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MULTAN: Six National Assembly seats, 13 of provincial assembly; high-wattage candidates; PPP, PML-N, PTI and JI vying for victory; urban and rural voters with their separate dynamics; settlers and migrants versus natives; biradirism and factionalism; and the lurking issue of a south Punjab province – the intensity of the electoral race in Multan is rivalled only by its complexity.

The names here are all eye-catching: Yusuf Raza Gilani’s sons Ali Musa and Abdul Qadir are up against Shah Mehmood Qureshi, PTI, and Sikandar Hayat Bosan of PML-N. Javed Hashmi is in the same race as Liaquat Baloch, secretary general of the Jamaat-i-Islami. And Shah Mehmood Qureshi is contesting a second seat in Multan city against lesser-known but strong rivals from the PML-N and PPP.

These four seats – NA-148 to NA-151 – are where most eyes are on in Multan and none of the camps involved are confident of victory as yet. Racing from one meeting to the next and campaigning from early morning till the late hours of the night, the candidates and their allies need not state the obvious: they are in the fight of their lives.

Appearing the most relaxed is Yusuf Raza Gilani, freed from the burden of contesting himself but campaigning intensely on behalf of his sons. Driving his Land Cruiser – non-bullet proof, as Gilani points out – and accompanied by a three-vehicle police escort, Gilani is listening to his favourite music and waving to supporters on the road as he shuttles between his sons’ constituencies, one predominantly urban, NA 148, the other largely rural, NA-151.“This is what I like best, being among my people,” Gilani says, after a brief stop at a small house in a narrow lane, where supporters quickly gather to cheer Gilani and the PPP. The Gilanis are relying on two factors to carry them to victory on May 11: one, a loyal PPP and Gilani vote bank in Multan; and two, the enormous money and time Yusuf Raza lavished on Multan during his four-year stint as prime minister.

“Every day I spent at least one hour looking at the affairs of Multan,” Gilani said of his time as prime minister. The results, both supporters and rivals attest, are there for all to see. Large parts of Multan city have been transformed by a quintessentially Pakistani understanding of development: roads, bridges and flyovers are layered across the city in a dizzying, ribbon-like arrangement.

“When Bunny (Abdul Qadir) was contesting, people said, ‘na bijli, na paani leikin Gilani,’” the elder Gilani said with a smile of his son’s hard-fought victory last July in NA-151, the seat vacated by Gilani after his disqualification by the Supreme Court.

SMQ’s MIXED OUTLOOK: “Ali Musa is safe,” said Kasim Gilani, another son of Yusuf Raza who is campaigning for the family, referring to the contest in NA-148 between Ali Musa Gilani, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Abdul Ghaffar Dogar, PML-N.

Originally Qureshi’s stronghold in Multan, Ali Musa won the seat by a margin of over 50,000 votes against Dogar in a Feb 2012 by-election after Qureshi resigned having joined the PTI. But with Qureshi back in the race now, Kasim Gilani explained the reasons his family is hoping for a second win in NA-148: “It’s a triangular fight now, plus our panel is very strong,” referring to Ali Musa’s running mates, including a brother of Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

“148 is a tougher contest. It is neck-and-neck,” admitted Zain Qureshi, son of Shah Mehmood. “The main problem is that we didn’t take part in the by-election and our voters went over to Ghaffar Dogar (the PML-N candidate). Now, seventy-five to eighty per cent is back with us, but there are still factions with Dogar.”

“150 we are fairly comfortable,” Zain Qureshi continued, turning to the other seat his father is contesting in Multan. “Rana Hassan (the PML-N candidate and winner in 2008) has a very bad reputation and people are sick of him.”

“Secondly, it’s a completely urban constituency, so there is a PTI and Shah Mehmood Qureshi factor there. Thirdly, the Ansaris are split,” the younger Qureshi explained, referring to a seat his father has never contested before and where there is a heavy PML-N and Ansari biradiri influence.

Imran Gabol, a local journalist, echoed Qureshi’s outlook for NA-150: “Shah Mehmood Qureshi has done his homework and has a lot of support. He’s broken supporters from Rana Hassan, who isn’t very popular. It looks like it will be a fight between the PML-N and PTI.”

Gabol, though, cautioned that while the PPP candidate, Nafees Ansari, is weak and a new entrant to the party, the warring but pivotal Ansari biradiri could rally behind him come election time.

Tough fights The challenge for Javed Hashmi in NA-149, a seat he won in 2008 but vacated after joining the PTI, is a crowded field. “Whenever there is a triangular contest, PPP wins,” Jamshed Rizwani, the Geo bureau chief in Multan, said. “Half the votes there are PPP and the other half anti-PPP.”

An urban constituency with a large conservative vote bank, in the past the PML-N and Jamaat-i-Islami have cooperated here to ensure victory for a right-of-centre candidate. This time there is a four-way race in NA-149: Hashmi, Liaquat Baloch (JI), Tariq Rasheed, the PML-N winner in the Feb 2012 by-election that was marred by accusations of widespread rigging, and Malik Amir Dogar, the PPP candidate.

With the conservative vote now split, Dogar is considered the front-runner on May 11. But Rizwani warned: “It’s a heavily educated constituency. In the by-election, the turnout was very low and the PTI thinks that was its voter staying away. Dogar is strong but you can’t write off Hashmi.”

For the PML-N, Multan remains a riddle it has yet to fully crack – the electorate here being roughly divided between prosperous and conservative settlers from other parts of Punjab and migrants at Partition on one side and PPP-leaning, poorer natives on the other side. Winner of two of the six NA seats in 2008, the PML-N has only one clear front-runner in 2013: Syed Javed Ali Shah in NA-152.

The other is Sikandar Hayat Bosan, who joined the PML-N at the eleventh hour after breaking from the PTI and will face off against Abdul Qadir Gilani in NA-151.

“It’s one-on-one and neck to neck,” said Kasim Gilani, brother of Abdul Qadir. “Bosan has forty to forty-five thousand of his own votes there. Add to that twenty-thousand biradiri votes and ten-to-fifteen thousand N-League votes. We (Gilanis) don’t have our home there and have to start by making up the personal votes Bosan has there.”

The Gilanis did, however, win an election here last summer. After Yusuf Raza was forced out by the Supreme Court, Abdul Qadir narrowly defeated Sikandar Bosan’s brother, who stood as an independent but was backed by the PML-N and PTI. Even though Bosan’s brother lost despite the collective efforts of the PPP’s rivals, Sikandar Bosan is considered a formidable candidate.

“Bosan has the edge,” Jamshed Rizwani said. “There are only two dharras in NA-151: Gilani and Bosan. In the city-Cantt part of the constituency, the PPP usually loses. But it’s a difficult constituency to predict: usually all the votes in a polling station go one way or the other. Where Bosan is strong, Gilani is weak and vice versa.”