The much-awaited NA-120 by-election is just a day away, and the frenzy surrounding it is almost palpable. The election, scheduled for Sept 17, is being held for the seat vacated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif following his disqualification from holding public office by the Supreme Court in its July 28 ruling on the Panama Papers case.
The Lahore area which NA-120 covers — which has a voter population of 321,786, according to recently released lists by the Election Commission of Pakistan — has been a stronghold of the Sharifs since 1990, having elected Nawaz to office thrice in that period.
The NA-120 constituency was formed in 2002 from the merger of Lahore's NA-95 and NA-96 following a delimitation exercise.
The voter population in the area is mostly urban with a literacy rate of over 80 per cent. Most of its inhabitants are businessmen, traders and white-collar workers.
The two constituencies that were merged in 2002, NA-95 and NA-96, had largely favoured the PPP from the 1970s till 1985. It was after Benazir Bhutto boycotted the 1985 election held under Gen Ziaul Haq that the constituency seemed to flip to the PML-N; time and again electing Nawaz's party representatives, even during the period he was in exile.
A considerable number of votes from the Shia community and working class residing in the area also went to the PPP before 2002; however, since the delimitation exercise, most voters have turned to the PML-N, according to a report published in The News in 2013.
With the Sharifs holding the seat since 1985, the impression among the people living in the area is that they have some sort of 'magic formula' that ensures their invincibility in the constituency.
The speculation that the PML-N has developed a highly efficient network comprising more than 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.
Results from past three elections
- 2002: M. Pervaiz Malik from the PML-N won with 33,741 votes
- 2008: Bilal Yaseen from the PML-N won with 65,946 votes
- 2013: Nawaz Sharif from the PML-N won with 91,666 votes
Who are the main contenders?
The total number of candidates participating in the NA-120 by-polls are 44, of which the following three have grabbed the most attention and headlines.
- Kulsoom Nawaz, the wife of the ousted premier, is one of the major contenders of the NA-120 by-election and the likely eventual winner of the contest. She is fighting from a PML-N ticket, with her daughter, Maryam Nawaz, running her campaign since she herself is currently in London undergoing cancer treatment.
Though Begum Kulsoom had successfully led the party’s movement for the release of her husband after Gen Pervez Musharraf's military coup in 1999, neither she nor her daughter Maryam have ever taken part in any electoral bout at any level.
Yasmeen Rashid has been nominated by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. She is a strong contender for the NA-120 seat, having received 52,354 votes against Nawaz in the 2013 general elections, a pretty impressive feat considering that the constituency has been PML-N's stronghold for decades.
The PPP nominated its former Lahore chapter information secretary, Faisal Mir.
What's different this time?
By-polls normally do not attract much media attention as both voter turnouts and stakes are low and they don't necessarily reflect or predict the outcome of a general election.
However, NA-120 is no ordinary by-election: it comes following the ouster of a prime minister that was elected by this very constituency after the judiciary decided against him in a case pursued relentlessly for more than a year by the PTI.
This election will decide how the SC verdict has affected those who have voted Sharif into power for years. Do they feel that their vote was "insulted" by the Panama verdict, as Sharif and his party have insisted? Or have they started to feel that those in power, even if elected, must be held accountable?
The result of this by-election is also sure to determine the future course of action for the Sharif family amidst the pressures that the family is currently facing from the courts.
Security and biometric verification
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is taking extra measures to ensure that the polls go as smoothly as possible.
The army will be assisting in the security arrangements after the ECP declared the whole constituency ‘sensitive’, but also because opposition parties demanded the army's presence.
As a security measure, the ECP has also directed the chief secretary of Punjab to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at all polling stations in NA-120 before the by-election after receiving a request in this regard from the army, which has been asked to perform security duties during the by-poll.
The ECP also plans to test-run biometric verification machines at selected polling stations during the upcoming by-poll.