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Infographic by Ramsha Jahangir
Infographic by Ramsha Jahangir

LAHORE: Results of Sunday’s by-election in the National Assembly constituency NA-120 (Lahore-III) have sprung up some surprises, with two candidates backed by religious parties finishing third and forth and winning together about 11 per cent of the vote cast.

Many people had been expecting a better turnout in view of the vigorous campaigns run by almost all major contestants in the race. Some were predicting a better tally for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), while others were writing off the role of religio-sectarian outfits in the competition.

However, the two candidates backed by religious parties that appeared to most chip away at the PML-N vote share, together won about 11pc. Neither party — one of which is linked to Hafiz Saeed — existed in 2013.

Analysts say the by-election results will certainly concern Nawaz Sharif’s party.

NA-120 by-poll saw revival of mosques use for campaigning

Although Begum Kulsoom of the PML-N defeated Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) Dr Yasmin Rashid, the margin of victory came to around 14,000 in the Sept 17 by-poll from over 39,000 votes back in the 2013 general elections.

Unusual for a by-poll, there were 43 players in the contest for the seat that fell vacant after the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

PML-N leaders tout Begum Kulsoom’s victory as proof that Mr Sharif remains popular with voters and say the closer margin is largely due to the strong showing by the two candidates backed by religious parties.

“Frankly speaking, I’d been hoping for a healthier voter turnout keeping in view the hype created by vigorous electioneering by almost all major players,” says Ahmad Bilal Mehboob of Islamabad-based think tank Pildat. “But, surprisingly, it shrank by 18 to 20 per cent.”

Around seven per cent reduction in the vote bank of the PML-N further shocks Mr Mehboob, who thinks that the presumed victimisation of the party leader [in the Panama Papers case] should have motivated the sympathisers enough to at least keep the poll ratio intact, if not improved. “It means that PTI’s point of view on Panama [Papers] case and Nawaz Sharif’s character gained more acceptance among the voters.”

Senior political analyst Dr Hassan Askari argues that the committed and hard-line vote did not shift from the PML-N, but others who are not hardcore or are somewhat independent, they seemed to have shifted.

“The committed voters remained loyal to the PML-N leadership but the independent thinking or floating voters who had been with the Sharifs on an issue basis either didn’t come out to vote or shifted to the PTI and other parties apparently because the ruling party’s campaign couldn’t give them a clear and convincing message,” he says.

Right-wing vote

One of the surprises of Monday’s official results was the third-place finish of Azhar Husain Rizvi, an independent candidate backed by Labbaik Ya Rasulallah, a coalition of Islamist groups. He won 6pc of the vote campaigning on a platform of support for strict blasphemy laws.

His campaign posters praised executed killer Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for suggesting the laws might be reviewed. After his execution, Qadri was hailed by some religious sects as a martyr for Islam.

Yaqoob Sheikh, who was himself designated a terrorist by the United States in 2012, captured nearly 5pc of the vote. Sheikh was was an independent candidate, though he was backed by the newly formed Milli Muslim League (MML) that is loyal to Hafiz Saeed.

The MML — a political version of Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) — represents the Ahle Hadith school of thought. The MML on Monday said it planned to contest another by-election in Peshawar next month.

Despite their relatively strong gains, neither the MML nor the LYR is seen as having much chance of winning many seats in 2018.

Use of mosques

The by-election also saw revival of the use of places of worship for politicking as the candidates backed by the MML and LBY made mosques as their “base camps” for their electioneering.

The last time mosques prominently used for political movements in this part of the country was during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government when the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance had after allegations of rigging in the 1977 general elections launched a Nizam-i-Mustafa movement against the then PPP government.

Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led LYR, which belongs to the Barelvi school of thought, fully took advantage of 100-plus mosques in the area for Azhar Husain’s campaign.

Allama Rizvi used harsh language against the ruling PML-N for hanging Mumtaz Qadri. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan of Qari Zawwar Bahadur as well as the Sunni Ittehad Council — both former allies of the N-League — also extended their support to Azhar.

The MML made Masjid Al-Qadisia, the JuD headquarters which also happens to be situated in the very constituency, as its main election office. It also made use of other mosques of the Ahle Hadith school of thought, around 40 in number, in the area for seeking votes for Yaqoob Sheikh, who bagged 5,822 votes to stand fourth.

The MML’s campaign seemed well financed and organised as in the words of an observer it was matching banner-to-banner, polling camp-to-polling camp with the PML-N and the PTI.

In comparison, the Labbaik seemed devoid of resources. It didn’t have women workforce to mobilise its sympathisers among the fair sex, otherwise its tally might have improved further.

The PML-N had gradually snatched the right-wing vote from Jamaat-i-Islami over the last two decades or so as the JI nominee could not claim more than a couple of thousands in the last four contests. But the grabbing of 13,000 ballots jointly by the Labbaik and MML shows that the right-wing vote has found new representatives.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2017

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