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AFTER a long time the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has a fight on its hands in Jhelum. The challenger is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf .

Alarm bells started ringing for the party when the family of Chaudhary Altaf Hussain, a heavyweight on the local political stage and former Punjab governor, joined the PTI. Two scions of this family, Fawad Chaudhary and cousin Farrukh Altaf, figure on the PTI ticket for the National Assembly in Jhelum. Fawad is in the run for a Punjab Assembly seat as well.

The district previously had two NA and four PA seats, but it lost one PA seat after the fresh delimitation.

Both Fawad and Farrukh were PML-Q candidates for the two NA seats in the general election of 2013. Both of them came third in their respective races as the seats were won by the PML-N, Nawabzada Raja Iqbal Mehdi beating Fawad and Chaudhary Khadim Hussain Gurmala winning against Farrukh.

In that election the PTI emerged as the second major party in this garrison city. Chaudhary Saqlain, the party’s nominee in NA-62 (now NA-66), polled an impressive 63,000 votes. In NA-63 (now NA-67) Saeed Mirza Jhelumi secured 42,000 votes.

Both PML-N candidates for the National Assembly constituencies in Jhelum bagged more than 100,000 votes in 2013. However, the party’s margin of victory shrank significantly when a by-election was held for the seat after Iqbal Mehdi’s death in 2016.

Having joined the PTI recently, it was Fawad Chaudhry who took on Mr Mehdi’s son, Nawabzada Matloob Mehdi, in the by-poll. Fawad lost, but the difference this time was just 8,000 votes.

Former PML-N MNAs Raja Muhammad Afzal and Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi were allies in local politics against the Altaf family for almost three decades — from 1985 to 2013. Raja Afzal and Iqbal Mehdi won their NA seats at least four times each.

In 2002 neither Raja Afzal nor Mr Mehdi contested the election due to the graduation bar. Mr Mehdi supported Raja Afzal’s son Raja Asad on NA-63 seat while another son of Mr Afzal, Raja Safdar, lost at the hands of the PML-Q’s Chaudhary Shahbaz Hussain on NA- 62. In 2008 both Asad and Safdar returned as MNAs.

Raja Afzal parted ways with the PML-N over differences on award of party ticket to Khadim Gurmala, another old name in Jhelum’s politics, in a Dec 2012 by-election. The vote was held after a provincial assembly seat fell vacant as Khadim Gurmala’s son, Nadeem Khadim, was held ineligible over dual nationality.

Unceremonious end

Raja Afzal had asked Nawaz Sharif to either give the ticket to him or declare the constituency as open — allowing all those who wanted the PML-N nomination to contest without awarding the party ticket to any one of them. Mr Sharif eventually gave in to the latter demand, but Mr Gurmala inflicted a heavy defeat on Raja Afzal, bringing an era of politics in Jhelum to an unceremonious end.

A disillusioned Raja ended his decades-old affiliation with the PML-N in April 2013, just weeks before the general election. The family joined the PPP in what was termed by the uninitiated a major setback to the PML-N. But the PML-N had the last laugh when it bagged all the NA and PA seats of the district in the elections.

100,000
votes were bagged by both PML-N candidates for the National Assembly constituencies in Jhelum in the last elections. However, the party’s margin of victory shrank significantly when a by-election was held for the seat after Iqbal Mehdi’s death in 2016.

Raja Afzal, who was once one of the most important players in Jhelum, was routed in that vote. He contested as PPP nominee on two seats, securing 5,000 on one seat and 8,500 on the other. Later he joined the PTI but, beholden to local fault lines, he supported PML- N’s Raja Matloob Mehdi in the 2016 by-elections against Fawad Chaudhry.

On the other hand, the Gurmalas started to rise in the district’s politics. In the 2013 poll Khadim Gurmala returned as an MNA and his brother-in-law Chaudary Laal Khan won as an MPA.

The PML-N has once again put its money on the Gurmala family for NA-66 (Jhelum city-Dina-Sohawa). The party has pitched Nadeem Khadim Gurmala against Farrukh Altaf of the PTI whereas ex-MPA Laal Khan is in the run for a Punjab Assembly seat, PP-26.

On NA-67 (Pind Dadan Khan-Khewra-Jalalpur Sharif) Matloob Mehdi of the PML-N is up against Fawad Chaudhary of the PTI.

It has not been an easy selection for either side. Both the PML-N and PTI have been facing a revolt of sorts over the award of party tickets. The PTI’s contender in the last election, Chaudhry Saqlain, is in the run as an independent candidate from NA-66 as the party did not award him a ticket this time. Instead, it offered him a ticket for PP-25 (Dina-Sohawa). He turned it down and has vowed to oppose Fawad Chaudhary on NA-67, too.

On the other hand, two ex-MPAs of the PML-N have declared their opposition to the party’s nominee, Nadeem Gurmala, on NA-66.

The dissident group in the PML-N includes a sizeable number of workers. Ijaz Janjua, the district general secretary, and Shahid Dar, the party’s chief in the district, have quit their offices and will oppose PML-N nominees in NA-66 and PP-26.

The dissidents have launched Chaudhary Saeed as an independent candidate for PP-26 and announced support for PTI on both NA seats.

Mehy Fayaz, a PML-N candidate from a Punjab Assembly seat (PP-25), is not happy with the party’s decision to field the Gurmalas on two seats since he was himself an aspirant for NA-66.

Moreover, two other ex-MPAs of the PML-N, Nazar Muhammad Gondal and Syed Shams Haider, are supporting PTI’s Fawad Chaudhary on NA-67 and PP-27 seats. However, Mr Haider’s close kin Numan Shah, who was once in the PTI, had protested the party’s decision to field Fawad. And now he (Numan) is contesting as a TLP (Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan) nominee for PP-27.

Although the PPP, MMA and TLP have also fielded candidates in Jhelum, analysts see a tough two-way fight between the PTI and PML-N. The rifts within are likely to play a decisive role on July 25.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2018