• Top leadership to go to polls after assembly completes term, will give ‘tough time’ to PTI
• PTI to lodge MPAs in hotel to thwart PML-N’s bid to influence them ahead of CM’s election
• Zardari apparently seeks Shujaat’s help to save Hamza Shehbaz’s office
LAHORE: Following a crushing defeat in the Punjab by-polls on Sunday, the top leadership of the ruling coalition got together here on Tuesday for an ‘introspective’ huddle, resolving to save the Punjab government at any cost and announce the next general elections after completing the current assembly’s term till August 2023.
The bigwigs of the nine-party ruling alliance were unanimous that the Shehbaz Sharif-led government in the Centre should complete its tenure for one major reason — it had taken harsh economic decisions and paid the price by facing defeat in the Punjab by-polls. Now, there was no need to panic and give in to Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan’s demands for early elections.
The coalition partners also put their weight behind PM Shehbaz in launching ‘concrete efforts’ and exploring all possible ways to save his son Hamza Shehbaz’s office of the Punjab chief minister from the joint PTI-PML-Q candidate, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi.
The top leadership of the ruling alliance, including JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, MQM-P’s Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Wasim Akhtar, federal minister Tariq Bashir Cheema from the PML-Q (Shujaat group), Mian Iftikhar Hussain of the ANP, Shah Owais Noorani of Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, Jamhoori Watan Party’s Shahzain Bugti, Punjab CM Hamza Shehbaz, PML-N federal ministers Marriyum Aurangzeb, Fahd Hussain, Azam Nazir Tarar and Saad Rafique, and former National Assembly speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, attended the meeting hosted by Prime Minister Sharif at his Model Town residence.
According to a source, almost all the participants vociferously backed the suggestion that the coalition government should complete its term till August next year. “We have taken tough economic decisions, and by the time we go to the general polls next year the situation will be different. We don’t need to be afraid of Imran… rather we have to get tough with him and respond in a befitting manner,” he said.
Leaders of the main coalition parties – PML-N, PPP and JUI-F – told PM Sharif to pull up his socks and, come what may, not hand over Punjab to the PTI-PML-Q without a tough fight. “Hamza should not resign. The coalition will explore ways to retain him as the CM at all costs,” the source quoted a participant of the meeting as having said.
During the huddle, Hamza spent some time with Mr Zardari and got some ‘important tips’ regarding retaining his office. “Losing Punjab means losing the Centre, and we can’t afford this,” maintained a participant. “Explore all legal and the required options to save the coalition government in Punjab,” he said. No one in the meeting disagreed with his opinion.
After the gathering, Railways Minister Saad Rafique, along with members of the allied parties, declared at a press conference that the federal government wasn’t going anywhere. He presented the coalition’s ‘official stance’ of coming to power after toppling the Imran government, saying it was done “in the larger interest of the country. The PTI government had laid economic landmines but we took tough decisions to save Pakistan and did not bother about our politics”.
Rafique played down the PML-N and its allies’ defeat in the by-polls, saying his party snatched four seats from the PTI and claimed their vote increased by 39 per cent. He refused to concur with the impression that the poll results had anything to do with the popularity of any party.
The minister was very critical of Imran Khan, saying the former premier wanted the army chief, chief justice of Pakistan and the chief election commissioner of his choice as he thought of himself as the “Ameerul Momineen”.
The minister also targeted the judiciary for not taking up the cases of PML-N leaders. He said court verdicts should not be announced under the ‘doctrine of necessity’ and urged the judiciary not to interfere in legislation, which was the domain of parliament. He asked the Supreme Court to hear the review petition against its judgement on the presidential reference on Article 63-A. He also asked the election commission to decide the foreign funding case of the PTI.
Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said the next general elections would be held when the incumbent government and the ECP decided.
PTI to thwart ‘buying of MPAs’
In anticipation of the PML-N’s likely bid to woo their MPAs, the PTI-PML-Q leadership has directed all its lawmakers to reach Lahore on Wednesday (today). “They are likely to be lodged in a hotel so they cannot be approached by the PML-N, and Imran Khan will meet them here,” a party insider said.
CM Hamza is certain to lose his office to Mr Elahi after failing to win 11 seats to achieve a majority in the Punjab Assembly where the joint opposition now has 188 members after the recent by-polls.
Reportedly, the PML-N is working on either ‘detaining’ a few PTI lawmakers in different cases or luring some of them with ‘very lucrative packages’ to abstain from voting on July 22 during the run-off election for the chief minister.
Former PTI provincial minister Dr Yasmin Rashid told Dawn the PML-N would fail to buy their lawmakers to save Hamza. “The PML-N should have shown some grace and accepted its defeat in the by-polls. By indulging in such nefarious activities, the Sharifs will tarnish their reputation even further. People have seen the fate of the lotas (turncoats) and our lawmakers can’t be lured anymore by the PML-N and its allies,” Dr Rashid asserted, adding party chief Imran would be staying in Lahore for two days (to thwart) any such plans of the government.
Meanwhile, the PML-N-PPP parliamentary party members’ meeting was held at 90, The Mall where reportedly two PML-N MPAs were ‘missing’. Hamza told the meeting that he knew how to compete (in the election for the CM). “We will not leave the field open,” he was quoted by a source as having said.
Zardari seeks Shujaat’s ‘help for Hamza’
Separately, PPP’s Asif Zardari met PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain at the latter’s residence in Lahore and reportedly sought his help to save Hamza Shehbaz in the run-off election for the CM on Friday.
Shujaat’s son Salik Hussain and PML-Q leader Tariq Bashir Cheema are part of Shehbaz Sharif’s cabinet.
The PML-Q has 10 MPAs in the Punjab Assembly, and Zardari reportedly asked Shujaat to side with the ruling coalition in its plan to save Hamza. Reacting to these reports, Riaz Fatyana, chairman of the PTI Election Analysis and Management Cell, said in a statement: “The PML-Q MPAs will vote for the CM candidate from their own party -- Parvez Elahi. So they aren’t violating Article 63-A. Even Chaudhry Shujaat can’t stop them because the candidate isn’t from the PTI. Voting for your own party’s candidate isn’t unconstitutional.”
Shujaat has already said in a statement that Elahi would be the PML-Q candidate for the CM’s slot.
Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2022