AS night falls on Sunday, a dozen or so supporters of Arshad Baloch collect outside his main election office in a bustling Kasur neighbourhood, Kot Haleem Khan. They are preparing to leave for yet another hectic night of door-to-door campaigning to convince around 3,600 voters (from Ward No. 22) to vote for him.
Arshad, an independent candidate, is quite confident of his win when the vote in the first phase of the local polls in 12 districts of Punjab is organised this coming Saturday. The young lawyer has already “eliminated” his main challenger, Karam Elahi, another Baloch, from the race by committing a donation of over Rs2.5 million to build a janazagah in the area for the Baloch community that commands 1,600 votes.
The community elders feared that the division of Baloch votes between them would by default benefit a third, non-Baloch candidate. So they told the rivals that the community would go en bloc with the one who was willing to contribute more money for the construction of the janazagah.
“It was agreed that both of us would write the amount on separate chits. Whoever wrote the larger amount would contest the election, and the other would withdraw,” Arshad tells Dawn.
Karam offered Rs2.2 million. “Now we hear that he has reneged on his commitment. But that will not hurt our prospects because the Baloch community stands solidly behind us,” one of Arshad’s campaign managers asserts.
“The Baloch community had always unconditionally supported the PML-N in every election earlier,” says the manager. “But now we feel that the PML-N is taking our support and votes for granted.”
The feeling is shared by several other independent candidates. Akram Ishaq, for instance, is contesting from Latifpura (Ward No. 23) because the PML-N has failed to bring basic facilities to the Christian-dominated localities.
“We, the Christians from the area, have been supporting the PML-N for the past 15 years in the hope that we’d also get our share in the development schemes. But we do not have access to gas or clean drinking water and drainage is in disrepair. Whatever development work was implemented in the Christian-majority areas was undertaken by the PML-Q,” a bitter Akram contends. “That’s why we decided to run for the seat of general councillor,” he adds, hoping that poor Muslim voters from the ward will also vote for him for making a collective effort for the uplift of the area.
The provincial government, meanwhile, has started implementing lots of of small development schemes. “This has created an interesting situation. While the voters are happy that they are getting the facilities, the opponents of the PML-N are reluctant to complain against this violation of the election code for fear of backlash from the voters,” a local journalist smiles.
As elsewhere in Punjab’s districts where the first phase of local polls is being organised, the PML-N is mainly contesting the elections against itself at many places in Kasur. Mehr Mohammad Latif, for example, decided to contest the local election from Kot Rukkunuddin after the PML-N gave a ticket to Munir Ansari Juj, who is said to be a friend of MNA Waseem Akhtar, to win over the majority Ansari biradarivotes from Ward 31.
“We — I and my brother — have twice contested and won this ward in the past and have always supported the PML-N. Our services for the party have been ignored. We have been rejected by the party and another person is being rewarded just because he is a friend of MNA Waseem Akhtar,” Mehr Latif says, oozing confidence.
Some analysts insist that the local government elections have underlined the hitherto concealed factionalism within the ruling PML-N at the grass-roots. “The party stands divided in most cities where the vote is being organised,” says a local journalist, pointing to the rifts in Faisalabad, Gujrat and Lahore.
Mehr Latif says the ruling PML-N has made many poor choices in Kasur and other districts. Voters agree. “The ruling party has chosen some candidates who are hated by the people of their area,” a cigarette vendor, Mohammad Ashfaque, claims. “The people usually vote on party lines in the general elections. But in local elections they prefer candidates who are available 24 hours a day.”
“The Election Commission has done a very bad job with delimitations just to benefit the candidates of the PML-N,” says Mehr Latif. “At least 600 out of about 48,000 registered voters in my ward live in other wards or even out of Kasur. How will they vote?”
As if that was not enough, the Election Commission has also declined to provide signed, attested lists of voters to the candidates, making it difficult for them to reach out to them during the campaign. “When we went to the commission we were told that they did not have authentic voters’ lists because they had not received them from Islamabad. What do you make of this?” Mehr Latif asks.
While the PML-N is mainly pitched against independent candidates or disgruntled party workers, the PTI, which has fielded candidates in 28 out of the 50 wards in the city, is said to be giving the ruling party a tough time. But “I guess that the PTI could have done much better if it had a functional organisational structure,” comments another local journalist. “In the present situation, I don’t see it winning more than five or six wards.”
Most people expect that the local government elections will throw up a strong anti-Nawaz Sharif alliance. “I believe that half of the wards will be snatched away from the ruling PML-N by the independents,” says Mohammad Akram, general secretary of the Kasur PPP, which has not fielded even a single candidate.
“We decided to support independent candidates in each ward in Kasur to help create an anti-Nawaz Sharif alliance,” he adds. “We are also supporting PTI candidates in some wards.”
What if the winning candidates decide to join or return to the PML-N after the vote? “Well, we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” he shrugs.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2015