Herald Magazine

The new old order: Elections in districts across Pakistan

The new old order: Elections in districts across Pakistan

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

By Ghulam Dastageer | Danyal Adam Khan | Aurangzaib Khan | Danial Shah

If things are falling apart for the established political order in entire Pakistan, the centre does not hold in Malakand division either. And yet, the 2018 election brings a semblance of hope to a region recovering from years of devastating militancy and displacement.

Voters in the country’s first National Assembly constituency, NA-1 Chitral, have traditionally rallied around religious parties and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for ideological reasons. Pervez Musharraf left a big impression locally by building the Lowari Pass – originally envisioned by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – giving the remote mountain district access to the rest of Pakistan.

With ideology out and money in, the crony-capitalist model of politics practiced by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), and the depending-on-influential-electables model being tested by a buoyant Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have found cachet in a region where politics was once a philosophy.

Come polling day, two significant shifts in voters’ attitudes will decide where their votes go in Chitral. The first – a divide between Sunnis and Ismaili Shias – always existed as a social fault line but is manifesting itself politically only now. In the past, most Sunnis would vote for religious parties while most Ismailis would vote for PPP – and later for Musharraf’s nominees – regardless of the sectarian affiliation of candidates themselves. The two groups may now vote for candidates only from their own sects.

This surge in political sectarianism will deprive PMLN of Ismaili votes but will win it Sunni support because its candidates come mainly from Sunni-dominated lower Chitral. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of five religious parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), will have even wider support among the Sunni population. Its ranks in Chitral, however, are rent by divisions. These splits will strengthen PTI, which is expecting the sectarian, tribal and youth vote, alongside that of the disgruntled JI supporters.

Across the Lowari Pass, in Upper Dir district, the election brings hope that women will be enfranchised after decades of voting bans, enforced through mutual agreements between political parties, both religious and secular. New election rules require that at least 10 per cent of valid votes polled in a constituency must be cast by women. Female madrasa students of JI, a major political force locally, are mobilising women to vote. Other parties are asking for separate polling stations for women with women staff. Still, bringing out women to vote will be a challenge in the northeastern reaches of the district where tribalism is dominant and people are deeply conservative. As for the women themselves, says a Dir-based observer, they have little choice and even less political consciousness. “Some are happy with the Benazir Income Support Programme but cannot stand up to pressure from men in the family. Their vote will go to whoever the men vote for.”

JI has been a main political force in Lower Dir too, thanks to having placed its candidature in influential families – the Sahibzadas, for instance – to the extent that it is hard to say whether the party made them or they made the party. Its local prominence is matched only by that of PPP. The hold of the two parties has been so strong that they are rumoured to have entered pacts in the past to deny space to a third player in the district.

This changed in 2013 when JI sought PTI’s support for one of the two National Assembly seats in Lower Dir. The ‘third force’ has upset more than just the established political structure. In keeping with its brash image, PTI has hit the very factor – the influential family – that has kept older political groups entrenched. The traditional voting pattern steeped in rural Pakhtun values of loyalty to the family or elders has been eroded, in part by the young, who are more susceptible to social media trends than decisions taken in hujras or mosques.

The same family that supported only JI in the past is now split into four, with brothers and cousins contesting under competing banners. JI has also lost its star candidates to PTI. One disgruntled candidate even left to join the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) — not to win but to fragment his former party’s vote. Even as JI still leads, with PPP and PTI close behind, it does so as a much weaker, riven force — a trend also evident in the rest of Malakand, including Buner where JUIF has all but disappeared and JI is in total disarray.

The other political player in the area, PPP, too has to work hard to retain its support base in the neighbouring Malakand district. This much can be gauged from the fact that the party’s chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has chosen a National Assembly seat (NA-8) from Malakand as one of the three constituencies (apart from his native Larkana, and Lyari in Karachi) from which to launch his electoral career. He probably wants to minimise the damage that a group of dissidents, headed by a senior party leader, Lal Mohammad Khan, can do to PPP’s vote bank. He is also seeking to offset Imran Khan’s appeal too. “Imran cannot be young. He is 65. [But] Bilawal is,” says Humayun Khan, PPP’s president in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But the politics of money and electables has bolstered PTI and PMLN respectively and has shrunken PPP in Malakand too.

Party politics die out almost completely in Kohistan and the focus shifts to tribal allegiances and individuals

Ameer Muqam, a PMLN stalwart and a native of Malakand division’s Shangla district, brings a ‘contractor’s approach’ to politics, responding to local demands for roads, electricity and gas. This has made him popular not just in Shangla but also in Swat, where he is contesting on NA-2.

PMLN has also fielded its chief Shehbaz Sharif in Swat’s NA-3, mostly banking on Muqam’s engagement with local voters. “Voters in Swat remember how Shehbaz Sharif, as the chief minister of Punjab, turned away people displaced from Malakand due to militancy in 2009,” says a political observer based in Mingora. “If they vote for him, it would only be on the condition that he does not vacate the seat later.” An embattled PMLN may find it difficult to make such a decision right away.

Perhaps the greatest hope that Swat offers is for the Awami National Party (ANP) — if not to win then to figure back into local politics. Its rank and file were decimated by militancy and insecurity in the district and beyond. Suffering from the trauma of a calculated slaughter of its leadership – as part of a peace committee that resisted the Taliban in Swat – an anxious ANP could not campaign freely due to threats during the 2013 election. It has been quietly reorganising since then to reclaim territory ceded to PTI. A group of workers unhappy with the way PTI’s affairs are handled by its top leadership have set up a nazaryati, ideological faction that may help a resurgent ANP in at least one National Assembly constituency in Swat.

All this party politics, though, has not supplanted traditional power brokers. Clan affiliations are strong and tribal chiefs exert influence over the voting of their communities. They will decide who wins.

Any observer of electoral dynamics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will testify that Hazara division is a PMLN stronghold but the party is struggling to maintain its support base here.

The three lower districts of the region – Haripur, Abbottabad and Mansehra – are at the heart of PMLN’s electoral politics because it is here that five out of seven National Assembly seats in the division are located. The remaining two are spread over the Pakhtun-dominated districts of Battagram, Kohistan and Torghar. This geographical division manifests itself in electoral politics as well. Religious parties are dominant in Pakhtun areas. Other parties have generally done well in the lower districts where speakers of Hindko are in majority.

The regional politics has changed little over the last many election cycles even though PTI, with an agenda of change, has been a major challenger to PMLN here since 2013. Ethnic splits, religious associations, clan-based vote banks and, most importantly, the dominance of political heavyweights, remain major factors that will decide the outcome of the upcoming election.

For decades, the region’s politics revolved around Ayub Khan’s Tareen clan and former chief minister ‘George’ Sikandar Zaman’s Raja family. Omar Ayub, PTI’s candidate from NA-17 Haripur, is the son of former National Assembly speaker Gohar Ayub and the grandson of military dictator Ayub Khan. He served as a state minister in the Musharraf-led government between 2004 and 2007 but could not win in two previous general elections. In 2013, he was defeated as a PMLN candidate by a Raja family scion, Amir Zaman, who was a PTI nominee at the time. It is a testament to the personality-based politics of Hazara that the two families have now switched parties.

Omar Ayub’s main rival for this election is Babar Nawaz Khan. He is in his early thirties, represents a recently moneyed family, has a PMLN ticket and is backed by Zaman. Babar, much like his father Akhtar Nawaz Khan who was killed in 2008, is perceived to be an easily approachable candidate. This reputation is marred by widespread allegations that he and his family are involved in drug smuggling and human trafficking. In fact, he is facing court cases linked to these very allegations.

In NA-16 in Abbottabad city, PTI appears decisively ahead of its competitors. In 2013, Dr Azhar Khan Jadoon, a PTI candidate with no previous electoral success to his credit, won the seat by a wide margin. His opponent, Sardar Mehtab Ahmad Khan Abbasi, had not lost any election since 1985, having worked as a federal minister many times and also as chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Azhar Jadoon’s unremarkable record as a public representative has prompted his party to award the nomination to Ali Jadoon, the young son of a former federal minister, Amanullah Jadoon. The new candidate had made his political mark only a few months ago by winning as district nazim, a post he has now vacated to run in the general election.

Facing him from the PMLN camp after a last minute change is Malik Mohabbat Awan, who is known to have a close association with Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar. Awan was not his party’s original choice. The nomination was first given to Sardar Mehtab Ahmad Khan Abbasi’s son Sardar Sherhyar Khan. This changed when the party refused to give Abbasi senior a ticket for the neighbouring constituency, NA-15, as well. Incensed that the ticket went to a Safdar loyalist, Murtaza Javed Abbasi, both the father and the son decided not to contest the poll.

Ali Asghar Khan, the man PTI has chosen to run against Murtaza Javed Abbasi, is equally divisive. He enjoys a clean reputation bolstered by his late father Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan’s larger than life personality and his own professional status as a UK-trained architect. He has failed to win any election so far and his progressive but docile politics seems distant to local voters. A PTI dissident candidate, Sardar Mohammad Yaqoob, who had been elected as a member of the National Assembly from the same area in 2002, may further damage Ali Asghar’s prospects.

Probably the closest contests in the Hazara region will take place in Mansehra’s NA-13, where former religious affairs minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf’s son, Shahjehan Yousaf, is pitched on a PMLN ticket against a powerful independent, Haji Saleh Mohammad Khan.

Shahjehan Yousaf is seemingly the guaranteed recipient of Gujjar votes – the second-largest tribe in Mansehra after the Swatis – because of being Gujjar himself, but his rival not only has the potential to consolidate all non-Gujjar votes but also has the backing of both PTI and a Safdar-led group within PMLN. The contest is delicately poised.

A candidate in Dera Ismail Khan wishing Eid Mubarak to the people of the city | Danial Shah
A candidate in Dera Ismail Khan wishing Eid Mubarak to the people of the city | Danial Shah

An erstwhile predictable contest in the nearby constituency, NA-14, has suddenly become highly interesting. The constituency is home to PMLN’s Safdar. He contested his first election from here in 2013 and won by a whopping margin. With a resourceful federal government on his side, he is said to have pumped in a good four billion rupees into the area. This, of course, is quickly countered by allegations that he made massive amounts of money through kickbacks and launched schemes of personal benefit. His imprisonment in a corruption reference involving his in-laws’ London properties has only intensified these allegations. Yet he would have easily won — but for his disqualification to contest the polls. His brother, Muhammad Sajjad Awan, has now replaced him as a PMLN-backed candidate.

Confronting Muhammad Sajjad Awan is PTI’s regional president Zar Gul Khan, who most recently won a provincial assembly seat in Kohistan district without a contest. Along with his brother, Zareen Gul, he had considerable say in who got a PTI nomination in Hazara and who did not, resulting in multiple conflicts between the party’s old workers and new entrants. Further up the mountains, Battagram district is famous as a JUIF stronghold that, except for a loss in 2008, has maintained a consistent winning streak for both federal and provincial legislatures. Its candidate, an unassuming Qari Muhammad Yousuf, is a close aide of the party’s chief Fazlur Reman.

His rival, Nawaz Khan, heads the one-time ruling family of Allai area – now a tehsil in Battagram district – and had won the seat in 2008 by a thin margin. He joined PTI after losing the 2013 elections as an independent and is hoping that a JI-associated candidate, Rasheed Ahmed, remains in the run so that MMA does not put up a united front against him.

Party politics die out almost completely in Kohistan and the focus shifts to tribal allegiances and individuals.The district has been divided recently into three parts – Upper Kohistan, Kolai-Palas and Lower Kohistan – but there is still only one seat for all three districts.

Before the 2013 elections, Kohistanis from the central district got together to form the Pattan Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz, an unofficial alliance of local tribes. The joint candidate of this alliance defeated Mehboob Ullah Jan, a former member of the National Assembly who also comes from Pattan.

This time round, the Mahaz has selected Dost Muhammad Shakir, though he does not enjoy support from all the tribes. Residents of Kolai-Palas are split between Shakir, Jan and PTI’s Malik Aurangzeb. Shakir is facing a tough fight from another candidate from Dasu in Upper Kohistan, Afreen Khan, who is a newcomer to politics but has MMA’s ticket. The fact that PMLN’s nominee, Haji Misar Khan, has withdrawn his candidacy in Afreen Khan’s favour, makes him a strong contender.

Habiba Falak, a young lawyer at Charsadda’s sessions court, subscribes to a Pakhtun nationalist ideology. She hopes ANP revives itself in the upcoming election but knows “the chances of that are very bleak”.

Charsadda district is home to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who is known as Bacha Khan, and who set up his red-shirted Khudai Khidmatgaar social welfare movement in the early 20th century. He was also one of the chief exponents of Pakhtun nationalism and, thus, the ideological father of ANP, which is led by his grandson Asfandyar Wali.

Over time, religious politics has made strong inroads into this erstwhile bastion of Pakhtun nationalism. JUIF’s Hassan Jan first defeated ANP’s then chief Abdul Wali Khan in the 1990 election. In more recent times, PTI has also been gaining popularity in the district.

The oldest challenge to ANP in Charsadda came from the Sherpao family that, initially from the PPP platform and now through its own Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), has been a strong contender for power in the district. The scions of the two families do not fight elections against each other any longer, but their rivalry still impacts poll results throughout the district.

Consider Charsadda’s first constituency, NA-23, formerly known as NA-8. Aftab Sherpao, as a QWP nominee, won here by a thin margin. His main rival, JUIF’s Musammir Shah, was only around 3,000 votes behind him. PTI, too, polled more than 30,000 votes against him. All these contenders are in the run again which makes ANP’s role crucial. Its candidate won approximately 16,000 votes in 2013 and can hurt any of the three main candidates by polling the same, or possibly a higher, number of votes.

Aftab Sherpao remains a strong candidate though. His son Sikandar Sherpao has succeeded in bringing four billion rupees of government money to the district for irrigation projects while he was irrigation minister in the last provincial government. But PTI seems to have an advantage here: more than 90,000 new votes have been added to the constituency and many of them are young voters who may prefer PTI over other parties.

In the second constituency, NA-24, Asfandyar Wali Khan bagged 38,264 votes and came third, trailing the winner, JUIF’s Muhammad Gohar Shah, by more than 15,000 votes. JI’s candidate was fourth: he secured 22,664 votes.

MMA, which now combines JUIF and JI, is a leading contender in this constituency. On the other hand, PTI is struggling because it did not launch any major development projects in Charsadda district. What may offset this is the addition of 87,296 new votes, mostly of the young, to the constituency.

