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Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

Some of the established parties are in serious trouble. Some key leaders have been removed from the picture, stalwarts have either switched parties or been made to switch parties, and party organisations have been severely crippled. In the vacuum thus created, newer actors have emerged to fill the gap.

Some of these new faces, till recently, have been the face of domestic and international terror and are hoping to find mainstream acceptance. Others are disillusioned at parties they used to support. And some feel that party platforms won’t help them in the current atmosphere as much as traditional associations such as kinship or caste will. Many of them have no hope of winning, yet their participation in the elections can have a significant impact on the outcome of closely-fought contests between the bigger players.

Eos looks at a sample of National Assembly constituencies where smaller parties and independent candidates or other factors will play the role of spoilers. In some, they will chew into the traditional votes of one of their rivals, thereby handing an advantage to a different party altogether. In other cases, they might win the constituency outright, leaving them free to then align with whoever they choose. The game is truly afoot.

In closely fought contests, marginal parties and other factors can sometimes determine the outcome of the elections. To the victors belong the spoilers?

NA-15, ABBOTTABAD

Sardar Muhammad Yaqub vs Murtaza Javed Abbasi vs Ali Asghar Khan
Independent vs PML-N vs PTI
Spoiler: Independent

It’s a competition between two former deputy speakers of the National Assembly in Abbottabad’s NA-15, with Sardar Muhammad Yaqub contesting as independent candidate against Murtaza Javed Abbasi of the PML-N. And it’s spicy because there is a history to the rivalry.

Back in 2002, Yaqub beat Abbasi by over 4,000 votes while contesting on the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) platform. His rival was contesting from the platform of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was being squeezed by General Pervez Musharraf at the time.

The 2008 elections saw the two lock horns again, from the same platforms. But this time, Yaqub lost to Abbasi by a heavy margin of nearly 36,000 votes. The rivalry continued in 2013, but this time Yaqub contested elections on a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) ticket. Once again, he lost to Abbasi, this time by a margin of 26,000 votes.

PTI did not award Yaqub a ticket for this seat in the upcoming polls; the party ticket went to Ali Asghar Khan instead. Undeterred, Yaqub has decided to contest elections as an independent candidate — meaning that the competition is now a three-way tie.

Unlike the last two times, Abbasi does not have a straightforward route to a win. Redrawing of the constituency and PML-N’s internal differences have created political uncertainty in his campaign. New constituency delimitations now include PML-N leader Sardar Mehtab’s ancestral area. Given the vast support he enjoys there, Sardar Mahtab wanted to contest this seat. After he was not granted a ticket for this constituency, Sardar Mahtab distanced himself from the party.

Will a battle with some history take centre stage or will the traditional rivalry mean that Ali Asghar Khan will trump them all?

NA-21, MARDAN

Ameer Haider Hoti vs Muhammad Atif Khan vs Maulana Shujaul Mulk
ANP vs PTI vs MMA
Spoiler: MMA/New Voters

In principle, a two-way battle between established parties is not quite David versus Goliath. What makes this match-up fascinating is the number of new votes in the constituency: 94,000.

NA-21 mostly comprises of urban areas in the province’s second largest city and includes localities falling in the limits of the municipal committee and cantonment. Two provincial assembly constituencies, PK-52 and PK-53, also fall in the limits of the NA-21. And the major candidates contesting to represent the people are Awami National Party’s (ANP) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president and former chief minister, Ameer Haider Hoti, PTI’s former minister Muhammad Atif Khan, and Muttahida Majlis Amal’s (MMA) Maulana Shujaul Mulk (also the JUI-F’s provincial general secretary).

Although MMA’s Shujaul Mulk won the constituency in 2002, and that too by a heavy margin, ANP bagged the seat in 2008 and 2013. The alarm bells rang for Hoti in the 2013 elections as his win came with a narrow margin of just 2,000 votes against a relatively unknown PTI candidate. The religious parties, which are now part of MMA, together bagged 18,000 votes — a paltry number in the larger scheme of things but a paltry number that could significantly impact the outcome of the elections.

