Battlefield Lahore

Battlefield Lahore

Who stands where in Elections 2013? In the run-up to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) first jalsa in Lahore, the marketing machinery for PTI went into overdrive to draw analogies between their own event and the All India Muslim League’s general session of 1940, which passed the Lahore Resolution.

Held at the same venue that hosted the historical gathering some seventy odd years ago, the most obvious rhetoric used by PTI enthusiasts urged Lahoris to come out and show their support for an event that promised to lay down the foundations for a ‘New Pakistan’ in a manner similar to how the Lahore Resolution sowed the seed for the creation of the ‘original’ Pakistan. The analysis and discussions that followed the October 30, 2011, jalsa, now a historical event in its own right, principally focused on two things; firstly, how Imran Khan had come of age as a leader and a politician and that his party could now prove to be a menacing challenge for the established political powerhouses; and secondly, the significance and importance of Lahore on the political landscape of our country.

It has been over 545 days since that memorable October Sunday when the people of this great city were told to wake up from their slumber and become the catalysts for change themselves. With the polls now only 11 days away, how much of a change can be expected in Lahore?Lahore boasts 13 seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan. The 2008 Elections resulted in two seats for Pakistan Peoples Party-Parliamentarians (PPP-P) (NA-129 and NA-130) and a whopping 11 for Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Obviously, the circumstances are different today from what we had five years ago; Imran Khan, who was a political lightweight at that time, and other usual contenders from Lahore (most notably the Jamaat-e-Islami) boycotted the last polls in protest and the PML-N cashed in on the support for its pro-judiciary stance.

Even if Mr Khan and Co had participated in the 2008 polls, the only possible difference in outcome would have been that PPP would have won one more seat from Lahore in the form of Mr Aitzaz Ahsan who himself had to give up the chance to defend his seat from NA-124 because of his leading role in the Lawyers’ Movement. Today, however, PTI seems to have some momentum going into the polls with their promise of change and accountability apparently hitting the right notes with all those who either want someone new or are new to the electoral process themselves. We hear that there will be 30 to 40 million new voters all across Pakistan going to the polls this May. It is these very individuals that PTI seems to be banking on. But how much will this help them make an impact in Lahore? Unfortunately for PTI supporters, very little.

What the supporters and strategists of PTI need to realise is that while they may have tremendous passion and fervor for their party’s cause and a second to none social-media presence, the ground reality is that they severely lack the electoral machinery the likes of which PML-N has at its disposal in Lahore.Another reason which leads one to believe that the PML-N might still walk away with the lion’s share of the seats in Lahore is that the balance of the direct head-to-head battles between the candidates heavily tilts in PML-N’s favour, much to the dismay of a PML-N critic like myself. Granted that PTI candidates plan on riding on Imran Khan’s coat-tails but we still need to assess the individual candidates trying their luck and it is this assessment that leads one to believe that PTI has stronger candidates in the rest of Punjab than in Lahore.

It is safe to assume that both Mian Nawaz Sharif (NA-120) and Hamza Shahbaz Sharif (NA-119) should have no problem disposing off comparatively light candidates in the form of Dr Yasmeen Rashid and Mohammad Madni respectively. I do not mean any disrespect to the honourable doctor but she would have stood a much better chance against any other candidate or from any other constituency while Hamza Shahbaz should face more competition from Malik Suhail (PPP) than Madni.

Mian Shahbaz Sharif plans on throwing a monkey wrench into the plans of Advocate Tariq Shabbir Mayo of PPP from NA-129 who won the 2008 elections largely because of his fellow cast members. PTI, however, will be more conspicuous by first failing to nominate a candidate to contest against the former chief minister as per earlier reports only to later throw their weight behind Mansha Sindhu. NA-118 would also become a duel between the incumbent Malik Riaz of PML-N and Faraz Hashmi from PPP who plans on cashing in on his father’s reputation and social work in the area. It would be fair to say that the PTI candidate Hamid Zaman faces an uphill task to make a dent in the polls and is the rank outsider here.

Similarly, PTI hopefuls will struggle to win against other strong PML-N candidates who are generally well-liked in their constituencies or have strong mechanisms to ensure they don’t lose their existing vote bank such as Malik Pervez (NA-123), Kh Saad Rafique (NA-125), former Anarkali Nazim Waheed Alam Khan (NA-127) and Mohammad Afzal Khokhar (NA-128). It would also take a herculean effort on the part of Talib Sindhu to displace Samina Ghurki from NA-130, the sole guarantee of a seat for PPP in Lahore. NA-121 promises to be an interesting contest for the heavy Arain vote in the constituency where PTI’s young Hammad Azhar, son of former Governor Punjab Mian Azhar, should be a tough match for Mehar Ishtiaq Ahmed of PML-N who is taking a step up from being an MPA from the area. Imran Khan himself should trump Sardar Ayaz Sadiq from NA-122 on paper at least. Even though the latter enjoys staunch supporters in this constituency but if Imran Khan struggles to win his own seat then there really isn’t much hope for the rest of the party in the capital of Punjab.

This leaves NA-124 and NA-126 up for grabs. Aitzaz Ahsan’s boycott of the last polls hugely benefitted Sheikh Rohale Asghar who got elected from NA-124 and also helped him to establish a footing in a constituency which has never been one party’s stronghold. However, alarmingly poor performance and failure on the part of Mr Asghar to tend to his constituents give hope to Mrs Bushra Aitzaz Ahsan of PPP to pip him to the seat. Allama Iqbal’s grandson and fellow Penn alumnus Mr Walid Iqbal is PTI’s candidate in the area who just started campaigning this last week and may be a little late to the party.

NA-126, the most literate and well-off constituency of the city which on paper should be a cinch for PTI as per the general perception, too shall produce a fascinating battle. Had Imran Khan himself contested from this area, it would have been a walk in the park for him. Withdrawal of his own nomination papers will make it tougher for PTI’s nominee Mr Shafqat Mahmood, who will be up against Khwaja Ahmad Hassan (PML-N) and Liaquat Baloch (JI). While the heart may want PTI’s candidate to win from here, I won’t be surprised even if any of the other two candidates wins from here as Mr Baloch too seeks to retake the seat he has held in the past.

Three words are enough to explain PPP’s detailed position in Lahore; they have none. It must be extremely painful for a die-hard Lahori ‘jiyala’ to see his city not getting the same attention from the PPP high-ups as it used to. Lahore once boasted names such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto on its ballot-papers. This time around, with the exception of above-mentioned ladies in NA-124 and NA-130, it appears that the PPP is content to fold their hands pre-flop. – PT