In neighbouring Nowshera district, however, PTI seems in the lead. It has nominated former chief minister Pervez Khattak on NA-25 while his son-in-law Imran Khattak is its nominee for NA-26. This hogging of party nominations by a single family has caused some resentment among many PTI supporters but it may not have any electoral impact.

What may have an impact is that Pervez Khattak is facing a PPP rival, Khan Pervez, who has the potential to woo away many of Khattak’s voters living in 22 villages of Nizampur area. This may benefit ANP’s Malik Juma Khan, though he may still fail to beat Pervez Khattak.

In NA-26, ANP’s candidate, Jamal Khan Khattak, appears to be a strong challenger to Imran Khattak mainly because Pakhtun nationalism here is stronger than the Khattak tribal links. A district where PTI appears in even better shape than it does in Nowshera is Peshawar (which now has an additional National Assembly seat, taking its total to five). During the last election, PTI won all four seats from Peshawar district but has not awarded tickets to any of its previous winners.

Banners of PTI workers wishing Eid Mubarak to the people of Dera Ismail Khan | Danial Shah
Banners of PTI workers wishing Eid Mubarak to the people of Dera Ismail Khan | Danial Shah

All five of its candidates for the 2018 election belonged to other parties in 2013. The policy of fielding ‘electables’ to ensure election victories, indeed, has started from what can be called PTI’s alternate home to Mianwali and Lahore.

In NA-27, the PTI nominee is Noor Alam Khan, who contested the 2008 and 2013 elections on a PPP ticket. His former party has fielded Asma Alamgir who – though she is the daughter-in-law of former chief minister Arbab Jehangir Khan Khalil – has two disadvantages: she is contesting on a general seat for the first time and is running from the conservative Pakhtun-dominated suburbs of Peshawar where a woman’s ability to canvass voters remains limited. Another major candidate here is MMA’s Haji Ghulam Ali, who previously headed Peshawar’s local government but does not seem to be in a strong position.

In NA-28, PTI has fielded Arbab Amir Ayub who ended his family’s decade-long association with ANP in 2017 to fight a by-election on a PTI ticket, and won it by a margin of 20,000 votes. His family has strong influence in the constituency so his departure is a major setback for ANP, whose candidate, Shafi Akbar, does not seem to be doing well. The same is true for MMA’s candidate Sabir Hussain Awan who, at best, may retain around 28,000 of the votes that JUIF polled in this constituency in 2013.

Nasir Khan Musazai, who was defeated as a PMLN candidate by Arbab Amir Ayub in the 2017 bypoll, has also joined PTI and received the party’s nomination for NA-29. He will face a tough contest from PMLN’s Amir Muqam, who has proven himself a skillful public mobiliser. Arbab Kamal Ahmed of ANP is also a serious candidate in this constituency.

A tough contest between PPP’s Arbab Alamgir and Sher Ali Arbab (both close relatives) is expected in NA-30. The former’s father, Arbab Jahangir Khan Khalil, never lost an election in this constituency even though he changed parties on a regular basis. The latter enjoys nomination from PTI, which has developed a considerable vote back of its own in the last five years.

PTI chief Imran Khan won NA-31 (previously NA-1) with a huge margin of 65,000 votes in 2013, but his party could not retain the seat in a by-election and lost it to ANP’s Haji Ghulam Ahmed Bilour who is in the run this time too. On July 10, Haroon Bilour, a nephew of Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, was assassinated in a terrorist attack during a campaign event in this very constituency — as was his father, Bashir Bilour, six years ago in similar circumstances. This may hamper the Bilour family’s – and by extension, ANP’s – campaigning in Peshawar as well as other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Though a non-Pakhtun family, the Bilours have always enjoyed strong support among Pakhtun Mohmands living in various Peshawar neighbourhoods. PTI’s candidate, Shaukat Ali, who is a former PPP member, may succeed in breaking this association and garner a sizeable portion of votes from the Mohmands since he himself belongs to the same tribe.

PTI’s electoral success in Mardan division in 2013 was only marginally less remarkable than it was in Peshawar — that is, in terms of seats won.

The party won two out of the three seats in Mardan district. On the third seat, it was only marginally behind the winner, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, who had carried out development projects worth billions of rupees in Mardan as chief minister in 2008-13.

But these results become a little less impressive if deeply looked into. On the two seats that PTI won, its total votes were less than the combined votes of the candidates from JUIF and JI. In NA-20, PTI’s Ali Muhammad Khan secured 46,531 votes but the joint votes received by the two MMA component parties were 58,376. Similarly, PTI’s Mujahid Ali received 38,233 votes in NA-21 whereas the total votes the candidates of JI and JUIF received for the same seat were 42,159.

The fact that JI and JUIF have now joined hands and formed MMA may make it difficult for PTI to repeat its 2013 performance. An additional factor going against the party is that its local members of the National Assembly have alienated their supporters. Ali Muhammad Khan, for instance, was seen more often on television talk shows than in his own constituency. PTI has also launched no development projects in the area with which to woo voters.

Possibly to overcome some of these problems, the PTI leadership decided to replace Ali Muhammad Khan with former provincial minister Iftikhar Mohmand as its election nominee but changed the decision later. Mohmand could have attracted voters from his own Mohmand tribe that has a large presence in the constituency. PTI is now banking on possible support from the 263,642 new voters registered in Mardan between 2013 and 2018.

In Swabi district, too, PTI’s win was facilitated by divisions among its rivals. The party’s stalwart, Asad Qaisar, in fact, polled around 1,500 fewer votes than his two main opponents, JUIF’s Attaul Haq and PMLN’s Iftikhar Ahmed Khan.

Swabi’s second seat was secured by Usman Khan of the Tarakai family that is famous for its highly profitable tobacco business. The family formed its own party, Awami Jamhoori Ittehad, in the run-up to the 2013 elections and romped to victory on one National Assembly seat and two provincial assembly ones. The party has since merged with PTI, with one member of the family having now became a PTI senator.

The combined votes polled by PTI’s own candidates in 2013 and those supported by the Tarakai family exceeded the combined votes of other major candidates in almost all local constituencies. This gives a strong boost to PTI’s electoral fortunes in the district.

PTI’s ‘wave’ in the last general election helped it win all three National Assembly seats in Kohat division. For the 2018 elections, the going has gotten a little tough.

When Shehryar Afridi won the sole National Assembly seat in Kohat district with 68,129 votes on a PTI ticket in 2013, his vote tally was more than double of his nearest rival’s, but he is not comfortably placed for the upcoming election. Like in most parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa other than Peshawar and Nowshera, PTI has not initiated any noticeable development schemes in Kohat. Additionally, Shehryar Afridi did not maintain contact with his electorate during his stint as a member of the National Assembly. His party was initially reluctant to give him an election ticket for that very reason. What may still go in his favour is that 96,924 more votes have been added to the district recently. A large number of them are young people who may favour PTI over other parties.

Shehryar Afridi’s main rival, JUIF’s Gohar Muhammad Khan Bangash, locally known as Gohar Saifullah, was a distant runner-up in the last election. He is now running on a ticket from MMA that includes a Shia party, Tehreek-e-Jafaria Pakistan. This may help him get Shia votes in his constituency through a Shia associate running for a provincial assembly seat in the same area.

Abbas Afridi, a PMLN candidate, is also being considered a strong candidate because of what is locally known as ‘transformer politics’ — providing electricity connections and carrying out other development work.

Karak, the second district in Kohat division, is known for being a stronghold of religious parties, particularly JUIF, but its only seat was won by a PTI candidate, Nasir Khattak, in the last election. PTI is still popular among the youth. Many of the 89,492 new voters the district has added may also vote for it.

The main challenger to PTI’s new candidate Shahid Ahmad Khattak is Mir Zakim Khan, an MMA nominee, but his prospects have been impacted negatively because many senior JUIF officials have announced that they will not support him.

Another notable candidate in the district is PMLN’s Rehmat Salam Khattak.

In Hangu district, it is PTI that is riven by divisions. Some of its activists are not happy over provincial assembly nominations and their dismay has the potential to hurt the party’s National Assembly candidate, Khial Zaman Orakzai, as well. He, in any case, is being criticised for residing in Dubai most of the time and only occasionally visiting his constituency. PTI is also facing criticism over its poor performance in terms of developing the district.

What adds to Khial Zaman Orakzai’s woes is that his victory margin was thin. His opponent, Mian Hussain Jalali of JUIF, was only 2,930 votes behind him. Most of the votes polled by Jalali will now go to Atiqur Rahman, MMA’s candidate for the upcoming election, who additionally enjoys good ties with the local Shia community that has 15-20 per cent of the total votes in the district.

Bannu division has been a JUIF stronghold for the last decade. The party stemmed a PTI tide here by winning both National Assembly seats in 2013.

For the upcoming election, Imran Khan himself has opted to contest from the seat won in the last polls by JUIF’s Akram Khan Durrani (who is now an MMA candidate). The PTI chief’s personal charisma has the potential to take over Durrani’s stronghold in the district though it will require a lot of doing. In his tenure as chief minister in 2002-07, Durrani had invested huge amounts of government money in the district.

Wrangling between JI and JUIF, however, does not augur well for him. A number of senior JI members have decided to support Imran Khan against him.

PTI is also being supported by Nasim Ali Shah, a JUIF dissident, who bagged over 45,000 votes against Durrani’s 78,294 votes in the last election — PTI’s own candidate secured 25,392 votes. In order to cement its ties with Nasim Ali Shah, PTI’s provincial government allocated hundreds of millions of rupees earlier this year for his madrasa, Al-Markaz Islami.

The addition of 134,872 new votes to the district gives PTI another advantage (though many of the young, first-time voters in Bannu could be students of madrasas run by JUIF).

MMA and PTI are also vying for Lakki Marwat’s lone National Assembly seat. It was won easily by JUIF chief Fazlur Rahman in the 2013 elections but his brother, Attaur Rahman, could not retain it in a by-election and lost to PTI’s Amirullah.

In the upcoming election, MMA has pitched a strong candidate, Muhammad Anwar, while PTI has made an alliance with the famous Saifullah family of Lakki Marwat that has had multiple members in various legislative houses for decades, representing different parties at different times. PTI reportedly gave the family a free hand to choose election nominees in the district. This resulted in the party’s National Assembly ticket going to Ishfaq Ahmed Khan who joined PTI in April this year and got only 39 votes in 2013.

This has upset Akhtar Munir, a brother of the late parliamentarian Anwar Kamal Khan Marwat. Having secured more than 22,000 votes in 2013 as a PMLN nominee on a provincial assembly seat, he was expecting a PTI nomination for the National Assembly. His unhappiness may go in MMA’s favour.

A commuter in his mid-twenties gestures towards newly built roads as he rides a motorcycle-rickshaw on the main highway that links Dera Ismail Khan with Bannu. He says Ali Amin Gandapur, a confidant of Imran Khan and a former provincial minister, has changed Dera Ismail Khan for the better. He also credits Gandapur for setting up the city’s first public park where “no hooligans are allowed” and where women and children have exclusive entry rights a few hours each day.

Gandapur is now a candidate for NA-38, one of the two National Assembly seats in Dera Ismail Khan. He is counting on development schemes – a new emergency ward at the district hospital, sewerage lines in some neighbourhoods, roads and solar-powered street lights in others – as well as the popularity of his party, PTI, especially among young voters.

His opponent is a political heavyweight, Fazlur Rehman, who has deep-rooted political and religious influence in Dera Ismail Khan, and beyond. His family has been politically active in the district since the days of his illustrious father Mufti Mehmood back in the 1960s. Fazlur Rehman has also capitalised on the anxieties of the district’s Pakhtun population vis-à-vis its relatively larger Seraiki population. He opposes the merger of Dera Ismail Khan with a proposed Seraiki province if and when that materialises. To his advantage, none of his opponents have the ability to consolidate the Seraiki vote, a big chunk of which in recent times has gone to PTI.

Faisal Karim Kundi, another serious contender in the constituency, has been trying to win over Seraiki voters but success has eluded him. Otherwise, he has sizeable support thanks to the political legacy of his father Fazal Karim Kundi who won the local National Assembly seat as a PPP candidate in 1990.

A boat with a PTI flag at the bank of Indus River in Dera Ismail Khan | Danial Shah
A boat with a PTI flag at the bank of Indus River in Dera Ismail Khan | Danial Shah

The other major political fault line in the district is the difference between urban and rural voters. The former vote on the basis of party-ideology-performance and the latter on the basis of tribe, clan and other social and religious considerations. How the two main candidates utilise this difference will largely determine their victory or loss.

Fazlur Rehman is also a candidate in Dera Ismail Khan’s second constituency. In this mainly rural Pakhtun-dominated area, he is depending on the conservative and religious ethos of his constituents for support. One of his main rivals is Sardar Umar Farooq who has developed a strong electoral machine in the constituency, mainly working through kinships, tribal affiliations and patronage distribution networks.

The second district of the division, Tank, has always followed Dera Ismail Khan’s politics, mostly because the two districts shared a National Assembly constituency until recently. It is for the first time that Tank has got its own constituency, though its politics it still tied to its larger neighbour.

One of the main contenders here is Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s son Asad Mahmood. His father secured this seat, along with two others, in 2013, but then a PTI candidate, Dawar Khan Kundi, won it in a by-election.

Asad Mahmood’s main challenger is Habibullah Khan Kundi, a PTI nominee who was earlier in PMLN, but Dawar Khan Kundi is also in the run as an independent. This will divide the votes of the Kundi tribe that resides in both Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, and will also split the anti-JUIF vote.

There is, essentially, nothing new about these electoral battles. What is new is how some voters are behaving towards candidates. In one neighbourhood in Tank city, people have asked for two million rupees for 1,200 votes. They say they need the money to get gas connections. In another part of the city, people are asking for 15 million rupees in exchange for around 800 votes. They want to use the money to build a five-kilometre road.

Another major election issue here is the scarcity of irrigation water. Many candidates are promising that they will address the problem by building small dams. Whom the voters trust will be known only after polling day.

Danyal Adam Khan and Ghulam Dastageer are staffers at the Herald. Aurangzaib Khan is a Peshawar-based freelance writer. Danial Shah is a travel photographer and writer.


By Umer Farooq | Danyal Adam Khan | Sher Ali Khan | Danial Shah | Fareedullah Chaudhry | Rizwan safdar

PTI candidate Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad for NA-107 in Faisalabad participates in a rally in his constituency | Rizwan Safdar
PTI candidate Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad for NA-107 in Faisalabad participates in a rally in his constituency | Rizwan Safdar

Islamabad has finally attracted the electoral attention it deserves. Three national level politicians, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Imran Khan and Asad Umar of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are contesting for two of the three constituencies in the federal capital.

