Lahore’s NA-120 constituency is all set to hold a by-election after the Supreme Court recently dismissed Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Five judges of the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous verdict against the former PM, finding him not worthy of holding the PM’s office because he had failed to mention a particular piece of information regarding his sources of income.

The verdict has had an intensely polarising impact in the country. That’s why the coming by-election of NA-120 — a constituency from where the dismissed PM had won his national assembly seat in 2013 — is already shaping up to become perhaps the most important post-2013 by-election.

During the 2013 election — which Sharif’s pro-business and increasingly centrist party, the PML-N had swept — Sharif defeated Dr Yasmeen Rashid of the populist PTI — the party headed by the charismatic former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and philanthropist Imran Khan.

The by-election in NA-120 will indicate which way the wind is blowing for the Sharifs

Nawaz had bagged 91,666 votes while Dr Rashid managed to attract an impressive 52,354 votes. It was a notable performance in a constituency which, for years, has been a Sharif/PML-N stronghold.

NA-120 was created in 2002 with the merger of Lahore’s former NA-95 constituency with parts of the city’s NA-96 constituency. Before the 1977 election, much of NA-95 was NW-60 Lahore 3. During the historic 1970 election, this area was won by the fiery chairman of the then left-wing PPP, Z.A. Bhutto, who received 78,132 votes. His closest rival was Dr Javed Iqbal, the son of poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal. Javed Iqbal was contesting the election on a PML-Council ticket, a PML faction formed in 1962. He received 32,921 votes.

What is even more interesting is the fact that during the election for the 1970 provincial assembly seat of NW-60 (PA-73), M. Ghulam Nabi of the PPP swept to victory. Nabi was the future father-in-law of PTI’s Yasmeen Rasheed.

In the 1977 election, much of NA-60 Lahore 3 became NA-86. The PPP candidate M.M. Akhtar closely defeated a candidate of the anti-Bhutto alliance, the PNA. The 1977 elections were declared void by Gen Zia’s dictatorship which came to power through a coup in July 1977.

Partyless general elections’ were held in 1985 during the peak of Zia’s regime. The PPP-led anti-Zia alliance, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), boycotted the polls. The NA-86 constituency in these elections was won by the then 35-year-old Nawaz Sharif — a former member of Asghar Khan’s centrist Tehreek-i-Istaqlal but after 1979, a supporter of the Zia regime.

After his win, Nawaz became a member of the revamped Pakistan Muslim League (PML) which was formed under Zia’s patronage. Nawaz was then elected as chief minister of Punjab.

In her 1989 autobiography, Benazir Bhutto confessed that boycotting the 1985 elections was a mistake because it gave Nawaz Sharif the space to not only win his first election in Lahore but also create a constituency (as chief minister) for PML in the then largely pro-PPP Punjab.

However, a detailed analysis authored (in 1995) by Charles H. Kennedy and political scientist Professor Rasul B. Rais, suggested that the Zia regime (1977-88) overtly patronised the trader and business classes in Punjab and an emerging new petty bourgeoisie in the province. These classes became the early pillars of PML’s electoral support in the Punjab. This process saw the gradual erosion of the support that the PPP had enjoyed in the province till 1988.

During the 1988 election, NA-86 became NA-95. Nawaz defeated PPP’s Iqbal H. Bhatti. Nawaz contested on a PML ticket — which was part of the right-wing Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) alliance. He received 49,318 votes to Bhatti’s 36,065.

But NA-96 — part of which would also become NA-120 in 2002 — was won by PPP’s Jahangir Badar, who defeated Jamaat-i-Islami’s Hafiz Salman who was contesting on an IJI ticket. The PPP had also won the 1988 by-election here. The party then formed the first post-Zia government.

From 1990 till 2002, however, Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz continually won NA-95 and NA-96. In 1993, Nawaz broke away from IJI and then the PML to form his own faction, the PML-N. He twice became PM (1990 and 1997) before being toppled in a military coup in 1999.

In 2002, during Gen Musharraf’s regime, large parts of NA-95 and parts of NA-96 were combined to form the much larger NA-120. The Sharif brothers were in exile and their party was in disarray during the 2002 election. And though the party was routed in the election (winning just 19 seats), it still managed to win the largest number of seats in Lahore, including NA-120 and the PML-N’s Parvez Malik received 33,741 votes. PPP’s Altaf Ahmed Qureshi came second with 19,483 votes. PTI’s A. Rashid Bhatti could bag merely 2,526 votes.

The Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz, returned to Pakistan in 2007 during the once popular and strong Musharraf regime’s weakening phase. In the 2008 election, Bilal Yasin was given the PML-N ticket by Nawaz to contest NA-120. He won by receiving 65,946 votes and the PPP’s Jahangir Badar came second with 24,380. However, the PPP won the overall 2008 election, riding on the sympathy wave created by Benazir’s tragic assassination in December 2007.

PPP briefly formed a coalition government with PML-N. But the coalition quickly fell apart after PPP’s co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari refused to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was dismissed by Musharraf (on charges of corruption) in 2007. PPP then formed a wobbly coalition government with ANP and the MQM.

By 2013, PML-N’s ideological trajectory had increasingly shifted to the centre with the sudden and populist rise of the centre-right PTI. During the 2013 election, PTI replaced PPP as Punjab’s second-largest party, as PML-N swept Punjab and thus the overall election.

Nawaz became prime minister. Now his party will once again be facing Dr Rashid in the NA-120 by-election. Experts so far believe that PML-N would be able to defeat Dr Rashid, considering that NA-120 remains a Sharif/PML-N stronghold — and also due to the fact that a majority of voters here have been incensed at the manner PTI pushed for Nawaz’s ouster. On the other hand, PTI is confident that Dr Rashid, a popular figure in Lahore, would be able to improve upon her 2013 performance by also managing to bag whatever support left her for parties such as the PPP, the Jamaat-i-Islami and PML-Q.

Unlike most constituencies in Karachi which are multi-ethnic, Lahore’s constituencies are largely Punjabi. NA-120 is overtly urban in its make-up, with most of its inhabitants being businessmen, traders and white-collar workers. According to an April 21, 2013 report in The Nation, the literacy rate of this constituency is over 80 percent. There’s a large Shia community here as well. According to a May 2013 report in The News, the Shia and working-class votes in areas which make up NA-120 went to the PPP, but from 2002 onwards these votes began to move towards PML-N. The report added that the Shia vote here largely went to PTI during the 2013 election.

The result of this by-election is sure to determine the future course of the Sharif family after the PM’s ouster and the pressures that the family is facing from the courts.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 6th, 2017

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