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The Punjabi roads to re-election

December 22, 2012

Within a week of taking oath as the premier of the country in June, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf had an open house session at his official residence for party workers from Gujar Khan, his home constituency.

Over time, the stream of visitors from Gujar Khan has remained steady, described by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in press releases as comprising “nobility” and “notables”.

Needless to say, the dinners – the latest one took place on December 15 – are arranged on the state's expense and have the prime minister extending his gratitude to the party workers who gave him “a chance to lead the country.”

But this blatant courtship of his home constituents is not limited to words and meals — like his predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani who opened state coffers for the development of his hometown Multan, Mr Ashraf too has been diverting huge amounts of funds for development schemes in Gujar Khan.

According to a government report, Rs8 billion have been approved for various development and uplift projects. Interestingly, a large chunk of this sum has been released already and would surely buffer the schemes from a financial crunch at the end of the fiscal year when public development funds get squeezed.

“With elections round the corner, Mr Ashraf’s short stint at the top job wouldn’t be of any use if he loses in the upcoming general elections,” commented a senior Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader while talking to Dawn.

“This is just how constituency politics works in the country,” chipped in another close aide of the prime minister. “If tomorrow, Mr Ashraf loses the general elections, neither his party nor his constituents will forgive him. Everybody will say, ‘Look, he was the sitting prime minister and he couldn’t even retain his National Assembly seat.’ If he loses in the elections, it will be the end of his political career,” the aide remarked.

Mr Ashraf had it relatively easy in the last two elections in 2002 and 2008 from NA-51, but this time he would be feeling the heat so much more as his reputation is on the line.

In fact, if Pakistani politics, voters and the whims of the establishment are any measure to go by, then it is all fickle – for example, Sheikh Rashid and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain with their back-to-back wins in past elections had not been victorious in 2008.

Overall Gujar Khan voters are split more or less equally between the PPP and the Muslim League. With the breaking away of the Quaid faction, 2002 and 2008 both saw Mr Ashraf’s win based on the division of votes between the Quaid and Nawaz Leagues.

In 2002, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) entered into the general elections without its leadership, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PMLQ) had just emerged on the political arena of the country, which benefited Mr Ashraf.

In 2008, politicians of the PMLN and PMLQ were not willing to hold a white flag but as results showed their combined votes could have easily outwitted Mr Ashraf.

In the 2013 general elections, the PPP is already facing serious popularity issues and Mr Ashraf is looking at all options.

One theory being circulated is that the prime minister has pinned his hopes on winning as a joint candidate of the PPP and PMLQ.

However, the conventional Muslim League voters would be wary of voting for a PPP candidate, and the move can also swing to benefit the PMLN.

Complicating his easy win is the fact that the powerful Ikhlas family of the area is already sitting with the PMLN. Raja Javed Ikhlas has served as a district nazim in Rawalpindi, and Raja Qasim, his son, was the runner-up in the 2008 elections in NA-51 with 70,000 votes.

The only silver lining for Mr Ashraf seems to be the emergence of Raja Tariq Kayani, a former district nazim of Rawalpindi, who has joined Imran Khan and is reportedly working hard to win support for the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf. If anything, his moves in the constituency will split the votes for the PMLN.