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September 21, 2017

Politics: NA-120 and beyond


September 21, 2017

The balcony was the same in the PML-N Secretariat, Model Town Lahore, but both the victor, heir apparent Maryam Nawaz, and those accompanying her – except for lonely Uncle Pervaiz Rashid – were different men and women from those who had celebrated the sweeping victory in the 2013 general elections. The presence and absence of known faces at the PML-N secretariat’s balcony seems to be more than symbolic. Does it represent a shift in the PML-N’s character or is this a mere generational transition? Perhaps, both!

The margin of the victory of Nawaz Sharif’s substitute, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, is not as big in the NA-120 by-election in the PML-N’s bastion, Lahore, as it was in the last general elections. As both Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his all-powerful political heir, Hamza Shehbaz, chose to abstain from a confrontational course of campaign, Maryam Nawaz and her team was left alone against all the seen and unseen odds. And yet she was able to make it a convincing victory with her own imprint in a low turnout of 39.42 percent, which is still bigger than the 2002 and 2008 general elections and other by-elections.

The margin of the victory of Kulsoom Nawaz (48.6 percent of the vote cast) over the PTI’s Dr Yasmeen Rashid (37.1 percent) is eleven percent of vote cast, 11.9 percent less than Nawaz Sharif’s lead of 26.2 percent in the last elections. Running an exceptionally aggressive door-to-door campaign, Dr Yasmeen Rashid improved her vote tally by 2.6 percent. That shows a minor swing in the PTI’s favour, with the support of the Shia Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslimeen, as compared to the minus-swing against the PML-N or defection of almost 12 percent of its traditional right-wing religious voters. The mystery is rooted in the division within the broadest coalition of conservative forces. The votes the two ‘independent’ candidates got (12,952) on behalf of two un-registered extremist right-wing parties – banned Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Milli Muslim League with its ‘Hero’ Hafiz Saeed’s portrait on its posters (5,822 votes) and Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah party with ‘Shaheed’ Mumtaz Qadri’s banners (7,130 votes) – are almost equal to the minus-swing.

These two extremist sectarian parties had never contested elections, terming them unIslamic. It appears that under the state’s reported de-radicalisation programme banned and sanctioned groups are now being brought into mainstream politics. These militant outfits, declared as terrorist by the UN, had never ceased their activities and were, in fact, deployed as charity bodies, disaster relief brigades and as a countervailing force against the liberal sections of civil society or the nationalists.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah has quite vocally accused their known ‘handlers’ for their role as spoilers of the religious votes that the PML-N used to get in Punjab. By capturing third and fourth positions in the by-election, these two extremist front organisations have opened their political innings by sidelining the Jamaat-e-Islami and splitting the PML-N’s broader constituency. At the peak of judicial proceedings against him, Nawaz Sharif told me that religious extremists may take over the country if he were ousted.

Interestingly, the lower margin of victory is also almost equal to the ratio of lower vote count as compared to the last general elections (which is always higher than the by-elections). Yet, in absolute numbers Kulsoom Nawaz’s lead is of 14,646 votes over her rival’s vote count. The 2013 general elections in this constituency was exceptional by virtue of the highest ever turnout and the biggest margin of victory for Nawaz Sharif. The by-election, on the other hand, was overshadowed by the disqualification of yet another prime minister by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The entire focus of the electoral campaign of the main contestants was for or against the judgment of the Supreme Court. If Maryam Nawaz sought the absolution of her father from the ‘people’s court’, Imran Khan pleaded for the vindication of the disqualification of the former prime minister. The PML-N is now projecting its victory as a kind of people’s mandate in favour of the deposed prime minister.

The theme of the election campaign spearheaded by Maryam Nawaz resonated with the defiant line that the former prime minister had taken during his GT Road march that had galvanised the rank and file around the fallen leader. However, in the absence of Nawaz Sharif and the almost complete detachment of Hamza Shehbaz and the next aspirant for party leadership, Shehbaz Sharif, Maryam was able to carry the flag quite successfully. She just jumped into the fray and filled the void created by those who have been insisting upon capitulation with the powerful establishment to survive the odds being created for the PML-N before the next elections. While Nawaz is determined to fight his last battle for the assertion of elected civilian authority, most of his party men are for conceding whatever space the military leadership wanted in return for a safe exit for their leader,; as has been articulated by Chaudhry Nisar and Shehbaz Sharif.

But Nawaz Sharif has called their bluff by bringing in Kulsoom as his replacement in NA-120 and Maryam as a leader-in-making. Given the direct appeal of Nawaz Sharif to the PML-N electorate and the response that his narrative of the aggrieved party is getting, no PML-N leader is ready to break ranks with him for the time being. Although during the election campaign Chaudhry Nisar opted to publicly oppose the defiant line being taken by Nawaz Sharif and even questioned the credentials of Maryam Nawaz, it helped the latter to softly lay her claim to leadership as opposed to those claimants who preferred to sit on the fence at the critical juncture of the party’s political survival. The PML-N would have blown up had Maryam lost this seat to the PTI.

After the bitter experience of being abandoned in the middle of the campaign, Nawaz is not likely to allow the leadership of the party slip into the hands of those who want to make their own way to power at his cost. By bringing a trusted and able loyalist Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as prime minister and keeping him till the next elections, Nawaz pre-empted Shehbaz’s elevation to the top office that the latter had waited for so ambitiously for so long. And by handing the by-election campaign to Maryam, not only did Nawaz show a lack of confidence in Hamza and Shehbaz he also launched the political career of his real successor – Maryam.

Though Nawaz did not want to involve his wife, he was left with no option due to the in-house power struggle. In a symbolic show of separating the party from the government, he also brought in Sardar Yaqoob from a remote corner of Balochistan as the party’s acting president to keep his control over the PML-N. Tragically, as and when the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case goes in appeal, Shehbaz will find himself in the company of those he had kept a distance from as Mr Clean of the House of Sharif.

It was great to watch two women lead their parties’ respective campaigns in NA-120. And both showed great promise. But, despite their vigorous adversarial campaigns, large sections of the electorate showed indifference towards a politics that has little space or heart for the toiling masses. Whatever interest was generated by the divisive campaigns was solely due to the issues of who is to govern this country and the accountability of the corrupt. And probably these two issues will influence the next elections as well, beside the balance sheets of the performance of all those parties that are in power.


The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA


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