A day after the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) asserted its intention to form governments at the centre and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well Punjab, PML-N leader Hamza Shahbaz appeared confident that his party would retain control over the Punjab Assembly instead of being relegated to the opposition benches.
Hamza, at a press conference in Lahore, said that PML-N is reaching out to independent candidates who won PA seats ─ claiming that they shared the PML-N's ideology ─ in order to attain the outright majority needed to once again form government in Punjab.
"In Punjab, PML-N has 127 seats, PTI has 118, while 27, who are independent, share our ideology. Our people are in touch with them," he said.
Hamza's remarks, which come a day after reports surfaced that both he and Saad Rafique had been directed to recruit independents in Punjab, appear to have set the PML-N squarely on collision course with the PTI, whose members yesterday had welcomed all except the PML-N and PPP to join forces to form the Punjab government.
Read more: PTI sets its sights on ruling Punjab
"Minus the PML-N and the PPP, the PTI welcomes all independents and other parties’ elected members from Punjab to join hands [with us],” PTI's Mian Mahmoodur Rasheed had said.
Sources say that party leaders Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jahangir Khan Tareen, on the instructions of PTI Chairman Imran Khan, have established contact with independents and other parties’ MPAs-elect to join hands with the PTI for this purpose.
Hamza recalled how his party had the chance to form the government in KP in 2013 but his uncle, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had "respected the mandate given to the PTI".
"Nawaz Sharif made a big decision by allowing the PTI to form the government in KP. It hadn't happened before in Pakistan's history."
Hamza seemed confident that the PML-N would form the provincial government in Punjab. "We have emerged as a force. We want to tell the people that we will soon give good news to them."
A party looking to form a government in Punjab will need 149 seats in the 297-seat house. The Election Commission of Pakistan will notify the selection of women on 66 reserved seats and eight on minority seats according to the lists submitted by political parties.
In 2013, the PML-N ruled Punjab with an absolute majority — 239 directly elected MPs in the 297-member house. The PTI had played the role of a tiny opposition with 30 seats of its own, eight each of the PML-Q and the PPP, as well as the PML-Zia which got three seats, while Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, Bahawalpur National Awami Party and Pakistan National Muslim League had one seat each in the Punjab Assembly.
'Will respect PTI's mandate despite reservations over results'
Hamza also expressed reservations over the results of the election, but said that his party would respect the PTI's mandate for the sake of democracy.
"Pre-poll rigging was apparent, as our workers were arrested and booked for terrorism," he said. "Then on election day our polling agents in DG Khan were beaten up. Also, surveys conducted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had shown that Punjab was ahead in health and education sectors. But we see today that polls results are different in Punjab," he claimed.
"But despite all our reservations, we will respect the PTI's mandate. We want democracy to flourish in Pakistan. Even if democracy is flawed, the only solution to it is more democracy ─ and then more democracy. The PML-N has 64 seats in the National Assembly. We will play the role of the opposition."
Hamza conceded that PTI chief Imran Khan had "said nice things" in his first public address but that "it remains to be seen how much of his plans he can actually implement."