By-elections on July 17 in PP-158 bear significance for political parties owing to multiple reasons.
Firstly, the constituency is situated in the heart of Lahore. Areas like Railway Colony, Habibullah Road, Mughalpura, Ghari Shaho, Basti Syedan Shah, Shah Mian Mir, Shah Jamal, colonies around Aitchison College and FC College, Gulberg and Katchi Abadies (informal settlements of lower middle class and poor residents), show the electorate covers posh, underdeveloped and slum localities. Outcome from the city’s central points, having diverse opinion of voters will be helpful to significantly determine the future of two main political rivals in Lahore. There is a saying that whoever controls Lahore, controls Punjab and whoever controls Punjab definitely rules over Pakistan.
Still, the claimant to the throne of the provincial capital, the candidate of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), lost the 2018’s election against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Abdul Aleem Khan with a margin of 7,000 votes. Many believe the multi-billionaire property tycoon won the seat with the power of his wealth. Before Aleem Khan, his right-hand Shoaib Siddiqui clinched the same seat from PML-N’s mouth in 2015’s by-poll. Both have parted ways with the PTI now and are not contesting the election, leaving the field open for the two parties to test their muscles.
Secondly, the PP-158 is the only constituency where the PML-N fielded its own candidate, Rana Ahsan Sharafat, as against the general rule adopted in the other 19 constituencies (three of Lahore and 16 of Punjab’s 13 districts) where PTI’s dissidents were awarded PML-N tickets.
The situation in PP-158 provides no ground to the PTI to label the contester as lota (turncoat). Both Sharafat and PTI’s candidate Mian Akram Usman are the grassroots workers of their parties and generally considered as thorough gentlemen. Though he is not the permanent resident of the area like Usman, Sharafat had contested the 2018’s polls against Aleem Khan and clinched 45,000 votes, losing with a margin of 7000 against his strong rival. It is said Sharafat understands the root politics of the constituency.
Usman and Sharafat are young aspirants, belonging to Arain and Rajput families respectively. The two clans make good numbers of votes among the total 105,269 male and 90,508 female voters of the constituency. Kashmiris, Mughals, Awans and Indian migrant families of Urdu speaking people including Rajputs and Pathans are the other major castes who live in PP-158.
Thirdly, the PP constituency falls under NA-129 where PML-N MNA Ayaz Sadiq, the federal minister for economic affairs, enjoys a huge reputation. He won four consecutive terms for the National Assembly from the area. Enjoying influence over voters, Sadiq had completed different development works in the constituency. Though prohibited to take part in the campaign under elections laws, it could not be ruled out completely that the minister will remain away from the bitter contest considered a major challenge for his party.
On the other side, Mian Akram Usman, is son of Mian Usman – the famous political figure and the former MNA of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Mian Usman later joined the PTI. If Sharafat has the experience of contesting elections and tasted defeat, it was a second chance for Usman too who lost polls against strong candidate of PML-N, Mian Mashhood from PP-149, with a margin of 17,000 votes in 2013. Usman failed to get a PTI ticket in 2018.
PP-158 throws a challenge to both to prove their guts and make place among winning horses of the two parties.
Fourth, it was not all of a sudden that the PTI Chairman Imran Khan chose the constituency for addressing party workers. The PTI wishes to keep intact the track record of a victory twice from the area. If Aleem Khan believed he won the previous contest because of his personal vote-bank, the PTI has to prove its dissident as wrong. The PML-N, on the other side, aspires to win the heart of the city to prove Lahore is still its citadel. Following, Imran Khan’s visit, the PML-N vice-president and the in-charge of the Punjab by-poll campaigns, Maryam Nawaz, also addressed the party workers in PP-158.
If the PML-N has the advantage of being in power, the inflation and long-hours load shedding go against them. The PTI has been running a furious campaign in the constituency and deployed many former ministers including MNAs Mian Shafqat Mahmood and Hammad Azhar to start door to door campaigns for Usman. PTI leader and MPA from Lahore, Mian Mahmoodur Rasheed, is also active to secure the seat for his son-in-law Akram Usman.
Fifth, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – a Brelvi/Sunni far-right organization – has also fielded its strong candidate Muhammad Bilal in PP-158. Emerging at the third position in terms of number of votes following the PML-N and the PTI in Lahore in 2018, the TLP’s candidate Muhammad Yousaf against PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq and PTI’s Aleem Khan (Khan contested on both NA-129 and PP-158 in 2018) secured 12,900 votes from the area.
The party believes it will surprise many political pundits in the Punjab by-polls and it fielded candidates in all 20 constituencies. The Jamaat-e-Islami, another pan-Islamist organization, has also fielded Umair Awan perhaps to check its vote-bank in the areas from where the former JI veteran and the father of Akram Usman, Mian Muhammad Usman, was elected as MNA in 1988 polls on Islami Jamhori Ittehad platform.
The IJI was the coalition of different right-wing political parties against the Pakistan People’s Party whose candidate Sheikh Muhammad Rasheed (veteran trade unionist) secured over 48,000 votes and lost against Mian Usman with a margin of 4,000. The PPP’s candidate, Iftikhar Shahid, only got 2,500 votes in 2018’s election from NA-129 against Ayaz Sadiq’s 103,000 and Aleem’s 95,000 votes. The PPP has not fielded any candidate in the Punjab by-polls and is supporting the PML-N.
A total 14 candidates are contesting elections in PP-158 and they include eight independents and representatives of small parties like Pakistan Nazriyati Party and KP-based Awami National Party.
Talking to Minute Mirror, Usman claimed he had no doubt that the PTI was winning with a clear margin. “You know the masses have rejected the ‘imported government’ and they only believe in Imran Khan,” he said.
Sharafat said the Lahorites had always rejected the “liars” and they had faith on the policies of the PML-N. He said his party believed in deliverance instead of indulging in politics of blame game and abusive language.
Some local surveys have predicted the PTI has advantage over the PML-N in PP-158, but nothing can be said with certainty till the polling day.