This also sets the tone for electoral battles throughout northern and central Punjab where the two parties are vying for supremacy. The battle is fierce for its outcome will determine who makes a government in Islamabad and also in Lahore.

Voters in Islamabad’s NA-53 will partake in this clash on the side of either a former prime minister or a prospective one. An urban-rural mix, the constituency includes Imran Khan’s house on a hill in Bani Gala. For Abbasi, it is an unchartered territory since he lives in, and contests elections from, nearby Murree. The odds do not seem to favour him.

In NA-52, PMLN’s Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry is a local resident and appears to be a strong contender. He has been winning from more or less the same parts of the capital since 2008. His PTI opponent, Raja Khurram Nawaz, who heads his party’s Islamabad chapter, has his work cut out for him — to overcome PTI’s deficit of around 36,000 votes in 2013.

Afzal Khokar, a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidate, is also a serious contender here. His brother Nawaz Khokhar has won in the 1990s from this area more than once and his family wields a strong influence in the constituency.

The last constituency in Islamabad includes many urban neighbourhoods that existed only in planning papers when the last constituency boundaries were drawn in 2002. These are mostly low-income areas where urban sprawl is haphazard and civic facilities bad.

Asad Umar, a corporate boss-turned-politician, won a by-election from these very neighbourhoods in 2013 (when these were a part of the capital’s oldest constituency to the east). His main challenger, PMLN’s Anjum Aqeel Khan, won as a member of the National Assembly in 2008, also from the federal capital. The third main contender, Mian Muhammad Aslam of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), too, was elected to the National Assembly from Islamabad back in 2002. He may not make much of a difference to an apparently two-horse race, with PTI seemingly ahead of PMLN.


By Umer Farooq | Danyal Adam Khan | Sher Ali Khan | Danial Shah | Fareedullah Chaudhry | Rizwan safdar

Rawalpindi’s electoral politics is dominated by two former PMLN stalwarts, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Both have enjoyed the confidence of the party’s top leader Nawaz Sharif to varying degrees in the past.

They are now running on two National Assembly seats each, the former with PTI’s support and the latter in opposition to it.

In one of the two constituencies he is contesting from, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan is also up against a PMLN candidate, Raja Qamrul Islam, who is in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) over allegations of corruption. His campaign is being run mainly by his teenage children which may help him get some ‘sympathy’ votes though winning the constituency will take much more than that.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has won eight consecutive elections from more or less the same areas since 1985. This time round, though, he is campaigning with a couple of handicaps: firstly, he does not have the support of a party machine that not just ran his campaigns in the past but also provided human resources to man polling stations on polling day; secondly, he will not get the votes of diehard PMLN supporters who number at least a few thousand in both constituencies he is running from.

These factors give his old rival Chaudhry Ghulam Sarwar an edge in both constituencies. Whether he will win is not certain but what is certain is that PMLN will lose — thanks to the challenge from within by Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and the offensive launched from the outside by PTI.

PMLN, similarly, is disorganised in the two constituencies being contested by Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad. One of his opponents, Daniyal Chaudhry, is the son of Chaudhry Tanveer Ahmed Khan — a PMLN senator and real estate magnate in Rawalpindi who is considered close to Nawaz Sharif. This link could be a bane. Nawaz Sharif’s imprisonment in Rawalpindi may require Chaudhry Tanveer Ahmed Khan to be at the beck and call off his jailed leader. This may distract him from campaigning.

Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad’s second opponent is Hanif Abbasi who, by virtue of his proximity with former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, was given a say over large state funds to spend in his constituency even when he held no elected office. He is trying to canvass voters, touting development schemes launched by him — a tactic not quite countering the combined strength of personality, party and biradari that characterise Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad’s campaign.

The lone seat where PMLN seems ahead of its opponents in Rawalpindi district is being contested by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in his home constituency. He – and his father Khaqan Abbasi before him – have been running from this area since 1985, having lost just once in 2002.

The nearby constituency, comprising Gujar Khan tehsil, is the only Rawalpindi seat where PPP has a strong candidate, former prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. He has the potential to upstage his PMLN and PTI opponents.

Three districts adjacent to Rawalpindi – Jhelum, Chakwal and Attock – were PMLN’s strongholds in the last election. For the upcoming elections, the party is in trouble there just like it is in Rawalpindi.

The main reason for the change is PMLN’s campaign rhetoric of victimisation at the hands of the army-dominated establishment. The more the party intensifies its anti-establishment slogans the less popular it gets in these districts because they have been main army recruiting grounds since the early 20th century. A large part of their population consists of working and retired army officials and their families.

“People in the region are extremely loyal to the army. They turn against anyone who speaks against the army,” says reporter Razi Khan who works at a conservative daily in Attock. In Jhelum, like in many other places, some senior PMLN members are not supporting its candidates. One of its serial winners, Raja M Afzal, has lost his electoral mojo and the other, Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi, has recently passed away. Many notable local ‘electables’, who once flocked together in PMLN, have now flown to PTI.

For the district’s two National Assembly seats, PTI has given its ticket to two members of the same family. Fawad Chaudhry, the party’s spokesperson, is running in one constituency and his cousin Farrukh Altaf, whose father Chaudhry Altaf Hussain served as Punjab’s governor in the 1990s, in the other. The two appear stronger than their PMLN rivals — barring a last minute surge in public support for a jailed Nawaz Sharif.

In Attock, PTI has given its tickets for the district’s two National Assembly seats to the same man: Major (retd) Tahir Sadiq Khan. He is closely related to Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi – the Gujrat-based leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) – and has headed Attock’s local government in the 2000s. His reputation of a ‘doer’, combined with his skill in handling group-based and biradari-driven electoral dynamics, makes him a very strong contender.

One of Sadiq’s challengers is a known PMLN leader, Sheikh Aftab Ahmed. He has worked as a federal minister more than once but seems to be struggling against his powerful rival. Same is the case with Malik Sohail Karamyial, PMLN’s candidate in the other constituency in Attock. In Chakwal, PMLN has won many elections by challenging local land owners called sardars (chiefs). Its candidates generally come from an educated, salaried class that appeals to government employees and their families, mostly consisting of serving and retired soldiers. PMLN has lost support from many of these voters in recent months. A tough fight is still expected between sardars and anti-sardar candidates, says a local journalist.

A main leader of a sardar group, Sardar Ghulam Abbas, is a habitual turncoat who put together a strong influence-wielding network after he was elected to head the district government in the 2000s. He joined PTI in 2011 but quit in 2012 to join PMLN. A few months ago, he rejoined PTI but, after his own National Assembly nomination has been rejected by courts, he is not supporting PTI’s candidates in the district.

PTI seems clearly ahead of PMLN in one of the remaining constituencies of the district, thanks to eminently ‘electable’ Rana Nazir Khan.

Sardar Zulfiqar Ali Khan Dullah, who has replaced Sardar Ghulam Abbas as a PTI candidate, was originally a PMLN candidate for a provincial assembly seat. He joined PTI just before party nominations were finalised. As local rumour has it, he has been pushed by a ‘hidden’ hand into PTI.

The other National Assembly seat in Chakwal will see a keen contest between former chief minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Muhammad Faiz Malik, who won as a PMLN candidate in 2008 but has been hopping parties since 2002. The former is not a native of the district but has fought and lost an election here in 2013, by a thin margin, to the latter who is a member of an influential local clan. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi now enjoys PTI’s support as well as the backing of PMLN’s 2013 winner Sardar Mumtaz Tammam, who is also the uncle of Muhammad Faiz Malik; add to that his own vote bank, he has an edge over his rival.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is highly visible across this region. Its candidate secured more than 16,000 votes in a recent by-election in Chakwal, showing its ability to cause some serious electoral damage to PMLN.

The battle between PMLN’s anti-establishment mobilisation and the supposed groundswell for PTI’s slogan of change will be won or lost either way in Gujranwala division. In one corner in this fight is PMLN’s politics premised on trader-financed, biradari-led voter networks that are run through patronage distribution and are held together with development schemes. In the other is PTI whose ‘insurgent’ ideology is defined by a youthful demand for expansion in the political pie to include emerging middle-class professional groups (though, of course, it is already quite tampered by the large-scale arrival of those who have mastered PMLN-style politics over decades).

Throughout the division, the two competing brands are doing whatever it takes to outsmart the other. PTI, in many places, seems ahead of PMLN which, nevertheless, is fighting back strongly in many other places. Both sides have their weaknesses: PMLN is ridden by factions and PTI is facing widespread resentment from its old guard over the entry of ‘electables’.

While PMLN’s core supporters in Gujranwala city have been excited by Nawaz Sharif’s defiance in the face of his conviction and imprisonment, the party’s local leaders – Barrister Usman Ibrahim and Khurram Dastagir Khan – were quibbling till very recently. Their tussle ended only after the man they were fighting over joined PTI.

Both Khurram Dastagir Khan and Barrister Usman Ibrahim could be facing their toughest election after 2002 when PMLN lost all the seats in the district.

Local office of a PMLN candidate on Susan Road, Faisalabad | Rizwan Safdar
Local office of a PMLN candidate on Susan Road, Faisalabad | Rizwan Safdar

In NA-81, Mehr Siddique is looking more formidable than he ever was as a PPP nominee in previous elections. Flush with money and buoyed by the rise of his new party, PTI, he is facing Khurram Dastagir Khan who could be hurt by the revival of an old Kashmiri versus araeen biradari fault line in his constituency. He will have to convince his non-Kashmiri voters that he is not the representative of a single community. It does not appear as easy as it sounds: Mehr Siddique is bent upon strengthening the cleavage while he himself is banking upon a Kashmiri candidate for the provincial assembly to deliver Kashmiri votes to him.

In the city’s second constituency, there is a similar split between Ansaris and Mughals. PMLN’s Barrister Usman Ibrahim belongs to the former and his PTI rival, Ali Ashraf, the scion of a known industrialist family, comes from the latter. PMLN’s candidate is helped by the fact that a Punjab Assembly candidate for his party in the same area is a Mughal.

The deciding factor here will be the level of mobilisation among core supporters of the two parties. If PMLN workers come out in massive numbers on polling day in a show of defiance against the establishment, Barrister Usman Ibrahim will sail to victory. On the other hand, a PTI youth charge on the day of election can easily knock him down.

PTI seems clearly ahead of PMLN in one of the remaining constituencies of the district, thanks to eminently ‘electable’ Rana Nazir Khan. His son Umar Nazir Khan is in the run against a PMLN candidate who was defeated in 2013 on a PPP ticket by 60,000 or so votes.

On another seat, PTI has fielded Chaudhry Bilal Ijaz who secured 70,000 votes in 2013 as an independent. He is running against PMLN’s Azhar Qayyum Nahra. The contest is delicately balanced and will be decided in the rural hinterland of Nowshera Virkan tehsil where caste and clan connections count much more than anything else.

PTI candidate for NA-107 in Faisalabad, Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad, being welcomed by his supporters | Rizwan Safdar
PTI candidate for NA-107 in Faisalabad, Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad, being welcomed by his supporters | Rizwan Safdar

In a city-meets-village constituency, the fight is between Tariq Mehmood, who recently left PMLN and joined PTI, and Mehmood Bashir Virk who was federal law minister in Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s cabinet. Here, the battle between the traditional and the new is fierce and will be won or lost based on whether Tariq Mehmood’s urban voters turn out to vote in greater numbers or Mehmood Bashir Virk’s rural ones do.

The last constituency in the district is witnessing yet another round of a traditional electoral rivalry between the Cheemas and the Chathas of Wazirabad tehsil. Muhammad Ahmed Chatha, whose father Hamid Nasir Chatha was a nationally known politician in the 1990s, is running against Dr Nisar Ahmed Cheema, a former bureaucrat whose brother Justice (retd) Iftikhar Ahmed Cheema has represented the same constituency in the two previous elections. Their third brother, Zulfiqar Cheema, has worked on prized police posts in Punjab under former chief minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Parties here matter as a complementary, not a primary, factor — which is why the same set of candidates have been moving from one party to another almost every election cycle.

In Gujrat district, PMLN’s 2013 dominance is gradually declining. A seat adjustment deal between PTI and PMLQ in two National Assembly constituencies has weakened PMLN’s prospects on both. It, indeed, has struggled to pitch a serious candidate against Chaudhry Pervez Elahi in one of these constituencies. His own cousin Chaudhry Mubashir Hussain finally agreed to be a PMLN candidate though he was initially reluctant to even contest the polls.

In the second constituency, NA-68, Hussain Elahi, a nephew of former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, is running on a PMLQ ticket against former PPP leader Nawabzada Ghazanfar Ali Gul who is now a PMLN nominee. The election will be yet another round in the perennially ongoing contest for supremacy between the district’s two most eminent clans, Nawabzadas and Chaudhrys. The latter may have an edge, courtesy support from PTI.

In NA-70, it is not PMLN’s Jaffar Iqbal but PPP’s Qamar Zaman Kaira everyone is talking about. The two come from the Gujjar clan which has dominated this constituency for three decades. There however, can be only one Gujjar winner and last time it was Jaffar Iqbal. Will it be Qamar Zaman Kaira’s turn is one of the most asked questions within the constituency.

Their PTI rival, Syed Faizul Hassan Shah, has to defeat both. His task will be made easy if the two Gujjars take a high number of votes from their own clan but fail to muster much support from the rest of their constituents.

The fourth seat of the district will see a re-run of the 2013 contest between Abid Raza and Al-Haaj Muhammad Ilyas Chinioti. The former has often managed to get a majority of his constituency’s conservative Sunni votes but this time round some of these votes could be taken away from him by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan which has been campaigning aggressively throughout Punjab against PMLN’s candidates.

In Mandi Bahauddin city (and its adjoining rural areas), PMLN does not have a prominent candidate. Its local representative in the last National Assembly, Mumtaz Ahmad Tarar, refused to take part in the polls citing ill health.

PTI’s candidate in this constituency is Haji Imtiaz Ahmed Chaudhry whose brother Chaudhry Ijaz Ahmed won as an independent from this constituency in 2013 but was later disqualified from being a member of Parliament.

