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Sialkot set to witness close election fights

Updated July 08, 2018


SITTING under the shade of a large tree on the paved part of the sprawling lawns of Khawaja Mohammad Asif’s home in Sialkot cantonment, a score of men talk in hushed voices waiting for the verdict in the Avenfield properties reference.

A few leave the place to return later in the day after a long wait for the former foreign minister, who is vying to win the national assembly seat from Sialkot city (NA-73) for the sixth consecutive time this month. At last he shows up, shakes hands with guests, exchanges pleasantries and makes small talk.

“If the constant witch-hunt against us hasn’t impacted negatively our re-election campaign, an adverse verdict against our leader will also fail to influence voters,” Khawaja Asif tells Dawn while managing to steal a few moments from his hectic campaign.

“There might have been a temporary setback initially. But public support [in Punjab] for the PML-N has solidified. It is an age of information… in the presence of active media democracy cannot be eroded.”

Mr Asif, who looked after the water and power ministry until a reshuffle in cabinet portfolios following his leader’s disqualification and replacement with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi almost a year ago, proudly defends the track record of the PML-N government.

“We’ve implemented our 2013 election manifesto both at the centre and in Punjab, ended electricity shortage that affected households and businesses alike, and restored peace to the country. People do feel a huge difference in the quality of their life… our development work will pay off dividends on polling day.

“Our development work is a major factor that we have not lost popular support in spite of everything the hidden hand has done to discredit our party and leadership. Our election campaign themes — Vote Ko Izzat Do (honour the public mandate) and Khidmat Ko Vote Do (vote for development) — will do the magic on election day. The situation could’ve been different if we hadn’t delivered on our promises,” he says before leaving for Friday prayers at a mosque across the street.

Not very far from his home, his challenger Usman Dar who is fighting for the NA-73 seat on a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf ticket for a second time has made elaborate arrangements to celebrate the court’s decision at his large leather garments factory even though it is yet to be announced. A large number of men and women are gathered there, dancing, chanting slogans and eating sweets.

“A decision against Nawaz Sharif can change the political scene of Sialkot and the rest of Punjab,” asserts Mr Dar. The PTI candidate had almost succeeded in getting his rival thrown out of the electoral race before the Supreme Court overturned the Islamabad High Court ruling disqualifying him for life under Article 62(i)(f) of the Constitution for non-disclosure of his employment in Dubai and the salary he received.

“If Nawaz and his daughter are sent to jail, it will demoralise PML-N voters… there are chances that they do not get out of their home on polling day. Not that I need an adverse decision in the London property case against the Sharifs to defeat my PML-N opponent, it will eventually help us. Fence-sitters, undecided voters and disgruntled PML-N supporters will turn to us in a bigger way now,” Mr Dar believes.

Then he elaborates why he thinks the PTI will win the Sialkot constituencies this month that it had lost badly in 2013. “The PML-N has done nothing for the people of Sialkot. We have exposed their bad governance and corruption during the past five years and their politics of victimisation pursued by Khawaja Asif against his political opponents. Almost half a million people in the city are suffering from hepatitis because of polluted drinking water. Voters have seen through them and are no longer afraid of them.”

The election campaign in the city is yet to get off the ground but PTI supporters are upbeat about their prospects in the elections as they wait for Imran Khan’s visit here on July 15. “This time the PTI has brought stronger candidates — Firdous Ashiq Awan for the rural-semi urban Sialkot constituency (NA-72) and Ghulam Abbas for the Pasrur constituency (NA-74) — than it had fielded in 2013. Still these are going to be tough and close fights, and could go either way on polling day,” a Sialkot businessman tells Dawn.

Ms Awan, information minister in the last Pakistan Peoples Party government, is pitted against PML-N’s Armghan Subhani Variyo who took the seat from her in 2013. Ghulam Abbas, a former PPP leader who has recently joined the PTI, is facing PML-N candidate Ali Zahid, the son of former law minister Zahid Hamid who had to quit the post amid a controversy over an amendment to the oath of elected representatives last year.

However, political observers from the city say internal disputes over tickets may damage the PTI candidates significantly. A major challenge for them will be to keep the party vote intact when some disgruntled leaders are contesting as independents while others displeased with the award of tickets have dissociated themselves from the PTI’s election campaign.

In NA-72, for example, the PTI awarded ticket to Ms Awan who had managed to oust her rival and former National Assembly speaker Amir Hussain and Naeem Javed, who had brought her into district politics, from competition for party ticket. Now Mr Hussain is said to be supporting Mr Javed contesting as an independent against her.

Also, Tahir Hundli, a former PPP member of the Punjab Assembly, is running for a provincial seat as an independent candidate after the PTI withdrew its ticket from him to accommodate Ms Awan’s panel on the provincial seats.

“We are engaging with our party men who are not happy because they were not given tickets. We will bring them back. Even if they don’t come back, it is not going to hurt the party candidates,” claims Iftikhar Bhatti, a local PTI leader. “It is a family matter and we can handle it.”

Canvassing aggressively for herself across the rural constituency that comprises some semi-urban areas adjacent to Sialkot and a large number of border villages, Ms Awan is not bothered about opposition from within the party but how to bring together non-Gujjar biradaris, Arain, Jatt and Awan and make inroads into her PML-N rival’s Gujjar clan that constitutes almost 40 per cent of the total votes.

“Biradari plays a big role in elections in this constituency, with Gujjars always winning it. I am the only non-Gujjar candidate to have defeated a Gujjar, Chaudhry Amir Hussain, in 2008 since 1977. I would also have defeated Armghan Subhani Variyo, another Gujjar, in 2013 if the elections were not fixed,” claims Ms Awan during a brief stopover at her large dera in her village, Kube Chak, on her way from the border village of Bajwat to her opponent’s village, Variyo. Before leaving for the next leg of her campaign, she meets a students’ delegation from her constituency, gives instructions to her campaign team, and pays the bills to the suppliers of her campaign paraphernalia and hired labour. While heading to Variyo, she makes an unplanned stopover at Bheri to condole the death in the family of the Arain clan’s leader.

“Biradari votes are important in this constituency. But I am counting more on my social work here and my personal relationship with the constituents. I have support from all biradaris because I have never discriminated against one clan or the other. When I brought gas pipeline to these villages, everyone had benefited.”

Mr Bhatti says her presence has strengthened the PTI’s position in the constituency. “She is an untiring woman who campaigns 14 to 15 hours a day, going door to door. She was always accessible to her constituents even as a minister. She never lost touch with people even when she lost in 2013. Her rival has never showed up in the last five years, giving us a big advantage over him.”

Just like her who he had defeated in the previous polls, PML-N’s Armghan Subhani also has geared up his campaign. He knows the competition will be tough after the accountability court verdict against Nawaz Sharif.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2018