LAHORE: The stage is set for a momentous by-election in NA-120 as the campaigns led by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz reached a frenzied pitch over the weekend amid local brawls and vociferous appeals primarily centred around seeking the public’s opinion on whether the Supreme Court was right in disqualifying former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or not.
With 44 candidates in the running for the National Assembly seat, the by-election will be held today (Sunday) under the supervision of army personnel. The voters will get to exercise their right to franchise between 8am and 5pm, despite the looming confusion over the verification of around 29,000 votes.
The NA-120 seat fell vacant after the Supreme Court disqualified Mr Sharif from the office of prime minister in the Panama Papers case. Former first lady Kulsoom Nawaz is vying for that seat as a candidate of the PML-N, while Dr Yasmin Rashid of the PTI is the second major contender.
The Pakistan Peoples Party has fielded Faisal Mir, while the Jamaat-i-Islami pitched Ziaur Rehman Ansari as its candidate. Sheikh Muhammad Yaqoob, who is contesting as an independent candidate, has the support of the Milli Muslim League.
Amid door-to-door campaigns, rallies, development work, sloganeering, local brawls, blatant violation of the election code of conduct, and accusations being hurled left right and centre, the campaigns of all major political parties came to a close, officially, on Friday night. However, separate campaigns on social media have lent their flavour to the political activity.
Cliffhanger by-poll in Lahore constituency today
The PTI’s victory after a year-long court battle in the Panama Papers case was worked into the campaign, as PTI chief Imran Khan made the verdict his party’s rallying call, announcing that the judiciary had held the most powerful players in the country accountable for their misdeeds.
While some political observers believe that Mr Khan’s actions placed the sanctity of the Supreme Court at stake, the PML-N’s campaign, led by Mr Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, was dead set against the apex court’s decision under the ex-PM’s slogan: ‘Mujhe Kyun Nikala’.
“The by-election result will serve as a litmus test to see how the people view the Supreme Court’s decision,” said an observer.
Besides wooing voters in the constituency, the PTI and PML-N had also run their campaigns on social media. Messages recorded by PTI’s Imran Khan and PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafique were circulated on WhatsApp, while several women activists of the PTI called constituency voters on their cell phones urging them to vote for their party.
In his video and audio messages, Mr Khan called the by-election “decisive”, and urged voters to throng the polling stations and cast their votes to strengthen the judiciary which had held the most powerful people accountable for their misdeeds. “Defeat the corrupt mafia and money launderers with the power of your votes,” he stressed.
Leading the campaign on behalf of her mother, Maryam Nawaz called on voters to cast the ballot for her mother. Referring to the ‘Mujhe Kyun Nikala’ call, she said, no one could remove the love the people of NA-120 had for Mr Sharif. “The PML-N will win the by-election with a majority vote,” she said in a consultative meeting called to motivate party representatives in the constituency. She also appeared in different TV interviews on the eve of polling day.
PTI’s Dr Yasmin Rashid said she had put up a fight to protect the future of the next generations, as they deserved a chance to prosper in a corruption-free society. She stressed that she was also fighting for the right to quality education, health care and provision of basic amenities, including safe drinking water.
Referring to the matter of the 29,000 unverified votes reflected in the voters’ list, Dr Rashid said regardless of the election result, she would approach the court on Monday against the incompetence of the Election Commission of Pakistan. “The hard copy of 29,000-plus voters list given to the PTI on payment carries neither fingerprints, nor CNIC numbers nor family numbers,” she regretted.
In their messages ahead of polling day, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal predicted a resounding victory for the PML-N, stating that people had realised that the Sharif family had been wronged and they would now set things right with the power of their votes. “This constituency has thrice elected Nawaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister since 1990,” he said.
On the other hand, Pakistan Awami Tehreek president Sheikh Rashid appealed to voters to break the shackles of slavery and vote for the PTI to strengthen democracy. The Pakistan Awami Tehreek and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid have also extended their support to the PTI candidate.
During the election campaign, the ruling PML-N had apparently committed several violations of the ECP’s code of conduct and received notices over them. The commission had issued notices to MNAs retired Capt Safdar, Maiza Hameed, Senator Pervez Rashid, federal Ministers Pervaiz Malik and Tallal Chaudhry, provincial Minister Bilal Yasin and MPAs Majid Zahoor, Mian Marghoob and Hina Pervaiz Butt.
The ECP has made elaborate arrangements to hold the by-election by setting up 220 polling stations — 103 for male voters, 98 for women and 19 joint polling stations for men and women voters. There are 321,786 voters including 142,144 women voters.
The army and Rangers personnel, along with the police, have taken positions in the constituency, and the ECP has delivered 350,000 ballot papers to the election staff.
The ECP has also made arrangements to test Biometric Voter Verification Machines in the NA-120 by-election with the consent of all 44 candidates contesting the election. The commission says the biometric voting exercise will not impact the vote count. Some 30,000 voters will be asked to poll their votes on biometric machines that will take each voter 15 to 18 seconds to cast.
With regard to the some unverified 29,000 votes, the ECP had told the Lahore High Court that the verification of votes was the responsibility of the National Database and Registration Authority. The ECP on Saturday finally stated that the fingerprint records of more than 29,000 voters were not available with the Nadra. On the directions of the Lahore High Court, the ECP said it had made the list of those voters public.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017