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Incumbents under siege

November 16, 2011

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GUJRANWALA: Befitting a city known as pehlwana da shehr (the city of wrestlers), politics in this chaotic city dissected by the GT Road is fierce and bruising.

The city, population approximately 2.5 million, is home to only two-and-a-half of the seven National Assembly constituencies in Gujranwala district, but has already been cast as a bellwether of change: it was here that Imran Khan announced his arrival as a contender in central Punjab at a rally thronged by thousands of PTI supporters on Sept 25.The PTI surge has added an intriguing element to a volatile mix of factors that shape the urban electorate: biradarism, Islamism, the role of the party, and the ‘sympathy’ and ‘wave’ votes.

Despite being the country’s seventh largest city, the tug of biradari is strong. “In the city, it’s Kashmiri, Ansari and Mughal on the N-League side and Arain on the PPP side,” according to Muhammad Iqbal, a veteran Gujranwala politician. “The Sheikhs were with the PML-N, but they are on the fence now,” Mr Iqbal added.

The old tug of biradarism, however, has been partially supplanted by the arrival of staunch Islamism. “The Deobandis are few, but they are organised and effective,” says Ghulam Dastagir, patriarch of the powerful Dastagir family.

The PTI challenge The combination of biradarism, Islamism and urban swing voters has given the constituency of Khurram Dastagir, son of Ghulam, a reputation for unpredictable outcomes.

“This constituency is all about change,” according to Sheikh Ahmed Hameed, a wealthy trader aligned with the PML-N until a falling out with the Dastagirs over party tickets. “The voters get sick of their candidate quite quickly.”

Khurram Dastagir, who won with a thumping majority in 2008, lost in the same constituency to an MMA candidate in 2002. This time, however, a different combination is threatening him: biradari and the PTI.

Mr Hameed, the former PML-N politician, is a Sheikh, an influential biradari in the constituency. “The Sheikhs are a rightist trader group,” according to Umar Naseem, a local journalist. “Because they are businessmen, they make compromises where necessary. But if a candidate is of the Sheikh biradari, they’ll vote for him even if he is a Jew.”

Mr Hameed is expected to be unveiled as the PTI candidate soon, setting up a showdown between the Sharif favourite, Khurram Dastagir, and a spurned politician backed by biradari and PTI voters.

“If there’s a vulnerability, it’s that the major colleges in the city are in my constituency. The PTI-student factor could come into play, but it’s too early to tell,” Khurram Dastagir said.

The PTI is also eyeing a neighbouring urban constituency where the incumbent, Mehmood Bashir Virk of the PML-N, is considered particularly vulnerable. A local rival, Shahid Akram Bhinder, and his son, Waleed, joined the PTI bandwagon in mid-October.

The PTI and Bhinder strengths complement each other in this half-urban, half-rural constituency. The PTI is expected to do well in the urban parts, where the Bhinders are routinely thumped; the Bhinders are stronger in the rural parts where dharra and biradari politics rule.

The inclusion of the Bhinders in the PTI, however, has angered some party workers who argue that their colourful history — migration from party to party over the decades — is at odds with the PTI’s message of a new politics.

“If I sit on the same stage with them, how can I talk about change, revolution and corruption,” said Naeemur Rehman, replaced as the PTI district president by Waleed Bhinder and an aspirant to the same PTI National Assembly ticket.

The Bhinder-Rehman spat sums up a wider dilemma for the PTI: pick controversial candidates with a local voter base at the risk of alienating the PTI core or gamble on untested candidates who reinforce the PTI brand and may strengthen its broader appeal, i.e. the ‘wave’ factor?

The Virk constituency, though, isn’t a straight PML-N vs PTI fight. Dr Zafar Chaudhry, a PPP veteran with a rural base, will also be a strong contender.

“The real head of the Bhinder dharra is Anwar Bhinder, who isn’t supporting Shahid Akram or Waleed. Last time Mr Virk won because of the PML-N wave in the urban parts but this time the anti-PPP vote will be split between the N-League, PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami,” Mr Chaudhry argued.

The PPP potentially defeating the PTI on a PML-N seat? That characterisation would be highly misleading. “It’s not about the party, my vote is a personal vote,” Mr Chaudhry said.

PML-N the party to beat For all the uncertainty over the Dastagir and Virk seats, the PML-N remains the party to beat. In two constituencies, an urban one secured by Usman Ibrahim in 2008 and a rural one won by Rana Nazir, the PML-N has strong candidates who have the right biradari support and lack any serious rivals.

The PML-N is also looking to recover the seat it lost in a by-election to the PPP in a biradari-driven constituency, as well as to pick up the seat of the Punjab PPP president, Imtiaz Safdar Warraich. Elected from a largely rural constituency with urban pockets, Mr Warraich acknowledged his vulnerability: “I’m in for a tough fight,” he said.

Intriguingly, the PTI is also eyeing Mr Warraich’s constituency. According to Anjum Warraich, the divisional information secretary, “We’ve been working in this constituency the longest. Every union council, every ward, down to the smallest unit, we’ve got our workers. At the Sept 25 rally, a large number of supporters came from this area.”

If a three-way contest is shaping up in Imtiaz Warraich’s constituency, as the PTI claims, it marks the insertion of the PTI into the world of dharra- and biradari-based rural Punjab politics.

Chattha vs Cheema A 45-minute drive from Gujranwala city is Ahmed Nagar, a tiny town surrounded by agricultural fields. From a sprawling compound here, Hamid Nasir Chattha has used his local power to catapult him into the heart of national political intrigue.

But Mr Chattha’s hold over his constituency has slipped. He lost the National Assembly seat to a rival Jat sub-clan, the Cheemas, in 2008, though he did hold on to his Punjab Assembly seat.

His opponent, a retired justice of the Lahore High Court, Iftikhar Cheema, lives in a village nearby and casts himself as an upright and simple man. “No corruption, no politics of revenge, I do what is right and just,” said Mr Cheema. “Chattha sahib has a feudal mindset, but times have changed. People don’t want to be talked down to.”

Mr Chattha, who was hammered in the urban parts of the constituency, offered a different explanation for his defeat: “Lal Masjid, Double Shah (a conman whose Ponzi scheme sucked in many residents of the area) and the Musharraf factor,” Mr Chattha said. “Next time, those factors won’t be there.”

Mr Cheema, an austere non-politician until 2007, has alienated some voters by refusing to indulge their demands, but the fate of his constituency may ultimately be decided outside.

His brother is the controversial police chief, Zulfikar Cheema, a Sharif favourite until the PML-N tried to cheat its way to victory in a Gujranwala by-election and Zulfikar Cheema intervened. Meanwhile, speculation persists that Mr Chattha and his PML Like Minded cohort, disliked intensely by Nawaz Sharif, may patch up with the Sharifs, a deal that could hand Mr Chattha the PML-N ticket here.

Sensing Iftikhar Cheema’s isolation, the PTI has been trying to woo him, but he appears reluctant to respond to their overtures. (Hamid Nasir Chattha’s son is already with the PTI, fuelling contradictory speculation that Mr Chattha may join the PTI in the likely scenario rapprochement with Nawaz Sharif fails.) There is also a dark horse candidate: Sajid Iqbal Chattha, a relative of the PML-Q’s Wajahat Hussain, who could split the Chattha vote base.

Hamid Nasir Chattha, a wily, battle-hardened politician, is unfazed by all the speculation. “Don’t overestimate the constituency politician but don’t underestimate him either,” Mr Chattha said. “It’s 50 per cent about dharra and 50 per cent the wave. If the wave is on your side, you win easily. If it’s against you, you have a tough fight.”