The contest on Mandi Bahauddin district’s second seat is important for more than one reason. A former PPP federal minister Nazar Muhammad Gondal is contesting here as a PTI nominee. He was once among politicians cited by Imran Khan as Pakistan’s most corrupt. His brother is allegedly implicated in a multibillion scam at the Employees Old Age Benefit Institution. Will this demoralise PTI’s core anti-corruption supporters in the constituency?

Secondly, the constituency has been a traditional battleground between two dominant clans: Gondals and Bosals. They have often taken turns at coming into power. Will this trend continue in the 2018 elections as well?

Lastly, PPP’s candidate here – as well as its nominee in the other constituency in the district – faces a serious test. Can they retain their core party support, regardless of victory or defeat, in an area that PPP has won multiple times since 1993?

Another party – Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – faces a test on Hafizabad district’s lone seat. It has its best chance of winning a legislative seat here (at least for the provincial assembly).

Liaqat Abbas Bhatti, a state minister in 2012-13, is running on a Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan ticket against his nephew Shaukat Bhatti who is a PTI nominee. Their PMLN rival is former federal health minister Saira Afzal Tarar whose father Afzal Hussain is the head of the district council. Shaukat Bhatti’s father Mehdi Hassan Bhatti remained undefeatable in 1993, 2002 and 2008.

The constituency’s result will also show whether Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan worked with laser precision to hit its intended target (PMLN) or, like many things in electoral politics, it followed the law of unintended consequences and ended up hurting its supposed beneficiary (PTI).

Another district where Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is campaigning vigorously against PMLN is Sialkot. Former federal law minister Zahid Hamid’s son, Ali Zahid, who is running as a PMLN nominee in Pasrur area, is being particularly targeted due to his father’s alleged role in making supposedly pro-Ahmadi changes in election nomination forms back in 2017.

This may help Ali Zahid’s main rival, former student leader and long-time PPP associate Ghulam Abbas, break an electoral jinx he has been experiencing for the last three decades. He will additionally have to overcome differences within the local members of his new party, PTI.

PMLN still has a visible edge over PTI on at least two seats in Sialkot — one where Armaghan Subhani is running against Firdaus Ashiq Awan and the other on which former foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif is pitted against Usman Dar. The contest is fierce but not entirely a cliffhanger.

A combination of development schemes and sway over biradari votes seem to be working well against Firdaus Ashiq Awan who quit PPP last year to join PTI. In the second constituency, Khawaja Muhammad Asif is buoyed by a recent Supreme Court verdict that has overturned his lifelong disqualification by a high court judge from being a member of Parliament. The level of an establishmentarian mobilisation among PMLN’s local cadre is also higher than the excitement for PTI’s agenda for change is in Usman Dar’s camp.

In Narowal district, former federal interior minister Ahsan Iqbal is a favourite on one seat – unless Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s canvassing against him gathers enough momentum to deprive him of thousands of Sunni-Barelvi votes. Otherwise, his PTI rival, singer Abrarul Haq, will find it hard to win here.

In the second Narowal constituency, PMLN’s nominee, Mehnaz Akbar, has to work really hard to put her own house in order before she can pose a serious challenge to her PTI rival Mian Rasheed (who was in PMLN in 2013). Her disqualified husband, former federal minister Daniyal Aziz, will be running her campaign.

Sargodha division has been dominated by ‘electables’ of different types. Parties here matter as a complementary, not a primary, factor — which is why the same set of candidates have been moving from one party to another almost every election cycle.

In the most recent round, PTI has managed to attract several well-known ‘electables’: former PPP leader Nadeem Afzal Chan, relatives of former PPP senator Ehsanul Haq Paracha, former legislator Ghias Ahmad Mela (whose family has changed many parties over the last three decades) and the family of former PMLQ stalwart Chaudhry Anwar Ali Cheema (who won seven elections in a row). This roster is further strengthened by the presence of Pir Qasim Sialvi, one of the custodians of the district’s most respected Sufi shrine in Sial Sharif town, and Nadia Aziz, a young educated politician who has been in both PPPP and PMLN previously.

Anyone will struggle against this ‘dream team’.

But these ‘electables’ have created many splits within PTI. In NA-88, to cite just one example, Nadeem Afzal Chan is facing the resentment of Haroon Paracha who has been in PTI for quite a few years now. He is contesting as an independent now.

Similarly, in NA-90, consisting of Sargodha city, Nadia Aziz’s nomination has angered PTI’s former ticket holder Abdullah Mumtaz who, too, has announced to contest independently. In NA-91, too, a senior PTI member, Nazir Sobhi, is not supporting his party’s nominee, Anwar Ali Cheema’s son Amir Sultan Cheema.

NA-92, perhaps, has seen the most curious PTI nomination in Sargodha. The party originally gave its ticket to a former senior official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Zafar Qureshi. His brother, Mazhar Qureshi, has won the same constituency twice in the past. The ticket, however, was withdrawn later and given to Pir Qasim Sialvi who had not even applied for it. An angry Zafar Qureshi parted his ways with PTI.

PTI looks set to sail through in spite of these differences. Its chances, indeed, have been bolstered with Sialvis inclusion. His family is believed to have influence over thousands of voters across Sargodha district as well as in many parts of nearby Faisalabad division. PMLN, on the other hand, is struggling because of its internal problems. In NA-88, it has given its ticket to its former member of Punjab Assembly, Dr Mukhtar Ahmad, denying it to its 2013 winner Aminul Hasnat Shah. The latter comes from an eminent religious family of Bhera and is a follower of the Pir of Sial Sharif. A disgruntled Hasnat is not campaigning for his party’s nominees.

For NA-90, PMLN initially nominated Dr Liaqat Ali Khan, a former local government representative, but later changed the decision. The ticket finally went to Hamid Hameed who has faced many problems in launching his campaign mainly because his cousin and main financer, Chaudhry Muhammad Iqbal, has joined PTI.

In NA-92, too, a former PMLN member of the National Assembly, Shafqat Baloch, has been denied nomination so he is campaigning against the party’s nominee Syed Javed Hasnain Shah.

PPP’s most prominent candidate in Sargodha is former state minister Tasneem Qurehsi. Having lost ground in much of Punjab after 2008, the party is trying to stop, or at least slow down, its decline in many parts of the province. The number of votes he gets will determine whether these efforts are succeeding in Sargodha.

In Khushab, like in Sargodha, PMLN is split within and challenged without. The party is spilt in three major groups here — the Sangha group headed by district council chairman Ameer Haider Sangha, the Sumaira Malik group and the parliamentarians group. These are campaigning against each other and may, thus, hand the advantage over to PTI.

Natasha Daultana with her supporters in her constituency | Shafiq Butt
Natasha Daultana with her supporters in her constituency | Shafiq Butt

In NA-93, the PMLN nominee is Sumaira Malik who was a state minister in Musharraf’s regime. She is pitted against PTI’s Malik Umar Aslam Awan. Her other challenger, Malik Mazhar Awan, is the paternal uncle of Shakir Bashir Awan who heads the parliamentarians group and himself is a PMLN nominee in NA-94. The Sangha group is also backing Malik Mazhar Awan. This will seriously dent Sumaira Malik’s support base.

Though Malik Shakir Bashir Awan is not facing any internal challenges in NA-94, he is running against a powerful PTI nominee, Malik Ehsanullah Tiwana. The two have strong sway over local biradaris and are being backed by influential groups and individuals. A nail-biting contest is expected between them.

In Mianwali, the contest appears to be rather one-sided. PTI is visibly ahead of its competitors in both the National Assembly constituencies here. This is rather unprecedented for an area that has mostly, if not entirely, voted along tribal lines since the mid-1990s. Rokhris, Niazis and Shadikhels have dominated local elections for long.

Imran Khan has been working to turn Mianwali – his father’s home district – into a PTI bastion since 2002. His party won both the National Assembly seats in Mianwali in 2013 with a wide margin (though it could not retain in a by-election the one later vacated by Imran Khan himself). This time round, PTI’s flag is flying even higher here. The party’s supporters are happy to vote for anyone nominated by Imran Khan. They are excited by the possibility that the next prime minister could be from Mianwali.

PMLN, on the other hand, has lost its image in the district. Its National Assembly candidates, Obaidullah Khan and Humair Hayat Khan Rokhri, come from families that have won many elections in the past but their prospects have been dimmed since the hanging of Punjab governor’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri in 2016 during their party’s tenure in power.

The issue of blasphemy has been salient in Mianwali as far back in the past as 1920 when the district saw big protests in the favour of Ilm-uddin who had killed a Hindu publisher of an anti-Islam book in Lahore. One of the earliest initiators of anti-Ahmadi agitation in Pakistan, Abdul Sattar Khan Niazi, also belonged to Mianwali. He remained prominent in local politics till his death in 2001.

This explains how – by celebrating Qadri as a ‘martyr’ of the blasphemy issue – Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is gaining popularity in Mianwali. One of its National Assembly candidates, Malik Sajjad Bhachar, appears more prominent in some areas than his PMLN rival even though the chances of his victory are slim.

While party politics is seeing a sort of revival in Mianwali under the aegis of PTI, the same party is strengthening politics in Bhakkar that follows the familiar lines of personality, clan and tribe. On one of the two local National Assembly constituencies, PTI has given its ticket to Dr Afzal Khan Dhandla, a highly influential land owner who was in PMLN very recently.

He is looking strong though he is facing a tough competition from two independents Naeemullah Khan Shahani and Saeed Akbar Khan Nawani. Abdul Majeed Khan Khanan Khail, running for the other seat in the district, is the only local ‘electable’ running on a PMLN ticket. Others have stayed away from the party, sensing it may not return to power.

Religion, sect, Sufi shrines and their hereditary custodians, or pirs, play important electoral roles in Faisalabad division as do big land owners, biradari elders, transporters and industrialists. In between these, parties, too, have found some footing.

In district Chiniot, for instance, a combination of party affiliations, pirs, personal influence and religious/sectarian identities is operative across the electoral landscape.

In NA-99, one of the two National Assembly seats in the district, Ghulam Muhammad Lali, an influential land owner with a near total support of his Lali biradari, is running on a PTI ticket. He successfully contested the last election as a PMLN nominee.

His main challenger is Syed Asad Hayat, a PPP nominee, whose elder brother, former federal minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, lost this seat by a margin of around 13,000 votes in 2013. Their close relative, Syed Abid Hussain Imam, also polled 17,220 votes. If Syed Asad Hayat manages to combine these two vote tallies, he will be ahead of Lali — though electoral math does not always work so smoothly.

PMLN’s candidate in this constituency is Rehan Qaiser. He is the son of a businessman, Qaisar Ahmed Sheikh, who has been running in the adjacent constituency, NA-100, since 1993.

Qaisar Ahmed Sheikh finally won in 2013 on a PMLN ticket but is facing serious challenges in retaining the seat. A major setback to him has been the refusal by Ilyas Chinioti, a former PMLN member of Punjab Assembly, to run on the party’s ticket. Like his father Maulana Manzoor Ahmad Chinioti, he is a local leader of the movement against Ahmadis whose religious headquarters is based in the nearby town of Rabwah.

Ilyas Chinioti did not want to associate himself with PMLN because of the allegations that the party made changes in election nomination forms to secretly facilitate Ahmadis’ participation in the election process without having to reveal their faith.

The other problem for Qaisar Ahmad Sheikh is that, just like him, a Japan-based businessman, Sheikh Qaisar Mahmood, is contesting the election as an independent, banking on his ability to outspend his rivals.

The other notable candidates in the constituency are PTI’s Zulfiqar Ali Shah and PPP’s Syed Inayat Ali Shah. The former was PPP’s candidate in 2013 (when he came second after Qaisar Ahmed Sheikh); the latter came a distant third as a PTI candidate back then. Before that, between 2008 and 2013, Syed Inayat Ali Shah was a PPP member of the National Assembly. Zulfiqar Ali Shah was Chiniot’s tehsil nazim between 2001 and 2009 and has been the initiator of many development schemes. He also enjoys strong support among the local Shia population (which traditionally votes for PPP).

If a PTI surge uproots PMLN from NA-107 AND NA-108 too that will mean that Nawaz Sharif’s monopoly over central Punjab’s politics is well and truly over — at least for the 2018 elections.

Electoral politics changes only slightly in Faisalabad district, with parties playing a relatively bigger role than other factors.

Voters and ‘electables’ in the district are also good at following the direction of the political wind: in 2002, six of Faisalabad’s 11 seats were won by the nominees of PMLQ that subsequently formed the government; in 2008, six seats were won by those associated with PPP which later came into power; in 2013, the district was swept by PMLN that ruled the country for the next five years.

Following their political instincts, local ‘electables’ have now joined PTI in droves. It remains to be seen whether voters will also support the same party.

In NA-101, PTI’s candidate is Zafar Zulqarnain Sahi whose uncle Afzal Sahi was Punjab Assembly’s speaker in 2002-07. The Sahi family enjoys a positive public image (notwithstanding frequent changes in its party affiliations) due to its ability to bring government money into the area for development projects and provide jobs in the public sector.

PMLN has not awarded its ticket to anyone here but an independent candidate, Chaudhry Muhammad Asim Nazir, enjoys its support. He has previously won three times as a member of the National Assembly and happens to be the younger brother of district council Faisalabad’s chairman Chaudhry Zahid Nazir. He also has strong biradari links with local Arain elders who possess sizeable vote banks.

PPP’s nominee, Tariq Bajwa, has also won the same constituency in the past and has the potential to give a strong fight to other contenders.

PTI has awarded its ticket in NA-102 to Nawab Sher Waseer who was previously in PPP. He is pitted against former state minister for interior Talal Badar Chaudhry who seems to be facing trouble in convincing his constituents to vote for him again. People complain he was seen more on television screens than among his voters during his tenure in power. It was mainly for this reason that his own uncle Akram Chaudhry decided to run against him but senior members of their biradari have effected a truce between the two. Now, Akram Chaudhry is a covering candidate for Talal Chaudhry who is facing a contempt of court case at the Supreme Court. If he is disqualified then his uncle will contest the election in his place.

All three main contenders in NA-103 come from Baloch families who have been winning from this area for the last three decades. PMLN has awarded its ticket to Ali Gohar Khan Mahar whose elder brother Rajab Ali Baloch won the poll in 2013 but died of cancer in May this year. PTI’s nominee, Saadullah Baloch, is their nephew. He polled only 11,000 votes on the same party’s ticket in 2013.

Hafiz Saeed is showered with rose petals as he arrives in Faisalabad for the election campaign | Rizwan Safdar
Hafiz Saeed is showered with rose petals as he arrives in Faisalabad for the election campaign | Rizwan Safdar

PPP has fielded Shahadat Ali Khan Baloch who took more than 23,000 votes in the last election but has the potential to snatch the seat from his rivals this time round.

