LAHORE: In a major setback to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, more than half a dozen lawmakers belonging to south Punjab on Monday quit the ruling party and formed a group — South Punjab Province Front — to struggle for the creation of a separate province and set the same agenda for their election campaign.
While announcing the move to quit the assemblies, the eight-member group led by Khusro Bakhtiar said they had been in contact with more than 20 legislators who might also join them in the coming days.
They said that former caretaker prime minister Balakh Sher Mazari would lead the group, though they expressed no intention to get registered as a new political party, indicating they would contest general elections either independently or in alliance with other political parties.
Apparently hoping to woo back some of the ‘angry’ legislators, Punjab Chief Minister and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif instructed the PML-N leaders and office-bearers to “avoid giving any sort of comments about the members quitting the party”.
However, the state information minister, who is considered close to the Maryam Nawaz camp, told a press conference that the defectors were “habitual turncoats who had never been in the PML-N”. “These were the legislators who had not voted for the bill aimed at making Nawaz Sharif head of the party,” she said.
Say ex-caretaker PM Balakh Sher Mazari will head group that will fight for a new province, predict more defections
Defections from south Punjab were already on the cards, as Mr Bakhtiar predicted that a good number of legislators from the south districts mostly from the ruling party had made up their mind to join the front in its struggle for the new province. One of the group members told Dawn that they had been in contact with over 20 legislators from their region and they might soon announce their joining the front.
The group members said they had not ruled out the possibility of forming an alliance with other political parties, especially with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
“We may go for some kind of seat adjustment with the PTI in the election as we have not decided to get a new party registered,” said Tahir Iqbal Chaudhry, a member of the National Assembly from Vehari, while speaking to Dawn. He too said many more legislators would join their group in the coming days and most of them would be from the PML-N.
However, PTI Information Secretary Fawad Chaudhry said his party would not support any independent candidate or go for alliance with any group as it had created problems in the past. “We fully support the cause of the front members for the creation of a new province in Punjab but those looking for the PTI’s support will have to contest the election on its symbol — bat,” Mr Chaudhry declared while speaking to Dawn.
The PPP is of the opinion that those saying goodbye to the PML-N in south Punjab would have to seek alliance with it, as it would be their natural alliance on the issue of a new province in Punjab.
“The PPP had got a resolution approved for the rights of south Punjab in the Punjab Assembly and also tabled it in the Senate. Therefore, the front members will be PPP’s natural allies. We are open to dialogue with them for an election alliance,” said PPP’s south Punjab secretary general Shuakat Basra in reply to a question.
Mr Bakhtiar said the group had only a one-point agenda — the creation of a new province for the people of south Punjab — to alleviate poverty and address other serious issues concerning the people of the area which had never been given a priority by the Punjab government. “South Punjab’s poverty reaches 51 per cent of the entire Punjab but the south has a job quota of five per cent in the Punjab Public Service Commission,” he said.
He explained that politicians belonging to other parties in Punjab would have to gather on this platform to raise the issue with one voice. “We will table a resolution for the creation of south Punjab province in the national assembly after the election. Failing to get support we will move the Supreme Court for the purpose,” he declared.
Mr Bakhtiar said it was “our lawful demand as creation of new federating units will also strengthen the federation and introduce a new system”. Referring to the PML-N and PPP, he lamented that some parties used the slogan of creating a new province in Punjab for political gains but practically they did nothing to benefit the people of the area.
Balakh Sher Mizari, the head of the South Punjab Province Front, said there had been no significant development in south Punjab for the past many decades. “Punjab should be divided administratively into three federating units. That will be good for Pakistan,” he said.
Commenting on the defections, the PML-N president said: “This matter will be discussed in a party meeting and a suitable strategy will be finalised.”
PML-N Information Secretary Senator Mashidullah Khan said the need for creating this “front” had arisen because parties such as the PTI would not have accepted the group of legislators. “We knew that these members would quit the party, as they had been taking directions from somewhere else. Their departure [from the PML-N] will have no impact on the ruling party as we have two to three candidates in every constituency there. Our vote bank in Punjab and elsewhere is intact, because we have delivered,” Mr Khan insisted.
The legislators who announced parting ways with the PML-N include MNAs Tahir Bashir Cheema (from Bahawalnagar), Tahir Iqbal Chaudhry (Vehari), Basit Bokhari (Muzafarghar), Rana Qasim Noon (Multan) and Syed Muhammad Asghar (Bahawalnagar) and MPAs Nasrullah Derashik (Rajanpur) and PML-N’s information secretary of Punjab Samiullah Chaudhry (Bahawalpur).
Most of them had got elected from their constituencies as independent candidates in the past and joined the ruling party. Most of them were part of the PML-Q during its rule (2002-07). The front’s president, Mr Bakhtiar, was elected MNA on a PML-Q ticket from Rahim Yar Khan in 2002 and subsequently became state minister for foreign affairs. In 2013, he contested as independent candidate and joined the PML-N after winning the seat.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2018