Situationer: All eyes on Lahore’s NA-120 contest

Updated September 14, 2017


Maryam Nawaz arrives in Mozang for the election campaign of her mother, Kulsoom Nawaz, in the NA-120 constituency.— Murtaza Ali/White Star
Maryam Nawaz arrives in Mozang for the election campaign of her mother, Kulsoom Nawaz, in the NA-120 constituency.— Murtaza Ali/White Star

LAHORE: As political fortresses go, there are few in the country as impregnable for the Pakistan Muslim League-N opponents as the Lahore constituency which is titled as NA-120. This constituency has thrice elected Nawaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister since 1990. Before that Mr Sharif had won the National Assembly (NA) seat from the area in 1985 but had chosen to vacate it since he wanted, and easily secured for himself, the office of the Punjab chief minister. Since then in the elections the PML-N leader couldn’t take part, his nominees easily returned from here.

Some thought the disqualification of Mr Sharif by the apex court in the Panama Papers case could upset a large section of his voters here as Kulsoom Nawaz now seeks to retain the family seat. The loudness of her campaign, run by Maryam Nawaz with unprecedented pomp and glory, aims to overwhelm any second thoughts the old Sharif voters might have harboured.

“Some people were scared that if Nawaz Sharif is allowed to complete his term, it would be impossible to defeat the PML-N in any future election,” says Rafique Butt, a small businessman and an ardent PML-N supporter from the area.

“They may keep ousting Nawaz Sharif, and we will keep returning him or whosoever he fields from here,” he thunders, vowing to send to the assembly former prime minister’s ailing wife Kulsoom, who is under treatment in London these days. He says that not only will Kulsoom be elected this coming Sunday, she will win with a big margin so that everyone gets the message right.

With the Sharifs holding the seat since 1985, the impression among the people here is that they have a magic formula to ensure their invincibility in this constituency. The talk about the PML-N having developed a most efficient network comprising not just the quite often over-emphasised biradari element has been vindicated election after election. The fact is that the Sharifs have worked long and hard at knitting together a system of local influential figures and it is really an uphill task for their opponents to make a contest of it.

The battle has to be fought optic for optic, one popular tactic, even a gimmick, countered in time with one by the opposition to retain the interest of the voters who are always vulnerable to being overawed by displays of Sharif opulence. Kul­soom Nawaz’s opponent, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) Dr Yasmin Rashid has been running a very busy, solid drive to woo the voters. There are however instances when she appears to be lobbying, even if intensely, but on a plane lower than the PML-N so far as the resourcefulness of the two candidates is the topic.

Whereas the stories about the Sharif fortunes here touch mythological proportions, there are a few contributory factors at work which are easier to put a finger on, such as the fact that a traditional urban trading class makes up a big chunk of the over 321,000 registered voters in the constituency that includes Nisbat Road, Laxmi Chowk, Mozang, Temple Road, Sant Nagar, Krishan Nagar, Mohni Road, Sanda, Anarkali, Beadon Road, and Hall Road.

“The PML-N’s Pervez Malik had won this seat even in 2002 when the Sharifs were living in exile and few thought that they would ever be allowed to return home,” notes Tahir Mahmood, a lawyer and a Pakistan Peoples Party supporter from Mozang.

“With Mr Sharif’s wife contesting from this constituency and their daughter canvassing, you won’t bet on another horse. Her nephew Bilal Yasin had won the seat for the PML-N in 2008. The best the PML-N opponents can hope for is reduction in the gap between the winner and the runner-up.”

In the 2013 elections, Mr Sharif had polled more than 91,600 ballots with Yasmin Rashid, a doctor by profession, getting 52,354 votes — the highest tally by a PML-N opponent from the constituency.

“You do not expect a very large voter turnout in by-polls. But I feel that Sunday’s contest between the two women is going to bring out more voters to the polls than any other by-election ever in the past. Both parties are highly charged,” insists Amjad Saleem, who has a publication business on Temple Road. Since his first victory in 1985 from this constituency (formerly NA-86 and NA-95), Mr Sharif’s victory margin has been on the increase.

To some, there’s more at stake for Maryam Nawaz in the Sunday fight than just winning the by-election for her ailing mother. “Both parties and candidates are running a very vigorous campaign, organising small corner meetings and knocking at every door that comes their way to reach out to the voters. For the PML-N, I guess, the NA-120 by-election is also about launching Maryam. This is the first time she has stepped into ‘popular’ politics outside Twitter to stake a claim for party leadership. She needs to not only win it for her mother with a large margin but also show to the party as well as her rival for the PML-N leadership Hamza Shahbaz that she is fully in control of the party and its politics,” according to Khurram Ejaz, a resident of Krishan Nagar who works for a software company and is backing the PTI candidate in the contest.

Like several other PTI supporters, Khurram, too contends that Dr Rashid is going to give a tough time to Kulsoom. “If you look at the past results, she’s the only opposition candidate who has ever managed to bag more than 50,000 votes in any election against Nawaz Sharif. The way she is conducting her campaign will make the Sunday contest a closely-fought election. It’s not going to be a walk in the park for the Sharifs this time round,” the software engineer predicts.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017