In NA-104, PMLN’s ticket has gone to former member of the National Assembly, Shahbaz Babar whose family has always been loyal to his party. In contrast, PTI’s candidate, Sardar Dildar Ahmad Cheema, has contested elections from the platform of many parties. He is also known for spending big on his election campaigns. His vast Jutt vote bank, however, could be damaged by an independent candidate, Khalid Mehmood Gill.

PPP’s candidate in this constituency, Rana Farooq Saeed, is also an old war horse. He has previously worked as a federal minister and has influence over a large network of biradari-led vote banks. But he may still be haunted by the poor performance of PPP’s 2008-13 government. A triangular fight between PMLN’s experienced parliamentarian Mian Farooq, PTI’s Raza Nasrullah Ghumman and Chaudhry Masood Nazir, the son of district council Faisalabad’s chairman Chaudhry Zahid Nazir, is taking place in NA-105. The last candidate’s late grandfather Chaudhry Nazir Ahmad Kohistani (who made his name and money by running a successful bus service in the 1980s) won three elections from this constituency. A critical role will be played here by committed party voters. Whichever party is able to bring out its core voters in big numbers on polling day will win the seat.

A cliffhanger of a competition is expected in NA-106 where two-time former member of the National Assembly, Nisar Ahmed Jutt of PTI, is running against PMLN’s former Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah Khan. The former has been in various parties since 2002, including in PMLN. The latter is one of Shehbaz Sharif’s closest confidants.

Though he is running for the first time for a National Assembly seat, Rana Sanaullah Khan is deftly deploying his influence over local government representatives in Faisalabad to his advantage. What may go against him is his defence of PMLN in the wake of the controversy over changes in electoral forms last year. Many Sunni-Barelvi votes in his constituency are likely to go to his opponent.

Within Faisalabad city, PMLN looks stronger than PTI on both NA-107 and NA-108. In the former constituency, Akram Ansari will be attempting to record his sixth win. His PTI rival, Sheikh Khurram Shahzad, will require a massive shift in voting patterns in this constituency to be able to cause an upset. The latter constituency, too, has been a PMLN stronghold since the 1990s and PTI’s Farrukh Habib does not look like he is capable of changing that.

If a PTI surge uproots PMLN from these two constituencies too that will mean that Nawaz Sharif’s monopoly over central Punjab’s politics is well and truly over — at least for the 2018 elections. In the next two constituencies, NA-109 and NA-110, PMLN is already struggling. Its candidates, Mian Abdul Mannan and Rana Afzal, respectively, are facing formidable challenges from their PTI rivals Faizullah Kamoka and Raja Riaz.

Party politics in the neighbouring district of Toba Tek Singh district is next to absent. It hosted a historic conference of peasants in 1970 but, today, local politics is all about influential individuals and biradari-based vote banks.

An intense contest is expected in its NA-111 constituency between two brothers, Chaudhry Khalid Javed Warraich (running on a PMLN ticket) and Amjad Ali Warraich (contesting as the nominee of his own party, Pakistan National Muslim League). PTI, too, has fielded a strong candidate, Osama Hamza, whose father, Hamza, retired as a PMLN senator in March this year and has strong support in the area. Hamza will further benefit from the political influence of Khalid Bashir, a known local transporter, who is running on a PTI ticket for a provincial assembly seat. In NA-112, PTI has fielded its 2013 runner-up Chaudhry Muhammad Ashfaq, the owner of ChenOne luxury stores, against PMLN’s Junaid Anwar who won the seat in the last election. Ashfaq, though, may have an upper hand this time round.

PTI has made an interesting decision to award its ticket for NA-113 to former federal minister Riaz Fatiyana who had also formed his own party recently. He is believed to be capable of defeating PMLN’s Chaudhry Asadur Rehman whose close ties with Nawaz Sharif through his brother, former Supreme Court justice Khalilur Rehman Ramday, are a major factor in his electoral prowess.

The trend of personality-based politics has been even stronger in Jhang district. So has been the flight of ‘electables’ from the PMLN camp here. The party has all but disappeared in all three local National Assembly contests.

In NA-114, PTI’s Sahibzada Mehboob Sultan is running against a formidable foe, PPP’s Faisal Saleh Hayat. The former is heir to Sultan Bahu, a famous Sufi saint, and the latter is the custodian of a revered shrine in his hometown of Shah Jewna. The contest is evenly poised. Ghulam Bibi Bharwana, who quit PMLN only months ago to join PTI, is running in NA-115 against Sheikh Waqas Akram (who is contesting as an independent after having rejected a PMLN nomination). The two have their own distinct electoral legacies to carry forward. Ghulam Bibi Bharwana is the granddaughter of Ghulam Haider Bharwana, one of the first politicians in the district to deploy the Sunni-Shia divide for his electoral benefit. Sheikh Waqas Akram’s family has also been in local politics since the 1980s, mostly in opposition to sectarian mullahs.

The third main contender here, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, is the inheritor of another political bequest — of violent anti-Shia sectarianism. He, however, is embattled from within his own camp. Masroor Jhangvi, whose father Haq Nawaz Jhangvi founded Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan to have Shias declared as infidels, is up in arms against Ludhianvi’s nominee for a provincial assembly seat, Muavia Azam, who happens to be the son of another Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan stalwart Azam Tariq. This infighting will further diminish the already eroded influence of sectarian politics on the local electorate.

On a recent Sunday evening, a Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan rally holds sway over empty roads that pass through PMLN’s home turf: National Assembly’s constituencies between Lahore’s Qartaba Chowk – on the confluence of Jail Road and Ferozepur Road – and the shrine of Data Gunj Bukhsh. It passes through an election office inaugurated only days earlier by former chief minister Shehbaz Sharif’s son Hamza Shehbaz. The office is eerily quiet.

For only the second time since 1985, Lahore is witnessing an election campaign that does not feature Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN. At least not as prominently as in the past and certainly not as conspicuously as the party’s real and self-imagined challengers – PTI and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, respectively – do in the city.

This may have to do with many factors. Firstly, PMLN is distracted due to Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, being in jail. Secondly, the Election Commission of Pakistan’s code of conduct has sucked all life out of electioneering. Strict limits on the size of campaign banners and fliers, etc and where they can be displayed or not, have dampened the spirit of festivity usually associated with election time. Lastly, general political uncertainty and a widespread perception that the election process and its outcome are rigged have diluted popular excitement about and engagement with campaigning. As a collective result of all these factors, we are having an election that does not even remotely look like what we had in 2013. That election could well have taken place in a different country.

Back in Lahore’s various constituencies, many of PMLN’s National Assembly candidates are confused at best and inactive at worst. They are finding it difficult to engage their constituents in voter mobilisation events. In any case, many of these constituents are unhappy that their lives have changed little over the last five years when the party was in power. Others are angry that their elected representatives did not maintain in regular touch with them.

In 2013, PMLN’s top leadership was out and about to address such problems. Nawaz Sharif was mobilising core PMLN supporters all over the country with big public gatherings. Shehbaz Sharif was ensuring that many public grievances were addressed there and then through his strong sway over Punjab’s bureaucracy and many second-tier leaders went from street to street to urge people to get out and vote for the party. Returning to power in Punjab was a certainty. Making a government in Islamabad also appeared a strong possibility.

All that is absent this time round — as is the certainty that PMLN will sweep polls in Lahore. In NA-123, the party’s two-time member of the National Assembly, Muhammad Riaz Malik, is struggling to retain a seat that he won in 2013 by a comfortable margin of around 60,000 votes. For the upcoming election, he is facing a new PTI challenger, Wajid Azeem, who polled more than 35,000 votes in 2013 in a provincial assembly constituency. In a subsequent by-election, he only lost by just over 300 votes to a PMLN candidate despite the fact that the party was ruling both in Lahore and Islamabad at the time. Yet the seat is PMLN’s to lose.

What may work in Riaz’s favour is PTI’s internal discord. Some old party workers are unhappy that they have been overlooked in the nomination process and, instead, Azeem has been imported into the constituency from another part of Lahore. In NA-124, Hamza Shehbaz will romp to victory as he did in the last election. His PTI opponent, Nauman Qaiser, is a resident of another part of the city and his nomination, at the expense of the party’s 2013 nominee Muhammad Madni, has not gone down well with many PTI activists in the constituency.

In NA-125, PTI heavyweight Dr Yasmin Rashid looks ahead of a rather lightweight PMLN nominee Waheed Alam Khan, who in 2013 fought election from a different constituency. She has old family ties in some parts of her constituency and knows it well, having served as a gynaecologist in various hospitals located here. Maryam Nawaz was originally nominated to run in this constituency but she later decided to contest in NA-127 and was then disqualified altogether from running.

PMLN’s cause will be further hurt here by its dissident Zaeem Qadri running as an independent and the candidates of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and other religious parties. Between the three of them, they can poll many thousand votes at the party’s expense. Former Punjab governor Mian Azhar’s son Hammad Azhar will have a re-run of his 2013 election contest on a PTI ticket against his PMLN rival Mehar Ishtiaq Ahmad in NA-126. The contest may go down to the wire.

The same can be said about NA-127 where Ali Pervaiz, son of PMLN leader Pervaiz Malik, is contesting his first election against PTI’s Jamshed Iqbal Cheema. It looks like a safe PMLN seat but the party’s candidate is inexperienced and lacks political stature which may lead to a tougher than expected fight.

Though PMLN’s Sheikh Rohail Asghar has lost a big chunk of his traditional stronghold north of the historic Shalimar Gardens, he is still the strongest contender in NA-128. His PTI challenger, Ijaz Ahmad Diyal, may have support in some rural parts of the constituency thanks to his family’s history of winning – and losing – elections in this part of Lahore but he does not look like a winning horse.

NA-129, however, may see one the toughest electoral battles in Punjab’s capital. While former National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq will be trying to score his fourth election win in a row as a PMLN nominee, senior PTI leader Aleem Khan will be trying to secure a victory that eluded him by an extremely narrow margin in a 2015 by-election. The contest is as even as it could have ever got.

PTI candidate for NA-107 in Faisalabad, Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad, being welcomed by his supporters | Rizwan Safdar
PTI candidate for NA-107 in Faisalabad, Sheikh Khurrum Shahzad, being welcomed by his supporters | Rizwan Safdar

In NA-130, PTI’s Shafqat Mehmood will be trying to ward off a challenge from PMLN’s Khwaja Ahmad Hassan. The same two candidates were squared off on this seat in 2013, with Shafqat Mehmood winning by a margin of more than 7,000 votes. While PTI is expected to do well in rich and middle-class areas such as Model Town, Gulberg and Muslim Town, PMLN’s neighbourhood-level network may help its cause in the less well-off parts of the constituency. And even though many voters are unhappy that Shafqat Mehmood did not pay them much attention in the last five years, this is unlikely to slow down PTI’s electoral juggernaut by much. The fight is too close to call.

The next constituency, NA-131, will similarly see a very close contest between PMLN’s Khawaja Saad Rafiq and PTI’s chairman Imran Khan. Consisting of some of the city’s most upscale areas of Cantonment and Defence, the constituency looks like an archetypal PTI stronghold – with highly educated, high-income constituents for whom ideas like justice, merit and transparency hold higher value than development schemes. If, however, they do not come out in large numbers to vote for PTI as they did in 2013, the contest will be decided in the poorer parts of the constituency where the two sides are evenly poised, with PMLN having a bit of an edge.
In NA-132, Shehbaz Sharif is expected to win easily though he will face some resistance from PPP’s Samina Khalid Ghurki (who has won twice in 2002 and 2008 from areas that form the northern parts of this constituency) and PTI’s Muhammad Mansha Sindhu who enjoys considerable support in many southern neighbourhoods.

PTI’s senior leader Ejaz Chaudhry, PPP’s Aslam Gill and PMLN’s Pervaiz Malik are all outsiders to NA-133 which consists of many middle-class and working-class localities in the southern part of the city. None of these three candidates is a vote-puller on his own. It is here that the relative strengths of the three main parties will be decided on their very own merits or demerits. PMLN, though, may receive some damage from its dissident, Zaeem Qadri, who is running as an independent.

In NA-134, PTI’s Zaheer Abbas Khokhar is pitted against PMLN’s Rana Mubashir Iqbal, who won a Punjab Assembly seat from this area in 2013 but was later disqualified from being a member of the legislature. The former won from this part of the city in 2002 on a PPP ticket but has failed to repeat that since. Odds still seem to be in favour of the PMLN candidate unless a PTI wave sweeps across Lahore and also carries its local candidates to victory.

NA-135 and NA-136 see contests in which two Khokhars from PTI are running against two Khokars from PMLN. The latter also happen to be brothers.

PMLN is facing many challenges here due to the incumbency factor. One of its candidates, Afzal Khokhar, was a member of the National Assembly between 2013 and 2018. The other, Saiful Mulook Khokhar, was a member of the Punjab Assembly in the same period, apart from being a confidant of Hamza Shehbaz. Their constituents complain the two have not looked after their voters as they should have.

The two still look stronger than their PTI counterparts, Karamat Khokhar and Malik Asad Ali, who both have not won an election so far. If PMLN’s campaign fails to gain momentum but that of PTI does take off in a big way before polling day, close fights will be expected on both these seats. While PMLN looks decidedly ahead of PTI in Lahore, electoral battles in nearby Kasur will all be hard fought. The former party has fielded its tested candidates — except in one case where its former member of the National Assembly, Sheikh Waseem Akhtar, has been disqualified from running in election and his son, Saad Waseem, is now contesting in his place. The latter party has given tickets to ‘electables’, as it has done elsewhere in Punjab.

In NA-137, PTI’s candidate is former foreign minister Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali who joined the party in 2012, then left it only to rejoin again recently. He comes from an old elite family and brings its influence to bear upon election results — and that is what counts for PTI.

His main rival is PMLN’s Saad Waseem who, because of his youth, may not be as effective a campaigner as his jailed father would have. The third notable contestant is PPP’s Chaudhry Manzoor Ahmad who is running probably his best campaign since 2002 when he won in the same constituency.

Malik Rashid Ahmed, a PMLN nominee in NA-138, will be trying to retain the National Assembly seat he won in 2013 by fighting off a challenge from PTI’s Rashid Tufail whose late father Sardar Tufail Ahmed was a member of the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly in the past. The contest in the constituency is a tough one and will be ultimately decided by whether enough local voters believe that PTI will come into power after the 2018 elections. That is not a difficult thing to believe in this election.