To his credit, Hoti conducted development work worth over 55 billion rupees in the district between 2008 and 2013. During this period, Mardan got two universities, a medical college, six degree colleges, a district headquarters hospital, a children’s hospital, two major bypass roads, a high-security prison and the Baizai irrigation scheme. Hoti also has the added advantage of ANP enjoying great popularity in Mardan city.

Atif, however, has following in the outskirts of the city. His credentials are based on having helped deal with local criminal gangs and having put them on a tight leash. Another is that he observed merit in government jobs.

What might swing the result one way or the other, however, are the new 94,000 voters who will be casting votes for the first time. Whoever manages to woo them might well be the winner.

NA-38, DERA ISMAIL KHAN

Maulana Fazlur Rehman vs Ali Amin Gandapur vs Faisal Karim Kundi
MMA vs PTI vs PPP
Spoiler: PPP

In the three elections that have taken place since 2002, the contest in NA-38 has been between Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and whoever contested on the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) platform. Maulana won this seat in 2002 and 2008 with heavy margins, but in 2013, he lost to PPP’s Faisal Karim Kundi. This time round, Maulana winning ought to be considered an upset.

JUI-F chief Mualana Fazlur Rehman, former deputy speaker and PPP candidate Faisal Karim Khan Kundi, independent candidate Waqar Ahmed Khan and PTI’s former minister, Ali Amin Gandapur, are in the running for this seat. The constituency comprises Paharpur and Dera tehsils and includes areas falling in the limits of the municipal committee, cantonment and Shorkot.

But this is also a constituency where national dynamics are being shaped by provincial ones.

There are three constituencies of the provincial assembly — PK-95, PK-96 and PK-97 — that fall in the limits of NA-38. The outcome of polls on the national and provincial seats depends on seat adjustments.

The stiffest challenge to Maulana comes from the PTI, one of the recent entrants to electoral politics in Dera. This is perhaps due to the efforts of Ali Amin Gandapur, who has carried out major development efforts in the city. PK-97 is Gandapur’s native constituency and he is contesting elections on this provincial seat as well. His rivals at the provincial level are the formidable Samiullah Alizai and Ahmed Kundi, cousin of PPP’s Kundi. Alizai is backing independent candidate Waqar Ahmed Khan for the National Assembly, who in turn, is banking on the Seraiki vote to win the elections.

On PK-95, Gandapur is backing independent candidate Makhdoom Murid Kazim, who exerts great influence in the Paharpur area. But this alliance is unlikely to benefit the former as Makhdoom Ali Raza, a close relative of Kazim, is also contesting the NA-38 elections as an independent candidate. Raza is likely to erode Kazim’s support for Amin on the NA seat as well.

Meanwhile, Faisal Kareem Kundi withdrew from the race in the adjoining NA-37, Tank, in favour of PTI candidate Habibullah Khan Kundi. This leaves Kundi concentrating on the pool of voters in NA-38 who are expected to vote for the PTI, PPP, or independent candidates.

Such competition for the same pool of voters might work to Maulana’s advantage. There is a famous saying in Dera: “Barra Vote Jamiat Ka, Chota vote Tabiyat Ka [National vote for Jamiat, Provincial Vote As You Please]” Will Maulana prevail over Gandapur?

NA 91, SARGODHA

Hafiz Talha Saeed vs Zulfiquar Bhatti
MML vs PML-N
Spoiler: PTI

Sargodha’s NA-91 is the chosen constituency for Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed and his Milli Muslim League (MML) to enter the electoral fray proper. The constituency sees Hafiz Saeed’s son, Hafiz Talha Saeed, going up against PML-N’s Zulfiquar Bhatti.

With the MML unable to be officially registered by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the party is contesting from the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek’s platform.

Hafiz Talha Saeed is a teacher by profession and is employed at a government college in Sargodha. His camp is buoyed by the “great response from people from all walks of life.” The MML has been expending most of its energies on this constituency, hoping that even if it weren’t to clinch the seat, it could at least perform well from here. On the ground, however, the MML is engaged in massive canvassing across Sargodha. It is calling on traders groups and convincing them to vote for Talha.

The MML chose this constituency for its de facto chief’s son primarily because it believes that it has more sympathisers there. Support for Talha means, however, that the PML-N vote bank in Sargodha is likely to get divided.

