ISLAMABAD: Country’s capital is these days witnessing an unusually rare but interesting close contest in NA-53 where a former prime minister is pitched against a prospective premier. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi verses Imran Khan can be termed as a match between political titans. At the same time, this Islamabad constituency attracts more attention nationwide even though two more heavyweight former ministers – Saad Rafique and Akram Durrani -- are contesting against Imran Khan from Lahore and Bannu constituencies.
Mr Abbasi doesn’t enjoy the aura Imran enjoys as sole party leader and public heartthrob. But his simplicity as prime minister and loyalty to party and leadership at difficult moments has upped his stature, particularly amongst party voters and supporters, generally in public eye.
Both Khan and Abbasi however bear distinct advantages and face unique odds in the prevalent constituency based politics where local dimensions sometimes outweigh the national appeal. And the nationwide popularity wave at times ruins prospects of a sound constituency based electable. Then, sometimes, leaders taste defeat by second and third tier opponents. Ghulam Bilour defeating late Benazir Bhutto from a Peshawar constituency at the peak of her popularity in 1988. And Mufti Mahmood defeating Zulkfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1970 elections are a few such examples. And vice versa.
Imran enjoys a national stature, the one and only leader of his party. Millions of voters and supporters rally around him and are eagerly awaiting to see him rise as the next premier. He has a 22 years long struggle to reach this make or break phase of his career. Abbasi, an old guard in politics, getting elected since 1988, rose to prominence after getting kicked up luckily as prime minister last summer. Designated primarily as a stop-gap arrangement after former premier Nawaz Sharif got disqualification by Supreme Court last July. But then lady luck smiled at Mr Abbasi for another few months as he oversaw completion of five years of party government – the most difficult period of PML-N’s five years tenure after the 126 days of PTI sit-in it faced in 2014. PML-N couldn’t think of fielding a better candidate for this constituency other than Mr Abbasi. Infact, they had no viable option.
Of the five constituencies Imran is contesting nation-wide, a former premier and two heavy weight ex-federal ministers are pitched against him.
A recently carved out constituency, NA-53 comprises main urban areas of the city as well as densely populated peripheries. In 2013, PTI’s Asad Umar got elected from many areas now falling under the same constituency. Now Islamabad has three constituencies instead of previous two in number. As a result, the party (PTI) enjoys some psychological and on the ground advantage.
PTI’s urban, literate class appeal peaked in 2013 as it got 7 million plus nationwide votes mainly from urban and semi urban centers. Its main rival, the PML-N, got double of PTi’s total nationwide tally of votes due to its popularity in mainly literate to semi-literate voters living in densely populated urban and rural areas. Elections 2018 results could introduce new trends in the wake of new voting patterns, and winds of change, PML-N’s incumbency factor, and most importantly recent incarceration of former premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter. As PML-N hopes it could attract more voters nationwide through a victim card. PTI feels the talk of the town that it is the government in waiting, will play out well to its advantage. In NA-53, for the moment, it seems Imran Khan has an edge in sectors like E-7, F-7, I-8 including Shahzad Town and Bani Gala where he resides on hill top. Densely populated sectors G-7, G-8, G-9, I-9 carry a mix bag of support – a close call. Then there is a vast rural area. Shahid Khaqan has some advantage in densely populated Bara Kahu area located on the foothills of his old constituency Murree, he is contesting this time too.
Then there is this vast rural area comprising Bari Imram, Phulgran, Mohra Nur, Chatthar, Lakhwal and Suhan where the election is too close a call.
Some small players in the constituency – MMAs Mian Aslam and PPP’s Haider Bukhari have also got some pockets of support. But they can become a deciding factor if the contest between Imran Khan and Shahid Khaqan is a close call and vote margins are small. Biradaris and clans also play a major role in failure or success of a candidate in rural areas of this constituency – not a considerable factor amongst urban population divided mainly on party lines. Abbasi clan is likely to favour Khaqan Abbasi more – despite some complaining of his lack of interest in developmental work in this area. Pashtuns may have inclination towards Imran, but not necessarily overwhelmingly. Awan and Syed clans don’t overwhelmingly support one party. Then there is this religious card. Lately, a prominent Pir of Golra urged his followers scattered in many areas of the constituency to side with PTI. His rival group announced support to the PML-N.
The race is also wide open to win support of the minority votes in the constituency. But going by a general feel – Abbasi enjoys more support in urban areas of this constituency. Imran has an advantage in urban areas. But as they say, at the end of the elections day, what will matter how candidates are able to bring more voters to the polling station.