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Election 2018 campaigns — a subdued affair

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A MAN prepares banners for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s election campaign in Lahore.—M. Arif / White Star
A MAN prepares banners for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s election campaign in Lahore.—M. Arif / White Star

Wearing a black armband he goes door-to-door in the Dharampura area of Lahore, leading a group of around a dozen people. One of them rings the doorbell or knocks at the door, if there is no bell. He talks briefly to whoever responds and hands them some pamphlets, then walks over to the next house in the neighbourhood.

The group, at first glance, might as well be a new version of the Tableeghi Jamaat visiting households, bringing the word of God to the faithful. But it’s not. They belong to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and are led by Rana Shabbir, the party’s nominee for PP-157, who is running his election campaign.

The black armband raises eyebrows, as it gives the impression that the party is taking part in the polls as a protest. “We’re wearing the black armband only for one day to mark July 5, when a military dictator ousted the first democratically elected government back in 1977,” says Shabbir. With elections scheduled for the last week of this month, the party had decided to mark the day in a novel way: by wearing black armbands during the election campaign on Thursday.

What is conspicuous about the activities ahead of the July 25 polls is perhaps a lack of enthusiasm, energy and anticipation surrounding the campaigns launched by various political parties. Save a few main traffic arteries in the city, most areas of Lahore are yet to wake up to a criss-cross of banners, posters and election material that traditionally adorn their streets during the election season. Election offices which once used to serve as a site for workers to mobilise and for visitors to get tea and perhaps free meals round-the-clock, are few and mostly inconspicuous.

Hamza Akhtar, an office-bearer of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) youth wing, opens the party’s office in UC-110 Faisal Town, every morning at around 10am.

Be it the local body or general elections, the people are most concerned about their civic problems... they do not buy slogans like ‘give respect to the ballot’ in which a message of the Sharif family’s fight with the establishment is hidden. A PML-N candidate

After around 40 to 50 workers gather at the office, they sit and chalk out a plan for the day’s corner meetings for party candidates contesting national and provincial assembly seats in that constituency. “We arrange corner meetings for Khwaja Hassaan (NA-130) and Mian Nauman (PP-159) primarily in our union council and also ensure our presence in adjoining UCs. A corner meeting is usually attended by voters from nearly 200 households at the ward level, so rival candidates vie to address them, seeking closer interaction,” Akhtar tells Dawn, adding that PML-N candidates have to address at least three meetings in as many wards a day.

In the absence of a vibrant campaign by the PML-N’s candidates so far, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) candidates who have moved quickly and put up their flags, posters, flexes and banners in many constituencies. Cavalcades of large SUV vehicles, painted with pictures of PTI leaders, vroom across the city, taking candidates to their corner meetings and public gatherings, where they make promises to address people’s long-standing problems.

As the sun sets, the PTI’s election campaign picks up in all 14 national assembly constituencies and runs throughout the night. Slogans like “we want change” form a significant part of their campaign.

Similarly, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which held sway in Lahore until the emergence of the Sharifs, is yet to kick-start its electioneering in the provincial metropolis, considered the political hub of the country. PPP leader Osman Malik explains: “Nominees of all three major parties were decided only on June 30, after they sailed through all kinds of scrutiny and objections by rival candidates.”

Taking advantage of the lull in activity, the PTI stepped up its campaign. PTI worker Farrukh Moon says with its aggressive campaign strategy, the party is eyeing to sway some 15pc to 20pc neutral voters in its favour.

In comparison, the PML-N — laid low by the accountability court verdict against the Sharifs on Friday — is taking it slow. At their election offices, Arif Lohar’s anthem for the party ‘Mian de naaray wajnay vi wajnay nay’ blares on the speakers to whip up the energy of party workers preparing for a day of canvassing. An early lunch is served, after which workers leave for corner meetings, while mostly women party workers go door-to-door in groups urging people to vote for ‘sher’ (lion), the PML-N’s election symbol.

The election rituals of putting up flexes and banners and hoardings are yet to begin even in NA-124 and NA-127, from where Hamza Shahbaz and Maryam Nawaz – both central leaders of the PML-N – are contesting the polls. (After the Friday verdict, Maryam stood disqualified to take part in an election at least for five years.) Perhaps this is telling of how the PTI picked its candidates based on who could afford ‘expensive election campaigns’. However, the PML-N says that in the coming days, it will match the PTI on this front.

Candidates fielded by the former ruling party tend to focus on elaborating on what their government did for their constituencies over the last five years. The party’s slogan of ‘Vote ko izzat doh’ features rarely in their rhetoric, because party candidates say that voters are more concerned about a lack of civic amenities.

“Be it the local body or general elections, the people are most concerned about their civic problems... they do not buy slogans like ‘give respect to the ballot’ in which a message of the Sharif family’s fight with the establishment is hidden,” says a PML-N candidate contesting on a provincial assembly seat in Lahore. “When we go to voters they ask what we or our government has done for their area during the last five years. We tell them what work we did for the area (constituency) and promise to address their civic-related problems,” he says.

It is the lack of basic civic amenities, especially lack of safe drinking water, in many areas of Lahore that the PTI candidates are using to discredit their opponents. They assert that the PTI is their champion because it will work on human development instead of doling out funds for infrastructure development. “The PML-N in its decades-long rule failed to do anything worthwhile to improve human development index (HDI) as even Lahorites are complaining about it,” a PTI candidate says.

Yet despite their upbeat campaign, the PTI has been busy pacifying party workers who were displeased with the candidates who were issued tickets to contest the polls. Some of the more belligerent ones have been sent show-cause notices for violating party discipline and opposing its decisions. Many of the dissenting PTI supporters and workers share that Imran Khan’s decision [to allot tickets to electables] had left the party’s diehard ideological workers shocked and unable to swallow the uncalled-for situation.

The central, west and south Punjab zones saw many outbursts from diehard workers who claimed their struggle and sacrifices had been ignored and their tickets given to “electables”. A worker laments, “Even those new-comers were given PTI tickets who were involved in torturing party workers and implicating them in different cases.”

A disgruntled ticket aspirant from Faisalabad says, “We did the party’s membership campaigns, registered a large number of party members, spent time and money. The party leadership forgot everything in a minute and gave party tickets to newcomers.” Another party worker chided the PTI leadership for promoting dynastic politics, in the case of Sahis in Faisalabad and the Wattoos in Okara.

This is a grouse even some PML-N workers had. Sikandar Butt, a resident of Mozang, says many party workers were unhappy over the PML-N’s choice of candidates it had issued tickets to, but adds now that the election fever is mounting, “we cannot sit at home”. Butt shares that he visits the party camp in his locality daily and joins a group of other diehard workers who walk around in various streets shouting party slogans. “Seeing groups of young people walking in the streets shouting ‘sher’ and other party slogans lifts the spirits of our supporters and demoralises our opponents,” he says.

A senior PPP leader endorses the campaign strategy of door-to-door canvassing. This is how election campaigns usually start, he says, adding that with a ban on holding rallies, the trend of going door-to-door has picked up. “Electioneering almost always picks up from door-to-door visits of candidates, and culminates at corner meetings,” says PPP’s Naveed Chaudhry. “The ECP’s restriction on rallies under the new code of conduct has only strengthened this trend and the election fervour will definitely pick after July 10.”

The acting general secretary of PPP’s Punjab chapter says: “We’re going to focus for the next eight days on building our campaign. This will be an important phase for us, like it is for other political parties. If we succeed in mobilising our activists, who have been, so far, indifferent to the election affairs during this phase, and make them come out to join corner meetings, then you will see the momentum gain pace daily.”

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2018

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