In-Depth Arena

How the Sharifs have handled local government polls in Punjab

Updated Mar 10, 2017 12:04pm

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Hamza Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif at PMLN’s election office in Lower Mall, Lahore | Azhar Jafri, White Star
Hamza Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif at PMLN’s election office in Lower Mall, Lahore | Azhar Jafri, White Star

Mubashir Javaid arrives in his office from a side door. Located inside the colonial-era Jinnah Hall in a corner of The Mall, the office looks more like an art museum than a workplace. Its walls are covered with paintings of Lahore’s various historical landmarks. As he leans back in his chair behind a large desk, a mural suddenly comes into view — a depiction of the old Lahore donated by a previous occupant of the office.

Javaid is Lahore’s new mayor. Between him and his predecessor, there has been a gap of more than seven years. In the interregnum, bureaucrats were officiating in the absence of a local government in the city. He was a dark horse for the post. “I really did not think I would be made the mayor,” says Javaid who retired from the army as a colonel in 1998. At most, he says, he had expected to become a deputy mayor.

The party’s long-standing nominee for the post was Khawaja Ahmad Hassan, who has served an earlier stint as the head of the city’s local government in the late 1990s. But Salman Ghani, a senior journalist working with Dunya Media Group in Lahore, claims Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nursed a secret grudge against Hassan for attending a public meeting addressed by Pervez Musharraf in Lahore some time in the early 2000s.

Factionalism is “inherent” in PMLN, says Warraich.

Ghani narrates the story of a late 2016 meeting in Islamabad, held after the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) had swept local government polls in Lahore — as well as in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif asked the participants of the meeting who should be made Lahore’s mayor. Everyone suggested Hassan’s name. “Nawaz Sharif smiled and said, ‘ultimately it is my party and my vote bank’.” He was dropping a clear hint: he could nominate anyone and that person would win. That is exactly how it panned out. Though Javaid did not join the PMLN till 2001, he stood by its rump leadership after Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, along with their families, were sent into exile in Saudi Arabia by Musharraf. He was then closely associated with Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who is now the National Assembly’s speaker, and Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the elder son of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

The Sharifs wanted to reward him for his loyalty. Stung by a slew of desertions in the 2000s – including that of Mian Amir Mahmood who defected to Musharraf and became Lahore’s nazim in 2001 – they were unwilling to take any chances.

Javaid comes from neither the Kashmiri nor the Arain clan — two powerful groups that have dominated Lahore’s politics for decades (Mahmood comes from the latter clan). “The Sharifs may be wary of the established political players in their home turf of Lahore in particular – and Punjab in general – and that is why they are bringing in new faces that do not have the ability to win an election on their own,” says a senior journalist based in Lahore who chooses to remain anonymous.


Much before the local government elections concluded, rumours were rife in Gujranwala that Ghulam Dastgir Khan was losing his hold on the city’s politics. For the first time since the 1990s, he was facing opposition from within his own party — the PMLN. His nominee for local mayor, Sheikh Sarwat Akram, was not a shoo-in. Hamza Shahbaz Sharif wanted his own nominee, Salman Khalid Butt, popularly known as Pomi Butt, to get the job.

Akram’s Shiekh clan has been a major supporter of Ghulam Dastgir Khan’s politics over the decades. There were reports that the Sheikhs would quit the PLMN and join Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) if their man was denied the mayoral seat. A deal was eventually reached. Akram would be made mayor for the first two years of the city government’s four-year term and Pomi Butt would hold the slot for the remaining time.

Similar deals have been common in central Punjab during the local government elections, says Lahore-based senior political analyst Sohail Warraich. He cites the example of Okara where Syed Raza Ali Gillani – the scion of a politically influential family from Hujra Shah Muqeem town – has been made provincial minister for higher education so that a nominee of Nadeem Abbas Rebaira, a powerful member of the National Assembly from the same district, can become chairman of the district council without a challenge from within the party.

Nawaz Sharif asked the participants of the meeting who should be made Lahore’s mayor. Everyone suggested Hassan’s name.

The tussle in Gujranwala, resolved for now, suggests Ghulam Dastgir Khan has lost his political salience — since his nemesis, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), is all but wiped out from the city. The son of a local businessman, he became a staunch opponent of PPP’s politics as a young man and was one of the few candidates in central Punjab who had won on an anti-PPP ticket in the 1977 election. He saw Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation policies and land reforms as attacks on the family-based economic and social milieu that he represented. “It was against Islam and the law,” he says.