In total, the MML has finalised 80 candidates for the National Assembly and 185 for the provincial assemblies. The party had to join forces with the little known but registered Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek to contest the forthcoming elections. Chief of the Tehreek, Mian Ihsan Bari, claims however that his party does not have “any religious or sectarian affiliation playing a role in the process.” Those contesting from the platform have been allotted the “chair” symbol for the 2018 elections.

NA-118, NANKANA SAHIB

Pir Syed Afzal Shah vs Shezra Mansab Kheral vs Ijaz Shah vs Rai Tauseef Ahmed Kheral
TLP vs PML-N vs PTI vs Independent
Spoiler: Independent / TLP

Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLP) has been drawing in huge crowds at its rallies but if it sees any realistic chance of sending a candidate to the National Assembly from Punjab, it is from Nankana Sahib’s NA-118.

Labbaik’s candidate on the constituency is Pir Syed Afzal Shah. He is renowned for over two decades for his “dum durood” [spiritual help] and, therefore, commands a number of mureeds [followers]. Shah’s rivals for the seat are the PML-N’s Shezra Mansab Kheral and PTI’s Brig Ijaz Shah, who is a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief and once a close associate of General Pervez Musharraf.

Traditionally, the religious vote in Nankana Sahib favours the PML-N but, this time round, the TLP has made great inroads into this segment. The TLP is also boosted by the fact that Kheral is facing a revolt in her family — she was selected by the PML-N over one of her family members, Rai Tauseef Ahmed Kheral. Rai Tauseef is now contesting independently and, on his campaign posters, he has been displaying Nawaz Sharif’s picture and declares himself to be his soldier. If the Kherals’ vote bank is divided due to this infighting, PML-N’s opponents benefit from it.

Interestingly Labbaik’s Afzal Shah had asked the PML-N candidate to withdraw in his favour. Kheral, however, has requested him to support her. But local analysts also say that the PML-N and TLP vying for the same votes might end up benefitting the PTI candidate.

Although Afzal Shah is contesting two NA seats, NA 118 and NA 120, his chances of performing in NA-118 are higher compared to NA-120. This is because he has strength in the number of his followers in NA-118 as compared NA-120. The TLP, however, remain unsure about the electoral prospects of their candidates contesting national or provincial assembly seats. But it is sure on one fact: some of their candidates will bag more votes than the major parties. And this is where Afzal Shah completes the jigsaw.

NA-105, FAISALABAD

Nawaz Ahmed Cheema vs Raza Nasrullah Bhatti vs Mian Farooq vs Ibrar Husain
MML vs PTI vs PML-N vs TLP
Spoiler: TLP/MML

Faisalabad’s NA-105 is the second National Assembly seat that Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) is working hard to clinch.

The MML’s man in this constituency is Nawaz Ahmed Cheema. He is primarily banking on JuD followers and sympathisers in Faisalabad district to support his candidature. And he is also relying on the MML and JuD’s special canvassing contingents to help him mobilise voters. His rivals for the seat are PML-N’s Mian Farooq and PTI’s Raza Nasrullah Bhatti.

But this constituency in Faisalabad is dominated by the Jutt biradari in large numbers. And going by Cheema’s claims, he has a good number of votes from his clan already in the bag. Like Sargodha, the MML in Faisalabad has reached out to local trader groups, lawyers and religious people — many of whom have pledged support to him.

Meanwhile, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLP)’s Ibrar Husain can prove to be a further spoiler factor in the constituency for PML-N’s Mian Farooq and PTI’s Raza Nasrullah Bhatti. Bhatti is fortunate to have gotten a PTI ticket since the first choice was Rana Asif Tauseeef. Both men, of course, will enjoy the benefit of votes going to a mainstream party.

This means that there is a four-way competition for the NA-105 seat: MML vs TLP vs PML-N vs PTI. But as in other districts of Punjab, here, too, the PTI is hoping to be a beneficiary of the traditional religious vote being divided between the PML-N, MML and TLP. And in this case, the number of votes bagged by TLP will have a major impact here.

