D-Day to decide who will rule Punjab

Published July 17, 2022
Electoral officers carry voting materials at a distribution centre in Lahore on July 16. — AFP
Electoral officers carry voting materials at a distribution centre in Lahore on July 16. — AFP

• Late-night resignation means Hamza now needs 11 seats to win CM election • Punjab govt arrests alleged PTI worker for ‘buying votes’ • Army to act as ‘Quick Reaction Force’ in case of law, order situation

LAHORE: The Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are both bracing for a high-stakes provincial assembly election on 20 seats on Sunday (today), as political pundits declare the contest a matter of ‘life and death’ for both major competitors who practically have their political futures in the province on the line.

Law enforcement agencies, including the army, have been placed on alert to avert any violence, especially in five of the 20 constituencies — four in Lahore and one in Multan.

Read: Punjab by-polls: Country’s ‘political heart’ weighed down by apathy

If the opposition PTI manages to grab majority seats, it could dethrone Hamza Shehbaz as the Punjab chief minister, which the Sharifs, especially Hamza’s father Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, cannot afford, as it could restrict the junior Sharif’s rule to the Centre only.

The Sharifs also know the PTI-PML-Q joint candidate for the highest office in the province, Parvez Elahi, would prove to be a nightmare for the PML-N in Punjab and may conquer their ‘citadel’ in alliance with Mr Khan in the next general elections. Therefore, the ruling party would have had sleepless nights on Saturday, marshalling its troops and urging them not to rest until every last voter got out of his/her house and headed to the polling stations today.

For the PTI, today’s by-polls mean a lot more than defeating the Sharifs and Zardaris. Imran Khan and his companions have painted the contest as ‘a fight between good (his party) and evil (the ruling coalitions in the Centre and Punjab)’ and a matter of the country’s sovereignty in the face of alleged foreign meddling in its affairs. The former premier has alerted his party’s Tiger Force to ‘stand guard’ at all polling stations to thwart any rigging attempts by the PML-N.

In a late night development, PML-N MPA Mian Jalil Sharaqpuri submitted his resignation to speaker Pervez Elahi. His resignation came a day after another PML-N MPA, Faisal Niazi of Khanewal, quit his seat.

The PML-N-led coalition now needs at least 11 seats to achieve the 186-member majority in the assembly for Hamza to survive as the CM, whereas Mr Elahi requires 13 to add to his tally of 173 in the house in order to oust the junior Sharif.

Explainer: Why the by-polls in Punjab are so important

The Punjab Assembly currently stands at 350 members: the PTI has 163 lawmakers and its ally PML-Q 10. The PML-N has 164 members in the house, while its coalition partners PPP seven, four independents and one Rah-i-Haq Party. Disgruntled PML-N stalwart, MPA Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has reportedly refused to cast his vote in favour of either candidate for the CM’s post.

A party source told Dawn that more surprises may be in store for Hamza Shehbaz, in the shape of resignations by rebel MPAs if the results of the by-polls put both parties in an evenly poised position.

The polling on 20 of the 25 vacated seats (five reserved) is being held after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) deseated defecting PTI lawmakers for voting for Hamza in the Punjab chief minister’s election in April. The run-off election for the office would be held on July 22 on the directions of the Supreme Court.

On Saturday, both rivals traded allegations of rigging with each other. The PTI leadership accuses the government of using state machinery to influence the election. It also alleges the ECP has colluded with the PML-N to rig the by-polls, citing a supposed change in voters lists as proof. The ECP, however, denies the allegations.

Ousted premier and PTI chief Imran Khan believes the PML-N, the ECP and some ‘hidden hands’ have ganged up against him to rig Sunday’s polls. “This is a message to my team when they contest the Punjab by-elections on Sunday against PMLN, the state machinery, the biased Election Commission plus Mr X and Mr Y (a reference to hidden hands).”

Khan said all “turncoats” (the 20 ex-PTI lawmakers contesting on PML-N tickets now) would see themselves “thrashed with the bat (PTI election symbol)”. He also urged the people of Punjab to “foil the plot of rigging designed by Hamza Shehbaz” on Sunday.

The opposition, especially the PTI and Mr Khan, has for weeks been urging the establishment to stay neutral, and not play any role in politics in favour of any party.

PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz called the polls “not a selection but an election”. She remarked that rigging was in the DNA of the PTI, citing the Daska by-polls.

CM Hamza also presented his two cents, saying people would reject the “fraud narrative and false slogan of Imran Khan” with the power of their vote. He directed the administration and police to ensure the security of voters. “Miscreants will not be allowed to spoil the environment during the polling day,” he warned.

Arrests over ‘vote buying’, entering Punjab

Meanwhile, in a tacit declaration it was serious about not sparing its opponents, the Punjab government arrested a man, identified as Khalid Husain, from Lahore’s PP-168 constituency on charges of vote buying. The Hamza administration claimed the suspect belonged to the PTI and had bought over 7,000 votes at the behest of PTI leader Farrukh Habib. The former state minister called the episode “usual” maligning tactics of the PML-N. “It is the PML-N that is good at buying votes and not the PTI,” he asserted.

Moreover, the Lahore police escorted PTI leader Maqbool Gujjar out of the city for violating a ban on his entry into Punjab. The PML-N government had barred Gujjar and former federal minister Ali Amin Gandapur from entering the province till a day after the polls.

Justifying the ban, Punjab home minister Attaullah Tarar said it had been imposed in anticipation that “armed groups may enter Punjab along with [the leaders] from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir to disrupt law and order during the by-polls”.

Meanwhile, ISPR announced on Saturday that army troops would act as Quick Reaction Force in case of any law and order situation arising during the by-elections.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2022

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