Top twelve races to keep an eye on

Amidst the hundreds of contests today, there are some that will be more closely watched than others, for a variety of reasons.
Published February 8, 2024
Aftab Ahmed
Aftab Ahmed

• Lahore set for showdown as Yasmin Rashid takes on three-time PM Nawaz
• JUI-F chief faces ex-NA speaker, PTI’s Gandapur in D.I. Khan
• No cakewalk for PTI leader Gohar Ali Khan in Buner
• Former ministers Nisar and Sarwar duke it out in Taxila
• 3-way contest between Fazl’s son, Salim Saifullah and fiery Marwat
• Stage set for clash of Qureshi-Gilani clans in Multan

WITH around 5,000 candidates contesting for 265 National Assembly seats today, things are expected to get quite chaotic when results start trickling in later today evening. With voters eager to find out if their favoured candidates are ahead and where their favourite party stands in the race to ‘win’ the general election, every single constituency will count.

Amidst the hundreds of contests today, there are some that will be more closely watched than others, for a variety of reasons. These could include areas which are battleground constituencies due to their swing potential, areas where two or more strong candidates are contesting, or areas which are likely to see heightened tensions due to the prominence or history of the people involved.

Given the contestants’ political mettle, these will not be easy fights for any of the candidates involved.

NA-10 Buner

Imran Khan’s successor, PTI leader Barrister Gohar Ali Khan is contesting against the former MNA from this constituency, Sher Akbar Khan, as well as Bakht Jahan Khan of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), who is a former speaker of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. Sher Akbar won the last election on a PTI ticket with 58,317 votes, but is now with the PTI-Parliamentarian, a breakaway faction of the PTI led by former defence minister and KP chief minister Pervez Khattak. Though there are eight candidates in total for NA-10, a triangular contest is expected between these three.

Sher Akbar previously won this seat in the 2013 elections on a JI ticket, as well as in the 2002 election on a PPP-Sherpao ticket. Barrister Gohar previously contested the election from this constituency on a PPP ticket in 2008 and was the runner-up that year, with over 18,000 votes. Both Sher Akbar and Barrister Gohar had lost to ANP’s Abdul Mateen Khan that year. Likewise, Bakht Jahan had contested a by-election on this seat as an independent in 2008 but had lost with a margin of just 787 votes. The turnout in this constituency has been on the rise, from 27.2 per cent in 2008 to 35pc in 2013 and 41pc in 2018.

NA-41 Lakki Marwat

There are 39 candidates vying for NA-41, of which 33 are independents. Here, too, a triangular contest is expected between Asjad Mehmood of the JUI-F, Sher Afzal Marwat of the PTI, and former senator Salim Saifullah Khan, an independent. The area is considered a stronghold of the JUI-F, which has retained the seat since 2002 in all general elections except 2008, when Humayun Saifullah of the PML-Q had emerged victorious against Pir Zakori Sharif of the MMA.

JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman won the seat in 2013 by defeating Salim Saifullah, who had contested the polls on a PML-N ticket. Fazlur Rehman eventually vacated the seat, but his brother, Maulana Attaur Rehman, could not retain it in the by-election and lost to Amirullah Marwat of the PTI, who had the support of the Saifullah brothers.

In the 2018 elections, the Saifullah brothers were not in the election arena from their home district but had forged an alliance with the PTI. That year, the JUI-F’s Muhammad Anwar defeated the PTI’s Ishfaq Ahmed Khan by securing 91,396 votes. Ishfaq Ahmed, who bagged 81,859 votes, is contesting this year as an independent.

For this year, the Maulana has fielded his son, Asjad. Salim Saifullah is backed by the Marwat Qaumi Ittehad (MQI), an electoral alliance formed by his family with support from other political parties and tribal chiefs. Mufti Abdul Ghani, a prominent religious scholar and a close aide of Fazlur Rehman, is also supporting him.

PTI Central Vice-President Sher Afzal was previously allied with the Saifullah brothers in local politics, and it was their joint efforts that led to the formation of the MQI. Though he is a strong candidate, it is expected that the division within the PTI and the MQI may ultimately benefit the JUI-F.

NA-44 D.I. Khan-I

The JUI-F chief is facing his two archrivals — Ali Amin Gandapur of the PTI, and former NA deputy speaker Faisal Karim Kundi of the PPP — in this terror-hit constituency.

The Maulana had previously won this seat in 2002 and 2013 but lost to Kundi in 2008 and to Gandapur in 2018 in what were largely one-sided contests. In both those elections, the Maulana could not get more than 46,000 votes, whereas Kundi and Gandapur managed to bag more than 81,000 each.

