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Shafqat-Cheema switch hints at PTI recast

December 14, 2011

LAHORE, Dec 13: Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan on Tuesday replaced the party’s central information secretary Omar Sarfraz Cheema with new entrant former senator Shafqat Mahmood -- in a move that could turn out to be prelude to a recasting of the PTI. Mr Khan later explained all party offices were “temporary” and “there has been no controversy or heartburning over the replacement of Mr Cheema.”

The party’s new central information secretary, Mr. Shafqat Mehmood, had joined the PTI recently. He worked as a minister in the caretaker government of Miraj Khalid and is a former civil servant and a well known columnist.

Mr Mahmood’s appointment came on a day when PTI snatched an important Lahore-based politician, Karamat Khokhar, from the PPP. Khokhar was one of the highest vote getters on a PPP ticket in Lahore in the 2008 election and is an uncle of Zaheer Abbas Khokhar, the winner of an NA seat from Lahore in 2002 who later joined the Patriots faction of the PPP. Mr Zaheer Abbas had joined the PTI some time ago and had taken on a PML-N candidate in a Punjab Assembly by-election.

Some PTI office holders Dawn talked to explained the change from Mr Cheema to Mr Mahmood as a proof of the party’s best-man-for-job policy. Some others with affiliation to the PTI said while they had some reservations, the changes were necessary to fulfil the needs of an expanding and ambitious political entity.

Mr Omar Cheema, who held the office of the information secretary of the PTI for three years or so, bowed to the party chairman’s decision without protest. “I accept the party’s decision. I will remain a PTI worker and will work wholeheartedly for strengthening the party,” he told Dawn by telephone.

A law graduate, Mr Cheema has been associated with the PTI since 1996. He also remained the personal staff officer to Mr Khan for about two years and sits on the party’s central executive committee. In the case of a party that has expanded in leaps and bounds in recent weeks, the switch to a more well-known Shafqat Mahmood was inevitably seen as an indicator of a major reshuffle.

A senior party member told Dawn that since Mr Khan is now attracting many prominent politicians to his cause, some other PTI office-bearers may also give way to their more celebrated replacements soon. He went on to identify PTI secretary-general Arif Alavi as the next possible victim of the new policy that aims to confirm the PTI’s credentials as a mainstream party with plenty of famous names on its side.

“Marvi Memon has been promised the secretary-general’s slot and the announcement to this effect may come during the Dec 25 public rally in Karachi,” the PTI member said. “In time all the important positions in the party would go to important people.” The not-too-pleased PTI member who didn’t want to be named is not the only one who has been frustrated by Mr Khan’s acceptance of old horses into the PTI and the pomp and ceremony with which they have been welcomed. There is evidence that tension within the ranks is rising and only on Monday the old workers of the PTI clashed with the supporters of KPK minister Pervez Khattak in Islamabad hours before Mr Khattak was scheduled to declare his allegiance to Mr Imran Khan.

“Why should the PTI be lavishing important party posts on new entrants even if they happen to carry the heavyweight tags? They should be welcomed in the party without any such promise,” a PTI office-bearer in Lahore said. “The old office-bearers are naturally disappointed. They invested so much of their time and energy to strengthen the party and now when the party is popular political heavyweights have dropped in to lay a claim on the cherry.”