A tough fight is expected in a constituency that includes Sahiwal city.

In NA-141, PTI has fielded Azeemuddin Lakhvi who was in PMLQ in 2013 — and before that in PMLN. His PMLN rival is Rana Ishaq Khan whose brother Rana Muhammad Iqbal has worked as the speaker of the Punjab Assembly between 2008 and 2018.

In NA-142, a traditional rivalry between the Ranas and their Nakai opponents has taken the form of a clash between two parties. Here, Rana Hayat Khan is representing PMLN and Sardar Talib Nakai is a PTI nominee. The former seems to have an edge.

In Kasur, as in Lahore, PMLN’s electoral monopoly does not appear to be as total as it was in 2013 though there have been no notable defections from the party to PTI. In the neighbouring districts of Sheikhupura and Nankana Sahib, though, the party has lost only one of its members of the National Assembly, Bilal Virk, to PTI. He is now contesting against PMLN’s star candidate in the area, Chaudhary Barjees Tahir, in NA-117. This is not Bilal Virk’s home turf. Since his own constituency has disappeared amid redrawn constituency boundaries, he does not seem to pose a serious threat to his opponent.

Another PMLN defector to PTI, Chaudhry Asghar Ali, is a former Punjab Assembly member. He is running in NA-120 against former federal minister Rana Tanveer Husain who – along with his brother Rana Afzal Hussain (contesting in NA-119) – has been a serial winner in this part of Punjab. PTI’s search for winning ‘electables’ has been unsuccessful in these two constituencies. Still PTI seems to be offering a strong fight in a couple of constituencies in Sheikhupura — as in NA-121 where PMLN’s Mian Javed Latif is facing a serious PTI challenger, Saeed Virk, besides having to contend with a local revolt within his own party. Another strong candidate in this constituency is former member of the National Assembly, Khurram Munawar Manj, who is running as an independent. His father, Munwar Manj, also won from Sheikhupura in the 1990s before his arrest and conviction in a drug smuggling case.

In NA-122 Ali Salman – whose father, Salman Siddique, is a former federal secretary – is running a strong campaign as a PTI candidate. He is pitched against PMLN’s many-time winner Sardar Irfan Dogar.

In district Nankana’s second constituency, NA-118, PMLN’s Shazra Mansab Kharal is facing multiple challengers but the most serious of them is PTI’s Ijaz Ahmed Shah who polled 56,050 votes in this constituency as an independent in 2013, coming second by a narrow margin of around 5,000 votes.

In Sahiwal division, a mélange of factors constitute local politics — political parties being an important part of it. Though influential families and individuals dominate the political scene across the division, many of them seem to realise that they cannot win an election without party support. This explains their desperate search each election cycle to get into a party that helps them win. The most notable change in the division has taken place in PPP’s camp in Okara district. After its 2013 rout in Punjab, the party was hoping to revive itself in the district, relying on its central leader Manzoor Ahmad Khan Wattoo’s ability to regain his own electoral strength in his home district but then all those hopes came crashing down. He first refused to contest election in NA-144 on a PPP ticket and then let his son and daughter get PTI’s nominations for provincial assembly seats.

His main challenger, Mian Moeen Wattoo, has been representing PMLN since long and will be a tough competitor to beat. If, however, Manzoor Ahmad Khan Wattoo succeeds in making an alliance with a PMLN dissident, former provincial minister Raza Ali Gilani, his chances will be boosted, particularly given that PTI is also supporting him.

Raza Ali Gillani is upset with his party because, rather than nominating him from his provincial assembly constituency, PMLN is supporting an independent, Lahore-based journalist Jugnu Mohsin, who is also the wife of Pakistan Cricket Board’s chief Najam Sethi. Her father’s family has also remained active in Okara’s district politics in the past.

PTI’s National Assembly nominee in this area, NA-143, is a former parliamentarian, Syed Gulzar Sabtain, who has been in PMLN and PMLQ previously and appears well-suited to give PMLN’s ticket holder Rao Ajmal a run for his money.

In NA-141, another party hopper Syed Sumsam Ali Bokhari, who was a state minister in PPP’s 2008-13 government, is running on a PTI ticket against PMLN’s 2013 winner Nadeem Abbas Rabera. The latter has the wherewithal to beat the former.

Riazul Haq, running from a constituency that includes Okara city, famously won a by-election in 2015 as an independent on the back of his ghee manufacturing family’s deep pockets and then joined PMLN. The party has given him the ticket, pitching him against PTI nominee Rao Hasan Sikandar whose father, Rao Sikandar Iqbal, was a PPP stalwart before he joined Pervez Musharraf’s government in 2002.

Compared to these frequent changes in party affiliations, Sahiwal district looks like an island of consistency. Most battles here are being fought along the same party lines as in 2013. A tough fight is expected in a constituency that includes Sahiwal city between Chaudhry Naurez Shakoor on a PTI ticket and PMLN’s 2013 winner Imran Shah whose lead in his last victory may prove too much for his competitor to nullify. A PTI surge, that has yet to materialise in the district, is the only way for Chaudhry Naurez Shakoor to score a win.

Another major contest in the district is expected in NA-149. PTI’s candidate here, Rai Hasan Murtaza, is the nephew of Rai Hasan Nawaz, a former parliamentarian who was disqualified after winning the 2013 elections, also as a PTI nominee. In a subsequent by-election, PMLN’s Tufail Jutt defeated Rai Hasan Murtaza. The two rivals are facing each other again – and none seems to have an advantage.

In a bid to revive its declining vote bank, PPP has also fielded its candidates on three seats in Sahiwal. If they get more votes than their party did in 2013 here that would give them hope that all is not over yet. Otherwise, a PPP revival will become a dream that never gets realised. In Pakpattan district, both PTI and PMLN are facing internal challenges. The former party’s nominee, Muhammad Shah Khagga, is being challenged by Rao Naseem Hashim, PTI’s own district president. Similarly, Mansib Ali Dogar, a two-time member of the National Assembly and a previous PMLN nominee, is running as an independent against his party’s ticket holder Ahmed Raza Manika whose brother Khawar Raza Manika’s former wife Bushra Begum is Imran Khan’s third wife.

In NA-146, Pakpattan’s second constituency, PMLN’s Rana Iradaat Sharif and PTI’s Mian Amjad Joyia are pitted against each other. The former’s father Rana Zahid Hussain was a member of the National Assembly from this area but he has been barred by a court from taking part in the polls.

PTI’s candidate looks better placed on this seat even as he is being challenged by his own party’s Waseem Zafar Jutt who is contesting as an independent. Rana Iradaat Sharif will have to work hard to convince many disgruntled voters to support him. He will also have to neutralise the electoral impact of another PMLN associate, Talha Saeed, who is running as an independent.

In all three divisions in southern Punjab – Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Bahawalpur – tribal chiefs, pirs, influential land owners and even some businessmen dominate the electoral scene. They also often change parties in each election cycle and have done the same this time round. This has resulted in PMLN losing a large number of its 2013 winners to defections. They are now either in PTI (having taken a brief detour through Junoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz, a hurriedly put together platform to justify their desertion from a ruling party that they remained a part of for five years).

In five districts in this region that together have 25 National Assembly seats, PMLN seems to have been left with just seven notable local candidates: Awais Leghari and Shamoona Ambreen in Dera Ghazi Khan; Abdul Ghaffar Dogar and Syed Javed Ali Shah in Multan; Haroon Ahmed Sultan Bokhari in Muzaffargarh; Arshad Leghari in Rahim Yar Khan; and Alam Dad Laleka in Bahawalnagar. These are all legacy politicians with solid electoral records but only one of them, Awais Leghari, looks in a position to win his seat in the 2018 elections (provided there are no dramatic changes in local politics).

In contrast, PTI’s camp is brimful of ‘electables’. Just to name a few: Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Fatima Tahir Cheema (wife of former PMLN member of the National Assembly Tahir Bashir Cheema), Mustafa Khar, Zulfiqar Ali Khan Khosa and Makhdum Khusro Bakhtiar. Those who have not joined PTI – such as the Gorchanis in Rajanpur – are running as independents.

In Bahawalpur, PTI has, additionally, cut seat adjustment deals with both PMLQ and the family of the former nawab of Bahawalpur. It is also supporting Ziaul Haq’s son Ijazul Haq on a National Assembly seat in Bahawalnagar (that he has won multiple times in the past) in return for his support for PTI’s provincial assembly candidates.

And in at least three districts, PPP appears well-placed to win a few seats.

Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his two sons (in Multan); Mehr Irshad Sial, former foreign minister Hina Rabbani’s brother Raza Rabbani Khar and renowned politician Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan’s son Nawabzada Iftikhar Ali Khan (in Muzaffargarh); and Murtaza Mehmood and Mustafa Mehmood, both sons of former Punjab governor Ahmed Mehmood (in Rahim Yar Khan) may romp home, barring some last minute developments.

In five other districts in the region, PMLN still has a strong list of candidates in most of their 16 constituencies: Riaz Hussain Pirzada, Muhammad Balighur Rehman, Saud Majid and Najeebuddin Awaisi in Bahawalpur; Siddique Baloch and Abdul Rehman Kanju in Lodhran; Sajid Mehdi, Saeed Ahmad Manais and Tehmina Daultana in Vehari; Sahibzada Faizul Hassan and Saqlain Bukhari in Layyah; Aslam Bodla, Iftikhar Nazir and Muhammad Khan Daha in Khanewal. How many, and which, of these seats PMLN can win is not easy to answer but a mere look at the roster of its opponents shows that its own ‘electables’ are being matched constituency by constituency by those in PTI’s camp. Raza Hayat Hiraj, Ahmed Yar Hiraj, Zahoor Hussain Qureshi and Ghulam Murtaza Maitla in Khanewal; Akhtar Kanju in Lodhran; Ishaq Khakwani, Aurangzeb Khichi, Khalid Mehmood Chohan and Tahir Iqbal in Vehari; Syed Samiul Hasan Gilani and Khadija Amir Warran in Bahawalpur and Niaz Ahmed Jhakkar in Layyah — this list is as impressive as there can be in this part of the country.

The contest on these seats is further complicated by the presence of many strong independents such as Syed Fakhar Imam in Khanewal and Ayesha Nazir Jutt in Vehari and also by an occasional notable nominee by PPP such as Natasha Daultana, also in Vehari. South Punjab, it seems, is all set to do what it always does best: finding the direction of political wind and moving along it.

Danyal Adam Khan, Sher Ali Khan and Amel Ghani are staffers at the Herald. Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based journalist with an interest in politics, security and foreign policy issues. Danial Shah is a travel photographer and writer. Rizwan Safdar is a PhD scholar of sociology at Government College University Faisalabad and contributes regularly to the Herald. Shafiq Butt is associated with Punjab Lok Sujag, a development organisation focusing on governance. Fareedullah Chaudhry works as a district correspondent for daily Dawn.


By Moosa Kaleem | Bilal Karim Mughal | Manoj Genani | Subuk Hasnain | Momina Manzoor Khan

Flags representing Pakistan Peoples Party in Keamari, Karachi | Momina Manzoor Khan
Flags representing Pakistan Peoples Party in Keamari, Karachi | Momina Manzoor Khan

Muhammad Ali Behleem, a 50-year-old resident of Larkana city, has been a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) supporter since his childhood. He has voted for the party in every election in the last three decades but has decided not to vote for it in the 2018 polls. “PPP has failed to follow the policies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto to deliver public goods. This is why I have decided to stop supporting it,” he says.

A number of urban residents in the two upper Sindh divisions of Larkana and Sukkur have similar complaints against the party. They, though, do not know who to vote for if not for PPP. There is no alternative, many of them say.

The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), a combination of many parties and influential individuals, is trying to offer that alternative. It is also supporting candidates of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) as well as some independents in a patchwork of seat adjustments spread across Sindh as an attempt to consolidate all anti-PPP votes.

The largest component of this alliance is Pir Pagara’s Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PMLF) that first appeared on the national scene in the 1980s as the only legally functional political entity at a time when General Ziaul Haq had placed a ban on organised politics. Some other parties in the alliance, Sindh United Party, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party and Awami Tehreek, are all offshoots of Sindhi nationalism that was a potent ideology across Sindh until a couple of decades ago.

The assumption behind the formation of GDA is that anti-PPP votes get split among various candidates who sometimes collectively poll more vot es than PPP does in a constituency. Throw in seat adjustment deals with other alliances, parties and candidates outside GDA and there will be the possibility to defeat PPP even in its strongholds — at least in theory.

Rashid Mehmood Soomro, who heads JUIF in Sindh and is an MMA candidate in Larkana’s NA-200 constituency against PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, believes the theory is being put into practice this time round. “In the last election in this constituency, total anti-PPP votes were 30,000 more than those polled for PPP,” he says. Claiming that both GDA and the Larkana Awami Ittehad, an alliance headed by the family of PPP’s dissident former senator Safdar Abbasi, are now supporting him, he adds: “All those votes will be polled in my favour. It will be an easy win for me against Bilawal.”

The numbers do add up. The second and third runners-up, PMLF’s Mehtab Akbar Rashidi and Moazzam Ali Khan, together polled 60,751 votes. PPP’s Ayaz Soomro polled around 10,000 votes less than that and yet he won.

Moazzam Ali Khan Abbasi, who is also a leader of the Larkana Awami Ittehad, is supporting Rashid Mehmood Soomro but 16 other candidates, including one from PTI, are still in the run against Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. The votes against him may still split but by a lesser degree. But he is not Ayaz Soomro, a third-tier party worker with no personal appeal. “He is Benazir Bhutto’s son and is contesting his first election,” says Ghulam Hussain Katpar, a teacher in Naudero town near Larkana. “Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will win with a good margin,” he adds.

Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah, a senior PPP parliamentarian from Sukkur, offers another explanation. Only 50 per cent votes of each component party get transferred to the candidate of an alliance, he argues. His contention is that many voters of a party in an alliance will not feel motivated to cast their ballot for someone who they do not associate with politically. “This is why it is a wrong assumption that all votes polled by various candidates against PPP in previous elections will be pocketed by a single candidate,” he says.

PPP’s candidates have another edge over their rivals in Sindh. They have vast experience of electioneering and possess the ability to convince voters to support them even at the eleventh hour.