In 2018, Kundi had come in third with only 20,681 votes. However, this time around, Kundi ran an extensive campaign in the absence of the Maulana and Gandapur, who was not allowed to campaign. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, however, ended his campaign with a public meeting at DI Khan on Tuesday, which may improve his chances.

The constituency comprises Paharpur, Dera Ismail Khan tehsils, the local cantonment, Shorkot, Chehkan and Katla Syedaan areas, and has 391,882 voters, including 183,401 women. The turnout in the constituency in 2013 and 2018 was 56pc and 55pc, respectively, but this time, political experts are expecting a low turnout in the wake of recent terror attacks in the area.

NA-54 Rawalpindi-III

This constituency in Taxila is expected to witness a neck-and-neck contest between former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and former aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan. In 2018, Chaudhry Nisar, after parting ways with the PML-N, had contested the polls as an independent but lost to his traditional rival, PTI’s Ghulam Sarwar, by a margin of nearly 23,000 votes. Nisar is once again in the race as an independent, whereas Ghulam Sarwar is representing Jahangir Tareen’s Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP).

Though Ghulam Sarwar may face the wrath of the voters bec­ause of his constantly changing loyalties, Nisar, too, is facing a tough time as he has been politically inactive for the past many years. The ‘N’, which had previously repeatedly cri­ti­cised Sarwar over a controversial statement he made about PIA pilots while he was aviation minister, is now supporting him in an apparent move to block Nisar’s re-entry to the parliament.

In the 2018 elections, Ghulam Sarwar secured over 100,000 votes against the 65,767 votes received by Nisar. Sarwar, who won the election from two constituencies, had opted to retain the other constituency and his son, Mansoor Hayat Khan, was subsequently elected on a PTI ticket with 71,782 votes. Nisar did not contest the by-polls. Nisar has previously won the seat on a PML-N ticket in the 2002, 2008 and 2013 elections. A new ent­rant, Azra Masood, is contesting as PTI’s nominee.

NA-71 Sialkot-II

Firebrand PML-N stalwart Khwaja Muhammad Asif has won all six previous general elections from here since 1993. However, the 2018 election was the toughest of his political life, when he only managed to defeat his arch-rival, Usman Dar of the PTI, by the closest of margins.

This time, the PML-N leader is facing Dar’s mother, Rehana Imtiaz Dar. She jumped into the political arena after her son’s decision to quit politics and denounce the May 9 incidents in a press conference. Rehana has been a prominent feature on mainstream and social media for the past many months because of her angry challenges to Kh Asif, who recently served her a legal notice for ‘damaging his repute’.

NA-122 Lahore-VI

There are 21 candidates, including 16 independents, in this Lahore constituency, but the main contest is expected to be between PML-N loyalist and former railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique and PTI-backed lawyer and former Punjab governor Sardar Latif Khosa. The PPP has not fielded a candidate here. Khosa, who was once considered a close aide of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, joined the PTI only three months ago when the PPP suspended his membership for representing Imran Khan without seeking prior permission from the party’s leadership.

Saad Rafique had been an MNA since 2002 and had won all previous elections comfortably, except in 2018, when he lost to PTI founder Imran Khan by a tiny margin. When Mr Khan vacated this seat, Mr Rafique won it in a by-election after defeating Humayun Akhtar Khan. In 2008, Mr Rafique had bagged the seat in a one-sided contest against the PPP’s Naveed Chaudhry, whereas in 2013, he defeated the PTI’s Hamid Khan by securing more than 123,000 votes.

NA-130 Lahore-XIV

Desiring to become prime minister for a fourth time, the PML-N’s supreme leader, Nawaz Sharif, is contesting here against the PTI’s jailed woman leader and former Punjab health minister, Dr Yasmin Rashid. Observers believe that a heated electoral battle can be expected for this seat. Dr Rashid is facing a court trial in connection with the May 9 incidents and has been unable to run her election campaign. She has received widespread commendation, even from some of her rivals, for standing firm with the PTI despite a brutal crackdown against her party and colleagues.

In 2018, Dr Rashid lost the election to the PML-N’s Waheed Alam Khan despite managing to bag over 105,000 votes. She was later elected to the Punjab Assembly on a reserved seat for women. On the other hand, Mr Sharif, who could not take part in the 2018 elections due to his conviction in the Panama Papers case, is hoping for a political comeback after getting a clean chit from the courts.

NA-151 Multan-IV

Interesting contests between members of the powerful Qureshi and Gilani families are expected in the City of Saints.

