LAHORE: With crucial by-elections in 20 Punjab Assembly constituencies just 24 hours away now, and leaders of both major competing parties, the ruling PML-N and opposition PTI, are making final efforts to woo the electorate on the concluding day of campaigning on Friday. But something has been amiss in Lahore — the traditional electoral battle ground between both parties during the weeks preceding polling day ­—­ unlike recent general and by-polls.

Canvassing for the by-polls ended on Friday midnight with both the PML-N and PTI urging their workers to put their energies into bringing out voters from their homes on the polling day (tomorrow). But while the senior leadership of both rival parties held huge public rallies in pretty much all 20 constituencies, conventional door-to-door campaigns and corner meetings of workers, especially of the PML-N, to engage voters were conspicuous by their absence in the four constituencies of the capital of Punjab.

Some PML-N activists that Dawn spoke to in these four constituencies of Lahore cited the leadership’s decision to allot party tickets to PTI defectors that hurt the core party workers and damaged their morale, who did not actively participate in the campaign. A visit to some areas falling in the PP-158, PP-167, PP-168 and PP-170 constituencies showed ‘aggressive campaigning’ in terms of posters, banners and flexes adorning several streets, but the zeal and fervour among locals ahead of an election was found missing.

“I am not interested in voting for any party in Sunday’s by-poll. We were buried under inflation and price hike by the previous PTI government, and now in three months, the PML-N-led coalition has been exposed as it further burdened the masses with price increase of almost every daily-use commodity,” said Ibrar Ahmad of Wapda Town. He said politicians across the divide did not seem interested or concerned about people’s lives, so it didn’t matter who won, as the plight of the masses wasn’t going to ease.

Posters and banners abound, but workers’ political zeal sapped by issues such as inflation

As political observers predicted a low turnout tomorrow, a neck and neck contest was expected between the PML-N and PTI with both claiming a sweep in the by-polls.

Unlike the by-elections held soon after the 2018 general polls, the party of the Sharifs has this time introduced a new slogan — ‘Khidmat ko vote do’ (give vote to people’s service) — replacing its much-used, popular narrative of ‘Vote ko izzat do’ (give respect to the ballot).

PML-N circles defended the party’s new narrative, saying the previous slogan was aimed at the powers that be. “Since the establishment is on good terms with us again, we no longer need this narrative and have replaced it with ‘Khidmat ko vote do’, which has a political appeal, considering our past record of serving people.”

On the other hand, Imran Khan’s PTI is banking on targeting the party’s defectors, whom they called lotas (turncoats) and who were now contesting these elections on a PML-N ticket, to lure its voters.

Of the four joint PML-N and PPP candidates in Lahore, three — Chaudhry Amin Zulqarnain (PP-170), Nazir Chohan (PP-167) and Asad Khokhar (PP-I68) — were PTI defectors, who voted for Hamza Shehbaz in the chief minister’s election in April, while the fourth is a PML-N member.

The ruling coalition’s candidate in PP-158, PML-N’s Ahsan Sharafat, is said to be a favourite of party stalwart Sardar Ayaz Sadiq who managed to outmanoeuvre Shoaib Siddiqui, a nominee of PTI defector Aleem Khan. Aleem had won from this provincial constituency in the 2018 general elections beating Sharafat with a margin of over 7,000 votes, while Sadiq clinched the MNA’s seat here defeating Aleem. The senior PML-N leader was recently made to quit his federal economic affairs ministry to campaign for the party nominee whose position was said to be weak and since PTI dissident Aleem was not supporting him.

Punjab minister Salman Rafique had also resigned from office to work with Mr Sadiq here. This constituency has seen massive election activities with the PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz and PTI’s Imran Khan both holding large rallies.

The PTI candidate here against Sharafat is Mian Akram Usman, the son-in-law of party’s former Punjab minister Mian Mahmoodur Rashid.

However, the political workers and voters weren’t too excited. “At the moment, we are sick of politics. Our lives have become miserable due to the unbridled inflation and politicians are concerned with their businesses,” said Muhammad Younas of Basti Syden Shah, Upper Mall.

Since both candidates were less known, it was likely the electorate would vote for the party of its choice rather than the candidate.

Over in PP-170, PML-N contender Amin Zulqarnain, the brother of adviser to the former premier Awn Chaudhry, was up against the PTI’s strong candidate Zaheer Abbas Khokhar -- a former MNA and managing director of Baitul Maal. His campaign was a lot more vigorous being spearheaded by party stalwart Dr Yasmin Rashid, while Zulqarnain was at a disadvantage as PML-N voters and leadership didn’t want to support him for having just recently defected from their rival PTI. This was also why there weren’t many senior PML-N leaders in the field campaigning for him.

Yet, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz had tasked her ‘blue-eyed’ Khokhar brothers — Saif, Afzal and Faisal — of Johar Town to ensure Zulqarnain’s victory.

In PP-168, PML-N backed Malik Asad Khokhar is taking on PTI’s Malik Nawaz Awan, a trader by profession.

Railways Minister Saad Rafique is an MNA from this constituency, who had also won this provincial seat in the 2018 general elections. But when he gave up the provincial constituency to retain his national seat, Asad Khokhar contested the by-poll on a PTI ticket and won. Since then, Khokhar had carved a name for himself here and was likely to give his rival a run for his money.

A PML-N insider said the leadership was confident about Khokhar’s position and believed he didn’t need Saad’s help.

In PP-167, Nazir Chohan, who was part of the Jahangir Tareen group of PTI, had been allotted the PML-N ticket. Chohan assumed notoriety when he challenged the faith of former adviser to Imran Khan Shahzad Akbar. However, when Akbar used the muscle of the Federal Investigation Agency, Chohan apologized. Earlier this year, he defected from his party to vote for Hamza as the CM.

The PML-N had a considerable vote bank in this constituency, and those canvassing for Chohan here included party MNA Ali Pervaiz Malik — whose mother Shaista Pervaiz is an MNA from this constituency — and Maryam Nawaz.

The PTI, on the other hand, had fielded its activist Shabbir Gujjar, who is the brother of party leader Khalid Gujjar and who had accused the Punjab police of raiding his offices and arresting his workers on the directions of the ruling PML-N. Gujjar was on the stump in the constituency with the help of former ministers Hammad Azhar and Shafqat Mehmood.

The PP-167 was the only constituency in Lahore that experienced episodes of violence between workers of the two rival parties, after which the election commission ordered a probe. Religious parties like the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and Pakistan Awami Tehreek of Dr Tahirul Qadri also had some vote bank in these areas. In the 2018 elections, the right-wing TLP secured the third highest votes here.

Nawaz monitoring poll drive

PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif had been overseeing the by-polls campaign from London.

According to a party insider, on Nawaz’s directions, four federal and provincial ministers had resigned to canvas for party candidates. “In addition to this, at least eight MPAs and four MNAs in each of the 20 constituencies of Punjab were tasked by Nawaz with leading the campaigns effectively. These lawmakers were asked to ‘fix’ their candidates’ problems with the help of CM Hamza and make sure disgruntled party workers were placated and ally PPP pushed to extend full cooperation.”

PPP’s ‘late entry’

The PPP’s local leadership, especially in Lahore, woke up just days before campaigning ended on Friday midnight, reportedly after Nawaz Sharif requested PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari to send his party troops to support PML-N-backed candidates.

The PPP workers and leaders remained aloof from campaigns of PML-N candidates reportedly because of their ideological differences with the party of the Sharifs. However, since the PML-N could not afford to lose the CM’s office, its top leadership pushed Zardari to intervene and make sure PPP leaders and workers canvassed for their joint candidates.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2022

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