Women voters and a majority of non-Muslim voters in many constituencies across Sindh are an additional reason why PPP wins. “[The party] has strengthened women financially through its Benazir Income Support Programme,” says Kalpana Devi, a member of a lawyers’ association in Larkana. “It has also done some important legislation that has benefitted religious minorities,” she says. “This is why a good number of women and non-Muslim voters are with PPP.”

The competition for NA-196 in Jacobabad district is going to be tougher than it was in 2013. A large number of voters belonging to urban areas appear unhappy with PPP. Resentment towards the party among local traders is high. “A majority of traders and their families are not ready to support PPP in this election,” says Ahmed Ali Brohi, who heads the Jacobabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Some leaders of the local Hindu community are also disgruntled because of bad law and order, abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls. Most Hindus living in Jacobabad do not seem inclined to vote for PPP, they say.

Muhammad Mian Soomro, a former Senate chairman and caretaker prime minister in 2007-08, is running on a PTI ticket in NA-196 against PPP’s Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani who has won the seat in the last three elections. The former is the scion of a local family that has been eminent in Sindh’s politics for decades. His cousin Ilahi Bux Soomro was the National Assembly speaker in the 1990s. But, as local writer S B Khoso says, Muhammad Mian Soomro neither lives in Jacobabad nor is accessible to people. “This is why Jakhrani has an edge in the election.”

In NA-197 in Kashmore district, PPP’s Ehsanur Rehman Mazari and GDA’s Abdul Ghani Bijarani are opposing each other. Their contest seems to favour the former over the latter. PPP is in a similarly strong position on Qambar Shahdadkot district’s two seats – NA-202 and NA- 203 – and its candidate in Larkana’s second seat, NA-201, is also leading.

The same cannot be said about Shikarpur district’s two constituencies — NA-198 and NA-199. Ibrahim Jatoi is running as an independent in the first and Ghaus Bux Mahar is contesting as a GDA nominee in the second. They have a history of defeating their PPP rivals. For the 2018 elections, however, Ibrahim Jatoi is not as comfortably placed as he would be in the past because constituency boundaries have been redrawn and a large number of his supporters have ended up in a different constituency. Ghaus Bux Mahar is facing a new PPP challenger and the changed boundaries of his constituency are also posing some problems but he may still win.

PPP’s electoral prospects have suffered a jolt in Ghotki district where the Mahar Brothers – Ali Muhammad Khan Mahar and Ali Gohar Khan Mahar, who both won National Assembly seats as the party’s nominees in 2013 – decided to run independently for the 2018 elections (Ali Gohar Mahar is running from Sukkur this time). They were upset because the party had welcomed into its fold some of their arch rivals in local politics such as Khalid Ahmed Khan Lund (who quit PPP and joined Pervez Musharraf’s government after winning a National Assembly seat in 2002). He is now PPP’s ticket holder in NA-204 where he is leading against Abdul Haque who is being backed by the Mahar brothers as well as GDA.

PPP is set to win both the seats in Thatta and Sujawal districts — thanks to the inclusion of the powerful Shirazis in its fold a few weeks earlier.

On the neighbouring seat of NA-205, Ali Mohammad Mahar is ahead of his relatively little-known PPP rival Ahsanullah Sundarani. But the Mahar clan itself is divided. Ali Mohammad Mahar’s bother Ali Nawaz Mahar is a PPP nominee for two provincial assembly seats and their cousin Muhammad Bux Mahar is canvassing on the party’s behalf. This has turned the contest into a very interesting one.

In Sukkur district, GDA is backing PTI on the district’s two National Assembly seats, NA-206 and NA-207. This will help their unanimous candidates to put up strong fights but PPP’s candidates – Khursheed Ahmad Shah and Nauman Islam Sheikh – seem to be doing fine. PPP is also leading in Khairpur district that has three National Assembly seats: NA-208, NA-209 and NA-210. Nafisa Shah Jillani, a known writer and human rights activist whose father Qaim Ali Shah has been Sindh’s chief minister multiple times, is running on a PPP ticket in NA-208 against former chief minister Ghaus Ali Shah who is contesting as a GDA nominee. It is a close fight though PPP may have a bit of an edge.

In NA-209, GDA’s Pir Sadruddin Shah Rashidi, the younger brother of Pir Pagara, is ahead of his PPP rival Fazal Shah Jillani. In NA-210, however, PPP’s Syed Javed Ali Shah Jillani is a little ahead of GDA’s Syed Kazim Ali Shah in what, otherwise, is a very close contest. PPP is leading on both seats in Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah) district – NA-213 and NA-214 – as well. These are being contested by Asif Ali Zardari and Syed Ghulam Mustafa Shah, respectively. In the neighbouring district of Naushahro Feroze, the party has nominated strong candidates on both NA-211 and NA-212. Its opponents on these seats, Zafar Ali Shah (who has been in and out of PPP more than once since the 1980s) and Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi (who has been a federal minister in every government except one since 1997), have joined hands as part of GDA and are supporting each other. Yet Zafar Ali Shah will find it difficult to win a seat that he would secure only as a PPP nominee. Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi, too, will have to work hard to maintain his lead against his traditional rival, Zulfiqar Ali Behan.

What may have worked in the favour of PPP candidates in these two districts is that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addressed large gatherings here during his campaign tour of Sindh earlier this month. This has energised the party’s supporters and voters.

Mirpurkhas is an agricultural district, affected by water shortage in recent months. Though many local residents hold PPP’s last provincial government responsible for the problem, there are no signs that this will result in an electoral debacle for the party. A revolt by a local dissident is, in fact, causing more heartburn to the party than complaints by agriculturists.

The dissident, Syed Ali Nawaz Shah, was denied a PPP nomination for a provincial assembly seat so he decided to challenge the party’s nominee for NA-218, Pir Hassan Ali Shah, who nevertheless enjoys lead over all his opponents. If Syed Ali Nawaz Shah gets GDA’s support, he has the potential to win a provincial assembly seat where his own nephew, Zulfikar Ali Shah, is a PPP nominee.

Sanghar, historically, has been a PMLF territory where PPP has made strong inroads of late. In 2013, the former party won two of the district’s three seats but, later, PPP claimed one of them in a by-election.

This time round, Khuda Bux Rajar, a former federal minister, is a GDA nominee for one of these seats, NA-215. His PPP rival is Naveed Dero whose uncle Fida Dero was a runner up in this constituency in the 2013 elections. A tough fight is expected here though Khuda Bux Rajar may secure the seat.

In NA-216, PPP’s Shazia Marri is leading against GDA’s Kishan Chand Parwani who is an outsider to the area but has deep pockets to spend his way into voters’ hearts. Shazia Marri, however, has developed a strong vote bank in the constituency after winning there in a by-election in 2013.

Roshan Din Junejo, a 2013 winner, is PPP’s nominee in NA-217 against Mahi Khan Wassan of GDA who has been a PMLF member of the Sindh Assembly between 2002 and 2007. Junejo is seen as a stronger candidate since he is also being backed by his former rival Imamuddin Shouqeen who is now a PPP senator.

PPP has, similarly, expanded its electoral influence in Tharparkar district that has two National Assembly seats. Traditionally a bastion of Arbabs (who have a long history of switching parties), the district now offers a competitive electoral space where many candidates and parties are vying for victory.

Campaign posters in Badin | Abbas Khaskheli
Campaign posters in Badin | Abbas Khaskheli

PPP won in Tharparkar in 2013 and looks set to retain at least one of its two seats easily, thanks to a successful mobilisation of the district’s large Hindu population in its favour. Its candidate in NA-222, Mahesh Malani, is leading his opponent, GDA’s Arbab Zakaullah, who is a nephew of former chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim. Another of his nephews, Arbab Lutfullah, however, has joined PPP and is contesting in a provincial assembly constituency against his own famous uncle. Arbab Ghulam Rahim may win the contest but it will dent Arbab Zakaullah’s prospects by dividing their family’s traditional voters. In NA-221, PPP’s 2013 winner Noor Muhammad Shah is facing a very serious challenge from GDA-supported and PTI-nominated Shah Mehmood Qureshi who has a large-scale spiritual following in the area. The vote difference between the two in the last election was tiny: just above 2,000 votes. Noor Muhammad Shah is facing an additional challenge. Ghani Khan Khoso, a senior PPP worker from the area, is contesting a provincial assembly seat as an independent as a show of resentment against the party’s election nominations. He has the potential to snatch a few thousand votes from the party and, thus, cause it to lose the seat. But, like in the last election, the contest is a cliffhanger.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi is also contesting in NA-220 against PPP’s former federal minister Nawab Yousaf Talpur. Their last encounter in 2013 was won by the latter by a clear margin of 13,566 votes. Barring some last minute change in the situation, he may have a similar lead this time round too.

PPP is set to retain Tando Muhammad Khan district’s lone seat, NA-228, as well as Tando Allahyar’s only seat, NA-224. But the competition will be tough on Dadu district’s two seats – NA-234 and NA-235. Even though anti-PPP candidates for these constituencies are more or less the same – family members of former chief minister Liaquat Ali Jatoi, who contested and lost the last election – a couple of factors may work in their favour, giving their chances a boost. Firstly, Liaquat Jatoi and his son Karim Jatoi have left PMLN and joined PTI (though this change hardly matters in most of Sindh’s rural districts) as an attempt to tap into the resentment among educated young voters against older political parties in general and PPP in particular. Secondly, a former PPP parliamentarian, Dr Talat Iqbal Mahesar, is supporting the Jatois. Together, the two factors will help them increase their vote tally but they may still fall short. Corruption allegations against Liaquat Ali Jatoi and his ineffectual tenure as chief minister back in 1997 are some of the negative factors that may still work against him and his son.

In nearby Matiari district, PPP’s top leadership’s love-hate relationship with the Makhdooms of Hala continues. This has been going on since the 1970s but the two sides have managed to muddle along despite differences that crop up every now and then. This time round, too, there were issues on which they did not see eye to eye, such as election nominations for some prominent spiritual followers of the Makhdooms in other parts of Sindh — Thar, in particular.

These problems notwithstanding, Makhdoom Jamiluz Zaman (whose father Amin Faheem won seven times from the same Matiari-Hala area between 1977 and 2013) is well placed to win in NA-223 against his GDA rival Makhdoom Fazal Hussain. The two candidates are also distantly related.

NA-233 in Jamshoro also remains a PPP stronghold even though the party has changed its candidate from its serial winner Malik Asad Sikandar (who is now contesting for the provincial assembly from the same area) to a former nazim of Sehwan taluka, Sikandar Rahupoto. His rival is GDA’s Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah who also heads the Sindh United Party and is a grandson of the doyen of Sindhi nationalism, G M Syed.

The ethnically divided Hyderabad district has had a set electoral pattern: two of its three seats go to Urdu-speaking contestants (who, without, exception have been associated with MQM since 1988) and one to a Sindhi-speaking candidate (usually a PPP nominee). Three new factors may determine whether the pattern will continue.

First of these is a seat adjustment deal between Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair (who won a downtown area seat in 2002 and has been receiving around 10,000 votes since then) and PPP which has withdrawn its candidate against him in exchange for his support for the party’s provincial nominees in the city. Whether this will be good enough to break the monopoly of MQM’s associates on NA-227 is conditional on the second factor: how much internal damage MQM’s various factions, including the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), can cause to each other.

The third new factor is the entry of a media house owner, Ali Kazi, in the district’s politics as the head of his Tabdeeli Pasand Party. He has been running a strong campaign in Qasimabad area which is a PPP stronghold. Will he be able to defeat the deeply entrenched PPP electoral machine in Hyderabad is a question that will be answered on polling day but the challenge from him means that PPP’s candidates have to work extra hard to ensure continued support for themselves.

PPP is set to win both the seats in Thatta and Sujawal districts — thanks to the inclusion of the powerful Shirazis in its fold a few weeks earlier. Though some old party workers are not happy with the move, none of them is contesting the election to hurt the party’s electoral fortunes.

The district where PPP is in a tight corner is Badin. There, Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, former Sindh home minister and a close friend of Asif Ali Zardari, has joined hands with GDA in his bid to defeat the party’s nominees. He himself is a contestant for a provincial assembly seat, as is his son Hasnain Mirza, but his wife, former National Assembly speaker Fehmida Mirza, and another son, Hassam Mirza, are running for the National Assembly.

On one seat, NA-229, PPP has nominated Mir Ghulam Ali Talpur, a landlord with a large personal vote bank, against Hassam Mirza. The contest is extremely close and both candidates have their work cut out for them.

In NA-230, Fahmida Mirza is pitted against PPP’s Haji Rasool Bux Chandio whose brother Muhammad Nawaz Chandio has been a member of the provincial assembly in the past. The battle for Badin will be ultimately decided by voter turnout: whichever side is able to mobilise a larger number of voters to get out and vote will win both seats. The intense level of campaigning in the district suggests the two sides will do whatever they can to ensure just that.

Who will win in Punjab is perhaps the most asked question during this election cycle — as it perhaps always is. Another, only slightly less asked, question this time round is: who will win in Karachi?

The city is by all means important. One in every 13 Pakistanis is living here. And its 14.9 million inhabitants are more diverse than people in any other part of the country: it has the largest concentrations of Pakhtun and Baloch populations in the world; it is Pakistan’s largest Sunni city and is also its biggest Shia one. It also houses the largest Ismaili and Dawoodi Bohra communities in the country. Parsis, Goan Christians and Hindus are all major partners in its cultural and economic life.

This election cycle, the city has finally got what it lacked: an election in which every citizen of Karachi can take part without feeling discriminated against, threatened or coerced. While various political parties have always tried to challenge Karachi’s largest political force, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (now registered as MQM-Pakistan), in previous elections, many a time those challenges were drowned out by one-sided results — polling station after polling station, constituency after constituency.

Karachi has the highest number of National Assembly constituencies. One in every 13 seats in the National Assembly is in Karachi.

This time round, it appears to be different. Rather than discussing no-go areas for other parties in MQM’s strongholds, politicians are talking lightheartedly about such trivial issues as chewing paan. The reference to paan, first made by former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif during a campaign event in Karachi, can be a serious indicator of the state of our political discourse: no party has come up with a well-thought out plan to address Karachi’s multiple economic, social, environmental and administrative issues but, instead, every party is focused on how to grab the seats that a split MQM may not be able to win any more.

The city also has the highest number of National Assembly constituencies. One in every 13 seats in the National Assembly is in Karachi. If nothing else, this number should offer political parties an incentive to invest themselves in the city in order to win as many of these seats as they can.

Many important electoral changes have also taken place in the city since the last election. It now has six districts instead of the five that it had in 2013 and it also has one additional National Assembly seat.