NA-230, BADIN

Dr Fahmida Mirza vs Rasool Bux Chandio
GDA vs PPP
Spoiler: Anti-Zardari Antipathy

From being two of the closest allies of Asif Ali Zardari to being his most formidable rivals, old PPP die-hards Dr Fehmida Mirza and her husband, Dr Zulfikar Mirza, are likely to throw upsets in the coastal district of Badin.

The couple set the tone for an anti-PPP fight several years ago. In September 2011, Zulfikar parted ways with the PPP over his differences with the party’s policies relating to PPP’s coalition ally, the undivided Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). He first resigned as Sindh home minister and as senior vice president of the party’s provincial chapter. Then he went on the offensive against his friend since childhood, Asif Ali Zardari. Zulfikar is considered a hero among many for having revolted against the PPP, particularly in the backdrop of issues relating to the PPP’s policies and style of governance since 2008.

Badin had otherwise been a fortress of the PPP until the Mirzas switched sides. The couple have been winning one of two NA seats from Badin since 1993 as PPP candidates. But after leaving the PPP, they have dented the PPP’s vote bank considerably. This is evident from the performance of candidates backed by the Mirza family in the November 2015 local bodies polls, which had come on the heels of Mirza’s exit from PPP. Mirza-backed candidates won a considerable number of seats at municipal, town and district levels.

The Mirzas have now joined the anti-PPP alliance, Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), formed a few years back in Sindh. GDA has shown reliance on the Mirzas by doling out five tickets to them for two national and three provincial assembly seats. Dr Fahmida is up against PPP’s candidate Haji Rasool Bux Chandio in NA-230. She is also contesting PS-73 which forms part of her National Assembly constituency. NA-230 covers a large part of the city and its periphery, and the Mirzas are pulling large crowds in their election campaign.

The spoiler factor for this traditionally secure PPP seat in Badin lies in the personalised nature of the anti-Zardari campaign from erstwhile allies.

NA-234, DADU

Liaquat Ali Jatoi vs Irfan Leghari
PTI vs PPP
Spoiler: GDA

The PPP is in some discomfort in Dadu’s NA-234. Dadu has been PPP’s turf over the past several years. But this time, with two national and four provincial constituencies up for grabs, the PPP is bracing for tough electoral bouts in Dadu.

Arguably the toughest constituency of the lot, NA-234 will see Liaquat Ali Jatoi taking on Irfan Leghari of the PPP. Jatoi, who has been elected from the area in the past, joined the PTI last year. A public meeting was held in Dadu to mark Jatoi’s formal joining. Liaquat, his son Kareem Ali Jatoi, and two brothers, Ahsan Ali Jatoi (PS-83) and Sadaqat Jatoi (PS-84) are all contesting as PTI candidates here. They are being backed by the Grand Democratic Alliance as well as the Sindh United Party of Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah.

Such is their strength that the PPP has had to recalibrate its strategy. Initially, the ticket went to Imran Zafar Leghari, who had won the same constituency in 2013, but eventually his brother Irfan Leghari was chosen. Local observers say that since Imran largely remained absent from his constituency, the PPP did not want to invite the ire of his voters. The brothers’ claim to the constituency lies in their father Zafar Leghari having been elected from this seat in 1988 and becoming federal railways minister in the Benazir Bhutto-led PPP government.

But internal fissures in the PPP make Irfan a weak proposition against the veteran Liaquat Jatoi. One Dadu journalist describes how Irfan’s uncle, Kambar Leghari, has been criticising the PPP. The impression created is that it is a house divided.

The GDA is backing Liaquat Jatoi on all seats while the influential Mahesar family has joined the PTI, too. Talat Iqbal Mahesar, who was elected MNA from Dadu on a PPP ticket in 2008, has now switched over to PTI. He is the brother of late Shafiq Mahesar, who had won this NA seat in 1990 and 1993 as a PPP candidate, beating Liaquat Jatoi’s father, Abdul Hameed Jatoi, back then.

In a direct fight between the PPP and PTI, GDA assumes the role of spoiler through its campaigning against the PPP and the influence wielded by some of its leaders. The narrative here is that even if you weren’t to vote for the PTI, don’t vote for the PPP.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 22nd, 2018