• Yasmin claims ‘this isn’t politics, but jihad’; insists state machinery won’t be spared ‘when our time comes’
• PTI to move LHC against alleged pre-poll rigging
• PML-N confident of grabbing 10 to 15 seats

LAHORE: The July 17 by-elections on 20 Punjab Assembly seats are being viewed as a referendum for PTI chairman Imran Khan’s narrative against that of the government. For the PTI chief, it appears to be a do-or-die contest, who paints the electoral bout as a fight between good (his party) and evil (the ruling coalitions in the Centre and Punjab), with him repeatedly invoking God in his speeches to pump up his voters.

To ensure a victory over ‘evil’, the former premier is making whirlwind trips to every constituency of the province to convince the voters not to support the “lotas” (who ditched his party for the ruling PML-N), and at the same time hinting at meddling by ‘hidden hands’.

These polls will not only determine the outcome of the next general elections, but are also going to decide who rules Punjab for another year or so – Hamza Shehbaz or Chaudhry Parvez Elahi.

The PTI has gone to the extent of blaming the government for allegedly changing voters’ lists and using state machinery to benefit the ex-PTI candidates the ruling parties are backing.

PTI central Punjab president Dr Yasmin Rashid has alleged that up to 61 per cent voters have been increased in the lists in various union councils of the constituencies where the by-elections would be held on July 17, especially Lahore’s PP-167.

On Thursday night, the PTI decided to file a petition in the Lahore High Court against the alleged pre-poll rigging. The decision was taken in a meeting chaired by the party’s secretary general Asad Umar. The meeting also reviewed the supposed evidence in this regard and decided to place it before the nation in a presser.

“This is not politics, but jihad. The chief secretary, police chief and the chief election commissioner are supporting the corrupt and criminals. The Punjab police is behaving like slaves of Hamza and we will not spare them when our time comes,” she insisted while talking to Dawn.

“This election will determine the country’s sovereignty and independence. However, despite all these fascist tactics and political engineering, the PTI will pull up a victory on all 20 seats,” Dr Rashid declared.

PML-N campaign

Sensing the importance of the by-polls, PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif, who has been in London since November 2019, directed his crowd-puller daughter Maryam to spearhead the campaign for the 20 PTI dissidents who were contesting the polls with the backing of the PML-N, to help Hamza retain his office and give a clear message that Punjab is still a citadel of the Sharifs.

For the PML-N and its allies, there’s a lot at stake: they cannot afford to lose their majority in the Punjab Assembly, as a victorious Elahi could not only give them a tough time in the province, but Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s role would also be marginalized, as currently he is calling the shots in the affairs of Punjab being led by his son as the chief minister.

The ruling allies need to grab at least nine seats to achieve the 186-member majority in the assembly for Hamza to survive as the CM. Mr Elahi requires 13 to oust Shehbaz junior to add to his tally of 173 in the house.

Though initially Maryam was reluctant to campaign for the ‘turncoats’, but since both Shehbaz and Hamza could not canvas because of the offices they held, the PML-N could only turn to its firebrand vice president. She is now utilising all her energies to ensure Punjab remains in the hands of the Sharifs.

Interestingly, not too long ago Maryam was naming and shaming the turncoats within her party and even asking her voters to besiege their residences. In one of her recent election drives, she however appeared apologetic while defending the PTI dissidents, saying she did not call them turncoats as “they sacrificed their seats”.

While some within both the PML-N and PTI are viewing it as an ‘Imran vs Maryam’ contest to see whose charisma prevails, others think that since the ‘umpire’ is not on good terms with the PTI, pulling a victory on most seats will be a daunting task for the party.

A problem the PTI dissidents are facing in the constituencies they are running for is a lack of support from PML-N and PPP activists. Previous ticket-holders of both parties in these constituencies are disappointed over their years-long struggle being ignored. “Our workers will not vote for the PML-N-backed candidates because of their hatred for the Sharifs,” a PPP leader from Lahore told Dawn. Despite instructions from Asif Ali Zardari, the PPP workers are not budging, he maintained.

On the other hand, a PML-N insider was confident the party and its allies will bag 10 to 15 seats. “One thing is for sure: we will remain in power till the next polls in Punjab and the Centre,” he predicted.

Meanwhile, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi is also actively extracting votes of the PTI candidates from his Jutt clan. Like Mr Khan, the PML-Q leader is also hopeful the opposition allies will grab maximum seats to oust Hamza.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2022

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