A look at the city’s constituencies suggest that electoral opportunities for non-ethnic parties may have expanded. In district Malir, for instance, only one seat – mostly comprising Karachi’s rural outskirts – has an overwhelming majority of Sindhi and Baloch voters. The other two have a mix of Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking communities.

PPP is looking to win at least two of these seats — NA-236 and NA-237. It may win the former rather easily though on the latter it will face competition possibly from every party in the city including Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and MMA. It enjoys an advantage in the sense that its candidate, Hakeem Baloch, was a winner (originally as a PMLN candidate) from many areas now a part of this constituency.

The next constituency, NA-238, has large pockets of PPP support but its diverse population has encouraged candidates of all types to throw their lots in here. One of them, Aurangzeb Farooqi of the Rah-e-Haq Party (another reincarnation of the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan), is seen as a serious contender here. Another important contender here is Shahi Syed, the head of ANP in Sindh. His presence suggests the presence of a sizeable Pakhtun vote in the constituency.

District East’s NA-244 has also become a multi-ethnic constituency that may go to any party. Two other seats in this district, NA-242 and NA-245, mostly have Urdu-speaking contestants and could also go MQMP’s way. Two of the most well-known politicians in the city, Farooq Sattar and Amir Liaqat Hussain, are competing in NA-245, respectively on the tickets of MQM-Pakistan and PTI (which has some serious support among Pakhtun communities living in the constituency).

The district’s last seat, NA-243, has gained a lot of media attention because Imran Khan is contesting in it against MQMP’s Syed Ali Raza Abidi (who may have a small edge against other contenders). Another notable candidate in this constituency is PPP’s Shehla Raza who was deputy speaker in the Sindh Assembly in 2008-13.

District Korangi’s three seats have major concentrations of Urdu-speaking population. The competition here will be among MQM-Pakistan, MQM-Haqiqi and PSP though PTI, PPP and MMA are also trying their luck here. MQMP, at the end of the day, may win all of these three seats.

District South used to have three constituencies but now has two and both of them are often in the news: NA-246, because Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is a contestant in it (and also because he has received unexpected resistance in one of its neighbourhoods while campaigning here); and NA-247, because it includes Defence and Clifton, two of the city’s richest areas, alongside some of Karachi’s slummiest slums (and also because it was here that voter resistance pushed MQM to the defensive and helped a PTI candidate snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat).

District Central’s four constituencies, NA-253, NA-254, NA-255 and NA-256, are being contested mostly by Urdu-speaking candidates though they come from a variety of parties. The main contests will be between MQMP and PSP and may result in victory for the former’s candidates though their victory margins will not be as big as they used be in the days of MQM’s domination. A notable, though not strong, candidate in NA-256 is actor Sajid Hasan who is running on a PPP ticket.

District West, that starts from around Karachi Port and ends up joining Malir, will also see some intense fights — and many of them may not feature MQMP as a main contender. This is already apparent in NA-249 where Shehbaz Sharif is contesting without having to face a serious MQM-Pakistan challenger. Like in parts of Malir and East districts, this district, too, will see a roster of successful candidates that is not dominated by a single party and also not by those belonging to a single community.

Moosa Kaleem, Subuk Hasnain and Momina Manzoor Khan are staffers at the Herald. Bilal Karim Mughal is a multimedia producer at Dawn.com. Manor Genani is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer.


By Maqbool Ahmed | Masood Hameed | Wazir Ali

Security officials inspect the site of the Mastung blast that occurred on July 13 | Courtesy Hafeezullah Sheerani
Security officials inspect the site of the Mastung blast that occurred on July 13 | Courtesy Hafeezullah Sheerani

A suicide blast in Mastung that killed around 140 people, including a provincial assembly candidate, Siraj Raisani, on July 13 has served as a tragic reminder that all is still not well in Balochistan. There have been some other minor instances of violence as well. In Kech district, grenades were thrown on the house of an election candidate. Shots were fired on the convoy of another candidate in the same district. A meeting inside the house of a third candidate, also in Kech, was attacked with gunfire.

These incidents suggest two obvious things: there are gaps in the security of both, the candidates and the electorate; and there is a certain degree of impunity enjoyed by the members and leaders of some groups that were banned but have been revived under new names. Some of them are running in elections; others are campaigning across the country for candidates they are backing. This means that religious hatred (as well as other violent ideologies) remain strong forces for sowing discord and creating violence — perhaps a little too strong to control.

Still, Balochistan is going to the polls with a law and order situation markedly better than it was in 2013. Hazara Shias were being mass murdered in Quetta back then and separatist violence was rampant in many southwestern and central parts of the province. Electioneering was impossible to carry out in a number of Baloch-dominated districts because of threats from non-state actors and large-scale deployment of security forces.

Districts of Kech, Panjgur, Turbat, Awaran, Kharan, Khuzdar and Kalat, that were hubs of Baloch separatist militancy a few years ago, are all calmer and more peaceful than they have been for over a decade. Political parties and candidates are freely carrying out their election activities in all these areas — holding corner meetings, displaying party flags, putting up banners and posters.

There are also expectations that voters will turn out in large numbers to vote on the day of polling due to improvement in law and order and also because of vigorous campaigning.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – often in competition with Pakhtun nationalists – has long been a major political force in Balochistan’s Pakhtun-dominated districts in the west and northwest of Quetta. Today the party stands divided into three factions — Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Sami (JUIS) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Nazaryati (JUIN). The last faction emerged just before the 2008 general elections. Its leader, Asmatullah, went on to defeat a JUIF stalwart, Muhammad Khan Sherani, in his home constituency of Zhob-cum-Sherani-cum-Killa Saifullah.

JUIF has dropped Muhammad Khan Sherani from its list of nominees for the upcoming election. He is reportedly so upset over the decision that he has told his followers not to vote for Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – which includes JUIF – in NA-257 where the alliance has fielded Abdul Wasay who was leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly between 2013 and 2018.

The divisions within JUIF are so sharp that its members are opposing the nominees of their own party in several places. A senior JUIF leader, Haji Behram Khan, for instance, is running as an independent against Salahuddin Ayyubi, an MMA ticket holder for a provincial assembly seat. This can seriously affect MMA’s chances of victory in Killa Abdullah’s NA-263 against PkMAP candidate Mahmood Khan Achakzai.

There are similar rifts within the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), the other main contender for Pakhtun votes in the province. One of its senior leaders, Akram Shah, has fielded his son, Muzammil Shah, as an independent candidate against his party’s nominee, Abdur Rahim Ziaratwal, for a provincial assembly constituency, PB-6 Harnai-cum-Ziarat. This could damage the party’s prospects in NA-258 Loralai-cum-Musakhail-cum-Ziarat-cum-Dukki-cum-Harnai. Local pundits, in fact, do not consider PkMAP’s candidate, Sardar Habibur Rehman Dammar, as a serious contender and forecast a tough competition among Maulvi Amir Zaman of MMA, Sardar Israr Tareen of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Sardar Buland Khan Jogezai of PPP and Sardar Yaqoob Nasir of PMLN.

Two other parties are also struggling in Balochistan — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) for having lost its former parliamentarians and main leaders to the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party; and National Party (NP) because of voter resentment over its failure to deliver social and economic development in Baloch areas.

Within this broad situation, the fight for Balochistan’s 16 seats is intense.

For NA-262 in Pishin district, PkMAP has retained its 2013 candidate Essa Roshan while MMA has nominated Kamaluddin. Roshan says he will benefit from his constituency having become a single district seat — detached from the nearby district of Ziarat. People in Ziarat vote more on the basis of religion than on the basis of Pakhtun nationalism, he says.

NA-264 in Quetta is a new constituency. Abdul Rehman Bazai of PkMAP, Asmatullah of MMA, Muhammad Raza of Hazara Democratic Party, Yousaf Khilji of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Amir Afzal Mandokhail of PMLN, Saifullah Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Ali Mohammad Nasir of BAP are the main candidates in the constituency. The local electorate is divided along multiple lines of sect, ethnicity and ideology. This confusing mix makes it almost impossible to pick one leading contender here.

The voter here generally votes on a tribal basis — for the chief of their tribe or on his directions. Parties do not matter

In NA-265, a Baloch leader, Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani, is contesting elections as a nominee of Balochistan National Party (BNP) that is headed by former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal. The constituency has a predominantly Pakhtun population – about 75 per cent of the total – but Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani says that his party has Pakhtuns among its senior leaders and that everyone living in Quetta, regardless of ethnicity, faces the same problems of water shortage, gas and electricity outages, choked drains and dilapidated roads. One of his main rivals is PkMAP chairman, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who won from this area in 2013 but is being criticised by voters for remaining busy in Islamabad and not focusing on improving the living conditions of his constituents.

Another notable candidate in this constituency is JUIF’s former senator Hafiz Hamdullah Saboor who is an MMA nominee. PTI’s Qasim Khan Suri, who came second in the last election, seems to be lagging behind other candidates. Rahila Khan Durrani of PMLN and Rozi Khan Kakar of PPP are also in the run but are rather weak candidates.

In NA-266, JUIF has fielded its senior leader Hafiz Hussain Ahmed as a nominee of MMA. He was overlooked in his party’s nominations for two previous elections though he had won in 2002 from more or less the same areas that now form NA-266. He seems to be among the main contenders in the constituency though the redrawn boundaries make it uncertain to predict which party or candidate is really ahead of others.

NA-259 includes the restive areas of Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts where security forces are deployed in large numbers and the atmosphere for campaigning is still rather restricted. Dostain Khan Domki, the 2013 winner, looks set to retain the seat— barring some political development that changes the entire security situation and political balance in the constituency. He ran as an independent in the last election but is a BAP nominee now. One of his main challengers is Shahzain Bugti, a grandson of slain Baloch chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti. Another notable candidate is PPP’s Mir Baz Muhammad Khetran.

In NA-260, that comprises the districts of Naseerabad, Kachhi and Jhal Magsi, the competition is between Khalid Magsi (whose brother Zulfiqar Magsi has been both the governor and the chief minister of Balohistan in the past), and Yar Muhammad Rind (a Musharraf-era federal minister). The former is running as a BAP candidate; the latter is a PTI nominee.

NA-261 is spread over Sohbatpur and Jaffarabad districts. Chiefs of Jamali tribe have dominated the constituency since long and have always remained a part of either the provincial government or the federal government — or both. Mir Zafrullah Jamali (former prime minister), Taj Jamali (former chief minister) and Jan Muhammad Jamali (former provincial assembly speaker) have all been in power. Their main competitors are chiefs of the Khosa tribe which also has its own share of ministers, including a caretaker prime minister (Hazar Khan Khoso in 2013).

The voter here generally votes on a tribal basis — for the chief of their tribe or on his directions. Parties do not matter which explains why candidates can routinely switch parties without losing face among the electorate.

PTI’s Mir Jan Mohammad Khan Jamali, who is being backed by Mir Zafrullah Jamali, seems to be leading in the constituency with PPP’s Changez Jamali and BAP’s Zahoor Hussain Khosa trailing him closely.

In NA-267, that comprises Mastung, Kalat and Shaheed Sikandarabad districts, former chief minister Sanaullah Zehri is pitched against 20 other candidates. Another notable candidate here is PPP’s Ayatullah Durrani. The constituency is vast and thinly populated, with many contenders enjoying their respective pockets of support. The outcome here will be mainly decided by variations in voter turnout and the strength of tribal affiliations.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, chief of the Balochistan National Party, addresses the public in Quetta in April this year | PPI
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, chief of the Balochistan National Party, addresses the public in Quetta in April this year | PPI

NA-268, that consists of Chagai, Nushki and Kharan districts, will see a strong competition between Abdul Qadir Baloch of PMLN, Hashim Notezai of BNP, Sardar Al-Haj Mohammad Umar Gorgage of PPP, Usman Badini of MMA and Sardar Fateh Muhammad Hasani who is running as an independent candidate. Each of these candidates has his own area of influence which makes the contest difficult to predict. Sardar Fateh Muhammad Hasani may have a slight edge because BAP’s nominee, Ejaz Raisani, has withdrawn from the contest in his favour.

Two former chief ministers, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Sanaullah Zehri, are fighting for votes in NA-269 (Khuzdar district). This is home turf for both of them but Sardar Akhtar Mengal may have an edge because of the incumbency factor that may go against Sanaullah Zehri. He was heading a largely inept provincial administration till late last year. A notable candidate here is Shafiq Mengal who is alleged to have an association with anti-Shia sectarian groups and who, a few years ago, ran an anti-separatist hit squad in Khuzdar.

In two constituencies in Makran division – NA-271, NA-270 – voters are not generally mobilised by religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal considerations. Most, if not all, of them rather vote on the basis of ideology. This explains why Makran division was the hub of Baloch nationalist politics between 1988 and 1993. Even though the glory days of Baloch nationalist politics have been long over, people still prefer to vote for candidates who have been associated with any of its many variants.

NA-270, spread over three districts of Panjgur, Washuk and Awaran, is quite sparsely populated. For the upcoming elections, BNP’s Mir Nazeer Ahmad, MMA’s Haji Attaullah, BAP’s Ahsanullah Reki, BNP-Awami’s Mohammad Hanif, PMLN’s Abdul Qadir Baloch (who was a federal minister in 2013-18) are in the run here. The constituency is too vast to throw up a single idea about the behaviour of voters in its various areas. Here, too, like in another constituency, area-wise difference between voter turnout will be a key determinant of the result.

In NA-271, comprising Kech district, writer and former bureaucrat Jan Mohammad Dashti, contesting on a BNP ticket, appears to be the leading candidate. He, however, is facing a tough competition from BNP-Awami’s ticket holder Ahsan Shah and BAP’s candidate Zubaida Jalal.

NA-272 is the last constituency in the country and also the longest. It starts from the northern outskirts of Karachi and goes all the way along the sea to the border with Iran. An intense three-way contest is underway here between BNP’s Sardar Akhtar Mengal, BAP’s Jam Kamal Khan (who was a federal minister till recently) and an independent candidate, Aslam Bhootani. The latter two candidates come from Lasbela district that forms the thickly populated northeastern part of the constituency. The contest is too close to call.

Maqbool Ahmed is a staffer at the Herald. Masood Ahmed has a master's in international relations from University of Karachi. Wazir Ali has a master's in international relations and in education.

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.

Opening image: JUIF party chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his son Asad Mahmood addressing supporters for the NA-37 seat in Tank | Danial Shah