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Big guns rev up campaigning in Islamabad

Updated July 09, 2018

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IN a quiet spot, a short way from the main commercial area of an Islamabad sector, there is a cluster of cars, plastered with election banners and pictures. The PTI’s colours dominate the walls of barely completed plazas. On the first floor, behind glass doors, a crowd of young men sit, some staring at their phone screens while others man the desk.

Upstairs in a bare room, sits Asad Umar with a handful of men. With plastic chairs and a couple of small fans on the walls, the room is perhaps a far cry from the world this corporate whiz must have left behind for the hurly-burly of politics in Pakistan.

A Karachiite who was selected by the PTI to represent Islamabad, Umar with his victory in the 2013 by-election from the same NA-54 constituency seems sitting pretty. Many predict he will win the seat that lost some of its urban areas in the new delimitation process. “In the past five years, we have made inroads into the rural areas of my constituency,” he says, as he reels off names of the people who have decided to support the PTI.

His confidence is understandable as this Islamabad constituency was the only one that the PTI managed to retain in the by-election; something the party was unable to do even in Peshawar where it controlled the provincial government. Not only is the PTI said to enjoy the support of the urban class in Islamabad, Umar is also helped by PML-N’s divisions over the award of ticket in this constituency. Similar divisions had led to PTI’s victory in 2013 too.

Perhaps it is PTI’s success in 2013 (and the by-election) that the election in Islamabad now seems to be about parties and not just property magnates. Conventional wisdom had always dictated that those interested in property threw their hat in the capital’s National Assembly electoral race — from PML-N’s Anjum Aqeel to the Khokhars contesting from the other end of the city to Jamaat-i-Islami candidates, they all were linked to property business.

But the PTI didn’t play by this rule in 2013; it first brought in Javed Hashmi and then Asad Umar. Five years later, not only has Umar returned to the race, he has been joined by his party chief Imran Khan in a neighbouring constituency carved out of the old Islamabad constituency where he faces one of PML-N’s best known faces Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

The federal capital was earlier divided into two constituencies, both of which had the city centre at one end and rural outskirts on the other. Umar’s constituency covered more of the urban areas while the other one had more rural areas. This time around, the city centre has been carved into a constituency of its own (with some rural areas) — leaving the two opposite ends for the other two constituencies.

Khan’s decision to enter Islamabad’s electoral fray prompted the PML-N too to opt for ex-premier Abbasi who may appeal to the urban middle class rather than a traditional, local politician.

The former prime minister was dressed in a crisp white shalwar kameez, good humouredly answering the questions of a TV anchor at nine in the morning in his home in Islamabad. From civil-military relations to the appointment of Ali Jehangir Siddiqi as the country’s ambassador to Washington, he parries all that is thrown his way, as he sits hunched in his chair.

Abbasi is juggling so much more than one seat. His home constituency is Murree, while being a former prime minister he has to defend PML-N government’s performance as well. Last week, he travelled to Lahore twice — for court appearances and for the launch of party’s manifesto. Although he faces Imran Khan who has even less time to spare for Islamabad, observers feel that Abbasi cannot match Khan’s star appeal. (Khan’s campaign is being led by his friend, Zulfi Bokhari, whose face is present on the big banners outside election offices of PTI in NA-53.)

In Bhara Kahu, a PML-N worker highlights this when he says: “If the party puts in enough time and effort, it can defeat the PTI.” He leaves unsaid the fear that Abbasi may not be able to give enough time to the capital. The former premier, however, dismisses such thoughts. “I have been living in Islamabad for 44 years. I know the people since my grandfather’s time, have been in touch with them, have been visiting them. And the party structure is in place.”

But his campaign seems low key, with Khan’s posters seen near his home too. Abbasi’s posters make an appearance as one drives towards Bhara Kahu that is considered a PML-N stronghold though relatively a less prosperous area. The ex-premier brushes aside any suggestions that his campaign is lacklustre. “This is my way of working... low-key. I don’t believe in high-profile events. I would rather just go out and meet people.

“Let me tell you, Imran Khan will lose from Banigala [where Mr Khan resides] also,” he says and then laughs mischievously.

A young PTI worker, who worked closely with the party in the 2013 election, says that Abbasi will put up a tough fight because of PML-N’s organisational structure and outreach.

It is only in the NA-52 (Islamabad-I) constituency that candidates are more conventional and the fight is three-way. The previous two elections were won by PML-N’s Tariq Fazal Chaudhry while PPP’s Syed Nayyer Hussain Bokhari had won the seat in 2002 election. This time Fazal faces PTI’s Khurram Nawaz and PPP’s Afzal Khokhar. An old family of the area, the Khokhars hold sway in villages and have maintained a steady vote bank over elections regardless of the party ticket they get.

Fazal carries the baggage of incumbency; in his neighbourhood, many residents are unhappy with his ‘delivery’ or lack of it. Khurram Nawaz feels that the recent decision by many local officials to switch over to the PTI from PML-N gives him an edge.

Indeed both the PTI and the PML-N have their fair share of supporters in the urban areas. Those happy with the PML-N and its work want the party back while those who want a change think the PTI should be given a chance. In this conversation about how much or what kind of delivery is enough, the PPP doesn’t really come up much.

No wonder then that for most people, Islamabad’s electoral race will be a nip-and-tuck contest between the PTI and the PML-N.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018