Punjab’s politics turns into two-horse race

PTI loses but puts up a good fight with the PML-N in Jhelum and Burewala

Punjab’s politics turns into two-horse race
LAHORE – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has edged out Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in two heatedly contested by-elections in NA-63 (Jhelum) and PP-232 (Burewala). The National Assembly seat had become vacant following the death of Malik Iqbal Mahdi Khan, while Yousaf Kaseela was disqualified from his Punjab Assembly seat, owing to misrepresentation of assets.

Kaseela retained his Burewala seat after getting 51,323 votes, 1,056 more than PTI candidate Ayesha Nazir Jatt’s 50,267. Meanwhile, in Jhelum, PML-N’s Matloob Mehdi won 82,896 votes to beat PTI candidate Fawad Chaudhry who got 74,819 votes (as compared to the 34,072 he had won as a PML-Q candidate in 2013). With Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) only bagging 5,103 votes in Jhelum and not even fielding a candidate in Burewala, analysts believe that Punjab elections are now a two-horse race between the PML-N and PTI. This opinion has been further substantiated by the PPP’s heavy defeats in both the 2013 elections and the 2015 local body elections in Punjab.

Anticipating a stiff challenge from PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry, the PML-N had thrown all its heavyweights behind the campaign in Jhelum. Hamza Shahbaz was spearheading rallies in the lead-up to the by-poll, along with dozens of other federal and provincial ministers of the ruling party. “If the PML-N had confidence in its performance in the city, it wouldn’t have to call its senior leadership to orchestrate rallies in Jhelum,” says Jhelum-based political blogger Raja Waqas. “There aren’t any new hospitals or state-of-the-art schools built in the city. There haven’t been any recreational parks either. Water supplied by the government isn’t drinkable and streets all over the town are filthy, especially following a downpour,” he points out. “Does the PML-N government plan to continue expecting results in the other 35 districts of Punjab, based on construction work in Lahore?”

A whopping 26 MNAs and MPAs were campaigning for the by-election. “These things have a lot of impact, especially in rural areas. So basically the ground can never be even if you’re fighting against the ruling party,” says Fawad Chaudhry, the PTI candidate, adding that the ruling party had the edge on two fronts.
PML-N's Punjab Government Spokesman Zaeem Qadri says that despite Imran Khan's claims of change, the PTI is relying on old faces to be competitive in the province

“We could have won the election, but the government has two powers which can prove decisive in elections,” he says. “The first is the pre-poll power.” In the last week they announced an electricity supply worth Rs15 million in the rural areas. Then every union council was given funds worth Rs7.5 million.

The second power is the control the government has over officials. “For instance the son-in-law of PTI’s elected Union Council president from Saidpur, Rawalpindi, who is the Assistant Commissioner in Taxila, was asked to withdraw his support or get ready to be posted to Balochistan,” he claimed. “Had the ruling party not had these advantages, we could have fared even better.”

Nonetheless, a PTI leader asking not to be named said that the party’s decision to invest in the right candidates has improved results in Punjab, giving them more hope for the 2018 elections. “Neither Fawad Chaudhry nor Ayesha Nazir Jatt are what you might call the faces of the party,” he says. “If the party continues to identify the right candidates, we can definitely overturn the PML-N’s lead in the provinces.” The PTI needs to campaign strongly ahead of 2018 elections, because the PML-N has the edge in constituency politics. “Our party lags behind on that front,” he admits.


For his part, Chaudhry says everything needs to fall in place for electoral successes.  “Elections are like a cooking pot that needs all the right ingredients in once place,” he says. “The PTI has a vote bank, I have a personal vote bank and there is a biraderi vote bank as well. The last time the PTI contested elections on this seat, the party got around 42,000 votes and I got 34,000 votes on the Q’s ticket. The results this time are around the sum of the two vote banks.”

PML-N’s Punjab Government Spokesman Zaeem Qadri says that despite Imran Khan’s claims of change, the PTI is relying on old faces to be competitive in the province. “If the PTI is going for the politics of electables, then of course their erstwhile stance of tabdeeli, is obvious for all to see,” he says. “Ayesha Jatt is the daughter of Nazeer Jatt. He was in the PML-Q, then went to the PPP and later joined the PML-N, which did not give him the ticket for 2013. Then he joined the PTI. He is a billionaire. He can obviously use his money to purchase votes, but he doesn’t have the ability to win elections.”

All political parties joined to support him, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, PPP, PAT and others, the spokesman added. “According to my sources over Rs100 million were spent for a provincial assembly election. This is why they couldn’t win any seats in the local body elections last year, because the locals have to contest those elections.”

Qadri maintains that, contrary to the claims that the PTI might pose a bigger challenge in 2018, the party’s following is diminishing in Punjab. “Imran Khan, who used to orchestrate rallies with over 200,000 participants, now leads rallies reduced to 3,000 to 4,000 people. I’m not even talking about Karachi, this is what PTI’s numbers in Lahore have been reduced to.”

The PML-N spokesman credits his party’s success in the province to the government’s development work. “The nation can see that we are adding 15,000 to 17,000 MW of electricity to the national grid and they can foresee the impact that the Metro Lines will have in Multan and Bahawalpur as well. They can see all the development work.”

Even so, PTI’s Fawad Chaudhary maintains that most of the development work is Lahore-centric. “Fifty-eight percent of the development budget is allocated to Lahore. This is why many in the smaller districts are feeling increasingly alienated, resulting in a dip in the PML-N’s popularity. If this trend continues, the dip would be even more prominent two years from now.”

Qadri denies claims that the party is focusing on the urban centres alone. “Pakistan is an agro-based economy. Our biggest achievement thus far is constructing 4,000 km of farm-to-market roads. This isn’t for travelling, we’re giving the farmer direct access to the retailer and eliminating the middleman. A Rs341 billion package was announced for the farmers, and then there is the Re 1 per unit subsidy on electricity along with subsidies on fertilizers as well.” Given this, he said he saw more disappointment for Imran Khan in the 2018 elections, as Nawaz Sharif was working on more projects.