Ghulam Dastgir Khan was close to the leaders of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that launched an anti-Bhutto movement in 1977. “I was arrested and beaten up along with so many others,” he recalls. The movement led to Bhutto’s demise — and gave Ghulam Dastgir Khan a prominent position in Punjab’s politics. General Ziaul Haq would come to attend a wedding in his family and a young Nawaz Sharif would soon make him a minister in his first federal cabinet.

But during those years, Ghulam Dastgir Khan would lose two consecutive National Assembly elections – one in 1985 to a political novice, Sheikh Mansoor, and the second in 1988 to PPP’s Haji Amanullah. Ghulam Dastgir Khan, however, would go on to win the three subsequent elections – in 1990, 1993 and 1997 – with decisive margins. His political fortunes nosedived again when, in 2002, a madrasa teacher, Qazi Hameedullah Khan, beat his foreign-educated son, Khurram Dastgir Khan, who could not even secure second place in the vote tally. The turnaround came in the next two elections when Khurram Dastgir Khan won easily and is now commerce minister in Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet.

Statistics show that Ghulam Dastgir Khan’s electoral fortunes are bound to the fortunes of his party. When the PMLN is down, he is down too — 1993 polls being the only exception. When the party is ascendant, he or his son also wins. That drastically reduces his capacity to contest the PMLN leadership’s decisions, even when they do not go his way.


Enter Pomi Butt. He became a household name in 2014 when a PTI march passing through Gujranwala, en route to Islamabad, came under attack. The attackers were allegedly led by him. His face was everywhere on national television; he was the subject of many a political joke and talk show.

Ignorant of ideology but sworn to the machismo of fealty; unschooled in organised mobilisation but well-trained in wielding muscle power — he represents a new class of politicians in central Punjab that banks on powerful connections and the magic of money to win votes. “[Pomi Butt] just has money and no political wisdom. He just buys people’s loyalty,” is how Ghulam Dastgir Khan describes his politics.

But Ghulam Dastgir Khan’s anti-Bhutto persona no longer wins votes in central Punjab. That is the reason why the likes of Pomi Butt have begun to swarm the ranks of PMLN.

He entered the party as a councillor for the Gujranwala Municipal Corporation in 1998 and did not leave the party as many others did in 1999 when a military coup ousted the Sharifs from power. His father, Khalid Pervez Butt, is a local businessman who had made money by dealing in metal scrap and was the vice president of the Gujranwala Chamber of Commerce and Industry once. The family wields considerable influence among the local Kashmiri clan, which Ghulam Dastgir Khan is also a member of.

“[Pomi Butt] just has money and no political wisdom. He just buys people’s loyalty,” is how Ghulam Dastgir Khan describes his politics.

Pomi Butt became particularly active in the 2000s. He was often seen with the then PMLN chief Javed Hashmi — and in the front rows of agitations against Musharraf. He also went to London to meet Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif who were living there in exile. “I am loyal to my party. I can leave politics but cannot leave Nawaz Sharif,” he says.

Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the only member of the Sharif family in Pakistan in those years, soon took note of him. That was important because, as Warraich argues, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif effectively runs the entire party in Punjab. “His role has increased over time in selecting people for major slots.” For instance, Warraich says, national and provincial election candidates in Lahore in 2013 were all nominated on his advice.

Pomi Butt dropped out of school at an early age and did not have a bachelor’s degree required to contest elections in the 2000s. So, his brother Imran Khalid Butt has been a PMLN nominee for a Punjab Assembly seat from Gujranwala since 2002. He lost his first electoral contest by a few hundred votes but won easily in 2008 and 2013.

PMLN has promised to nominate Pomi Butt as a candidate for the National Assembly in the next election if the upcoming census results in Gujranwala city getting an additional constituency. His brother Imran Khalid Butt is also promised a slot in the Punjab cabinet — most likely as minister for industries.


A lieutenant of Hamza Shahbaz Sharif’s father has all but ended the hegemony of another member of PMLN’s old guard.

Chaudhry Sher Ali was a PPP man in the early 1970s but he distanced himself from the party in 1974 when Bhutto nationalised Ittefaq Foundry, owned by the Sharifs with whom he is linked through marriage. He contested the election for Faisalabad’s mayor in 1979 but lost. He ran for the same post in 1983 and won.

By that time his wife’s brother-in-law Nawaz Sharif had become Punjab’s finance minister and was soon to become the province’s chief minister after the 1985 general elections. That gave Chaudhry Sher Ali a massive political advantage. Direct access to the provincial government allowed him to provide around 15,000 government jobs to his constituents and get approval for many development projects in Faisalabad, says his protégé Tahir Jameel, a Punjab Assembly member from the city. Chaudhry Sher Ali and his two sons, Abid Sher Ali and Amir Sher Ali, would win multiple electoral contests in the 1990s through to the 2010s.

