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A bellwether race in central Punjab

April 24, 2013


A man looking at election symbols allotted to political parties at a district court. — Photo by INP
A man looking at election symbols allotted to political parties at a district court. — Photo by INP

KASUR: There are no high-wattage names contesting NA-139, no eye-catching personalities or over-the-top politics. But the complex race in this half-urban, half-rural constituency in central Punjab offers something more: tantalising clues to the electoral prospects of the PML-N, PTI and PPP in the region.

Waseem Akhtar, the winner in 2008, is the quintessential PML-N candidate: personally not very popular, but a leading contender because of the solidly PML-N vote bank in the city. Chaudhry Manzoor Ahmad, winner in 2002, is the archetype of the PPP contender: a likeable people’s man who relies enormously on rural support and gets hammered in the city by an urban electorate suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, the PPP.

Muhammad Hussain Dogar embodies the contradictions of the PTI: a veteran politician who recently joined the party in the hope of combining his reliable vote bank at the provincial-assembly level with a PTI surge to carry him to a maiden victory on a National Assembly ticket.

All three candidates are in with a shot in 2013, rendering NA-139 one of the more unpredictable races this election. Swimming hardest against the tide is Chaudhry Manzoor, who joined the PPP prior to his 2002 victory and is now a member of the party’s central executive committee.

Manzoor can appear a throwback to a different era of politicians: he travels around his constituency in a micro hatchback; is well-versed in global political history and ideological politics — a nod to his socialist origins; and is eager to talk about marginalised sections of society.

Since joining the PPP inner circle, however, tales have begun to accrue of a politician tainted by modern politics.

Manzoor readily admits the magnitude of the challenge before him on May 11. “One-to-one it is difficult,” Manzoor said. “I won in 2002 because there were several strong candidates. Anyone who wants to enter the race, I welcome.”

And while his rural vote bank is fairly reliable, Manzoor recognises the formidable headwinds he faces as a PPP candidate. “About the PPP, what is it people say? That it is corrupt? But here everyone knows about the dirty dealings of the PML-N guy (Waseem Akhtar).”

“Load shedding?” Manzoor continued. “In Kasur, there is less load shedding than in Lahore,” Manzoor claimed, crediting his friendships and contacts in the water and power ministry with helping mitigate Kasur’s energy crisis, an especially devastating crisis for a city dominated by employment-generating tanneries and power looms.

PTI challenger

Manzoor’s wish for more contenders in a race he is sure to lose to Waseem Akhtar, the PML-N candidate, in a two-way contest has been answered — though perhaps not in the way Manzoor may have hoped.

Muhammad Hussain Dogar — a 27-year veteran of the PPP and a Punjab Assembly member from an adjacent constituency — has waded into NA-139 in a campaign that is as much about stepping up to the next level of politics as taking on Manzoor.

Dogar, who wears his political ambitions on his sleeve, said: “I said that in Kasur the PPP should have its own candidates. But the party gave so many tickets to the PML-Q.”

In essence, Dogar, the PPP district president until quitting the party earlier this month, had wanted the PPP ticket in NA-140, the constituency that covers the one he was elected from as a Punjab Assembly member in 2008. But Dogar found his way blocked by Manzoor, who holds sway over the PPP high command by virtue of his position as an influential member of the party’s CEC.

Slighted by Manzoor and offered a ticket by the PTI, Dogar jumped at the opportunity to contest NA-139. However, for all the support the PTI has in Kasur city, Dogar faces two problems: the other half of this NA constituency is rural and he does not belong to either half of the constituency — Dogar’s base being an adjacent rural Punjab Assembly constituency.

In NA-139, Dogar is circumspect about the net effect of the PTI. “There is silence in the PTI vote. The tsunami will have to be brought,” Dogar said.

“PTI workers have passion but they are not politically savvy. There is also a lack of workers and we’ll have to rely on voters directly.”

The freshly minted PTI candidate — he remained a PPP MPA until the Punjab Assembly was dissolved last month — also admitted he had yet to be fully welcomed by the PTI old guard. “Those that are disgruntled, the old PTI worker will bring on board. Already some have come out in support of me,” Dogar said.

PML-N stronghold

“Mian Nawaz Sharif regards Kasur as his backyard,” Nadeem Haroon, the PTI district president admitted, discussing the party’s prospects in NA-139. “It will be tough but there are four (main) candidates now and the Ansari biradiri is also split.”

Therein lies the tale of Waseem Akhtar, the PML-N winner in 2008, and why he continues to be the candidate to beat. Akhtar, who is a distant relative of key PML-N leaders, has a rough style of politics, accused by opponents, and even allies, of aloofness, corruption and running criminal enterprises.

“Land grabbing, fraud, gunmen, appropriating state money, he’s involved in all of it,” alleged Naveed Hashim Rizvi, a fierce critic of Akhtar who vied for the PML-N ticket as a member of the PML-Q Like-minded faction before belatedly jumping into the race as an independent.

“Yes, the people’s reservations are there,” admitted Naeem Safdar Ansari, who is Akhtar’s running mate but keeps him at arm’s length. However, Ansari added, “In the city, in NA-139, the party vote matters a lot.”

The solidly PML-N vote bank in Kasur city has much to do with the dominant Ansari biradiri, a hyper-politicised clan whose byzantine politics notwithstanding has always been aligned with the PML-N.

In settled circumstances, Akhtar on a PML-N ticket could canter to victory in NA-139. But the Ansari biradiri has yet to decide on its final alliances ahead of the election and, in the past, divisions among the Ansaris have allowed non-PML-N candidates to benefit.

There is also the Rizvi factor, the insurgent independent candidate and former Kasur city nazim who readily admits Akhtar is his target.

“It’s very difficult to predict,” an Ansari biradiri leader said of the race. “Dogar could break Chaudhry Manzoor’s votes and Naveed Rizvi could hurt Sheikh Waseem.”

PTI hurting PPP, independent hurting PML-N, and each of the party candidates embodying the advantages and disadvantages of his party in the region — NA-139 may be a below-the-radar contest, but it is also a revealing microcosm of elections in central Punjab.