In NA-151, Syed Ali Musa Gilani and Meher Bano Qureshi, the children of two prominent politicians and traditional rivals, are facing each other. Ali Musa is the son of former prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, whereas Meherbano is the daughter of PTI vice-chairman and former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The senior Gilani is contesting from another constituency in Multan.

Meher Bano had submitted her papers as a covering candidate in anticipation of her father’s disqualification. Her apprehensions came true when the ECP disqualified Qureshi from contesting the polls after his conviction with Imran Khan in the cypher case.

The Qureshi family has been winning this seat for the past four decades despite its changing loyalties, which indicates that it has a solid vote bank and a large number of loyalists in the area. However, this time, the contest has become interesting because, in a by-election held in October last year, Ali Musa defeated Meher Bano with a margin of some 20,000 votes. This time, however, Meherbano is expecting a significant sympathy vote because of her father’s conviction.

NA-185 Dera Ghazi Khan-II

The electoral race in this tribal constituency features PTI-backed Zartaj Gul, the PPP’s Dost Muhammad Khosa, and PML-N-backed independent Mahmood Qadir Leghari. A former chief minister of Punjab, Dost Muhammad Khosa, is considered the favourite due to his status as a tribal chief. Zartaj Gul was earlier not available to campaign and started canvassing just this week. However, in 2018, Zartaj Gul defeated the PML-N’s Sardar Awais Leghari here with a margin of more than 25,000 votes. Dost Khosa had contested those polls as an independent and stood third, bagging 31,703 votes.

NA-241 Karachi South-III

Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM-P is up against the PTI’s Karachi president, Khurram Sher Zaman, and the PPP’s Mirza Ikhtiyar Baig for NA-241. In 2018, Dr Farooq Sattar contested the election in a Karachi East constituency but lost to the late Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain, who contested on behalf of the PTI. Khurram Sher Zaman had won a provincial seat from Karachi in 2018 and is contesting an NA election for the first time.

Dr Sattar is also a candidate for Karachi’s NA-244, where another former PTI MNA, Aftab Jahangir, won in 2018.

NA-261 Surab-cum-Kalat-cum-Mastung

An interesting triangular contest is expected between the political heavyweights in this constituency. Sardar Sanaullah Zehri is in the race, this time on a PPP ticket, against the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal, and JUI-F General Secretary Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidri.

Once a close confidant of Nawaz Sharif and Sardar of the Zehri tribe, Sanaullah served as chief minister of Balochistan from Dec 2015 to Dec 2017. He resigned from the office to avoid a vote of no confidence and joined the PPP in August 2021 after developing differences with his party’s leadership.

In 2018, Sanaullah could only secure 7,152 votes and came in fifth position on this seat, which was won by Syed Mehmood Shah of the JUI-F with 26,711 votes. Sanaullah had been a runner-up in 2008 when the seat was won by Ayatullah Durrani of the PPP.

On the other hand, Sardar Akhtar Mengal won an NA seat in 2018 from Khuzdar with over 23,000 votes, defeating Khalid Bizenjo of the BAP. The same year, however, he had lost the election for the Lasbela-cum-Gawadar constituency to an independent, Aslam Bhootani.

Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri emerged victorious in this constituency in the 2002 elections and was the runner-up in the 2013 elections. However, he did not take part in the 2018 elections. He was elected MNA from Kalat for the first time in 1993.

NA-263 Quetta-II

There are a record 46 candidates, including 27 independents, in NA-263. Because so many political bigwigs are in the running, it is difficult to make predictions about this constituency.

PkMAP chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who lost the 2018 elections from two different constituencies in Balochistan, is up against Rubina Irfan of the BAP, Rozi Khan Kakar of the PPP, and Haji Lashkari Raisani, who is contesting the polls as an independent. This time, Achakzai has secured the backing of the JUI-F in return for supporting Maulana Fazlur Rehman in Pishin.

Lashkari Raisani is the younger brother of former Balochistan chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani. He resigned as PPP Balochistan president in April 2012 and joined the PML-N in March 2013. He has previously served as a provincial minister in the Balochistan cabinet and also as a senator during a PPP-led government in the centre. In 2018, he contested the elections for an NA seat from Quetta on a BNP ticket but lost to the PTI’s Qasim Khan Suri. Mr Raisani later challenged the results on the basis of the large number of votes that were rejected.

Mr Suri, who went on to become deputy speaker of the NA, remained a lawmaker till his resignation because the court never decided the petition.

Rubina Irfan was an MNA in the last assembly on a reserved seat but has also served as a senator on the PML-Q ticket. Rozi Kakar served as a PPP senator from 2012 to 2018.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2024