Rana Sanaullah became politically active around the same time as a member of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship. A local lawyer, he would become the PPP’s president in Faisalabad district a few years later.

Sanaullah won his first provincial assembly seat as a PPP nominee in a by-election in 1990. The seat was vacated by Chaudhry Sher Ali because he retained a National Assembly seat that he had also won. In 1993, Chaudhry Sher Ali won the two seats again and vacated the provincial assembly seat one more time — it was then won by PPP’s Ismail Sila. Sanaullah was a PMLN candidate in that by-election.

Much before the local government elections concluded, rumours were rife in Gujranwala that Ghulam Dastgir Khan was losing his hold on the city’s politics.

Sanaullah switched sides, on Chaudhry Sher Ali’s prompting, because his own party had refused to nominate him as a candidate. Since then, he has won all the elections to the provincial assembly, holding the post of deputy opposition leader in the Punjab Assembly in 2002 to 2007, at a time when the PMLN was under fire. He is now serving his third stint as Punjab’s law minister and, for years, has been challenging his old benefactor — Chaudhry Sher Ali.

Their differences first came to the fore when Chaudhry Sher Ali opposed Shahbaz Sharif’s nomination as Punjab chief minister in 1997. His argument: Shahbaz Sharif favoured technocrats over elected politicians. Sanaullah, on the other hand, wholeheartedly supported Shahbaz Sharif.

In the 2016 local government elections, Chaudhry Sher Ali and Sanaullah pitched their nominees against each other. The former ran a vitriolic campaign against the latter — even accusing him of murdering 22 people. Yet, a Sanaullah- nominee trounced Chaudhry Sher Ali’s son Amir Sher Ali in the election for union councillor. That same nominee would become Faisalabad’s mayor, even though Chaudhry Sher Ali made a last-ditch effort, only to have his endorsement overturned by the top party leadership. Clearly his clout within the Sharif family has waned.

Such factionalism is “inherent” in PMLN, says Warraich. The party is a “continuation” of the non-party-based legislature of 1985 in which various factions vied for the spoils of power, he argues. In the absence of ideology or a rule-bound organisational structure, the legislature existed at the pleasure of the man at the top — General Ziaul Haq. As does the PMLN, at the pleasure of Nawaz Sharif. So the factions make peace when orders come from the top. That somehow could not happen in Faisalabad, says Warraich.


Some other local government heads representing the PMLN in central Punjab have emerged in response to the challenge PTI chief Imran Khan’s mammoth public meeting of Lahore in October 2011 raised. The Sharifs have inducted people who are highly educated and who do not come from traditional feudal, trader or industrialist families — Muhammad Zubair, who has now become Sindh’s governor after heading the Privatisation Commission; Miftah Ismail, who heads the Board of Investment; Marvi Memon, who has been running the Benazir Income Support Programme; and Tariq Azeem, who runs the PMLN’s media team that works as a political training ground for Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

Ahmed Iqbal is the latest entrant to the club. When he says such things as “people yearn for change and have high expectations” of their representatives and “we are a product of a culture of prompt service delivery” he sounds more like a young PTI member than someone representing PMLN. Though his father Ahsan Iqbal has been a PMLN man since long, Ahmed Iqbal initially tried his luck elsewhere. Educated in Pennsylvania, he worked as a World Bank consultant for sometime before joining the World Resources Institute and then the Merrill Lynch bank. But he decided to come back to his hometown of Narowal in 2016 to run in the local government elections. He is now chairman of Narowal district council.

Ahmed Iqbal says he was apprehensive about how the people of Narowal would react to his nomination as chairman. “I feared people here might feel that I was an outsider imposed on them.” That could be true but the PMLN’s supremacy in central Punjab is such that no one raised any questions.


Ghulam Dastagir Khan responded to the published story in a letter to the editor, in which he stated:

[With respect to local polls in Punjab] the part about Gujranwala is based largely on hearsay, omissions and the reporter’s trite shenanigans. The alleged “reports that the Sheikhs would quit the PLMN and join PTI if their man was denied the mayoral seat”, are false. A Sheikh contested on PTI’s ticket against the PMLN in 2013, which negates the statement. Which competent authority in PMLN has “promised” to distribute party tickets and provincial ministries? None is named in the Herald piece. All is innuendo. Without an ounce of substantiation beyond “rumours were strife”, the Herald piece declares an obituary thrice for my influence in Gujranwala politics.


This article was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a staffer at the Herald.