the matter of campaign spending.

Although the PTI has lost an important battle in NA-122, it will continue its war against the PML-N in the local council elections. Both the parties follow right or centre-right ideology. If the PML-N was a strong proponent of holding dialogue with Taliban militants, it was Imran Khan who was eager to let them open an office. Both the parties ran their electoral campaigns in 2013 without any threats from the Taliban. On the other hand, the People’s Party and the Awami National Party had to restrict their campaigns because of serious threats.

The fall of liberal or left-leaning parties has created a void that billionaires will be more than pleased to fill.

Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist

Twitter: @OldPakistan_