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PML-N facing multi-pronged hurdles as it looks to retain the throne of Lahore

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A couple of weeks before the general elections Lahore, the political centre of Pakistan and the capital of Punjab, was the stage for a potentially defining moment for the upcoming polls.

At around 9:30 pm [PST] on Friday, July 13, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz landed at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport where they were to be arrested following an accountability court’s verdict against them on July 6.

Sharif has been sentenced to 10 years, Maryam seven, and her husband Capt (r) Muhammad Safdar one year in prison.

With both Nawaz and Maryam in London at the time of the verdict, attending the ailing Kulsoom Nawaz – Sharif’s wife and Maryam’s mother – they faced a choice: self-exile in the UK and become politically irrelevant, or face arrest back home and bolster the chances of their party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) winning the elections, amidst what the party leadership maintains is an ‘election engineering’ process carried out by the military establishment.

Friday the 13th

These claims echoed on July 13 as well, when the rally led by Shehbaz Sharif, the PML-N present, former Chief Minister of Punjab, and Nawaz’s younger brother, couldn’t reach the airport to receive the Sharifs as had been vowed.

The official party narrative was that the crowds of workers and party loyalists couldn’t reach the airport because of the sheer volume of people, which was made further difficult by the hurdles put up by the Punjab government.

After senior PML-N leader Khawaja Asif claimed on national television it had already been decided ‘two days in advance’ that the rally won’t actually reach the airport, owing to the barricades being put up, further contradictions have surfaced within the PML-N ranks with many of the leaders rubbishing Asif’s claims maintaining that he wasn’t even in the meeting where the details for the rally were being discussed.

But the fact remained that the rally that was stuck on Mall Road for hours, before dispersing late at night when the news came in that Nawaz and Maryam had been taken into custody and flown to Islamabad.

The PML-N leadership has accused the Caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab Hasan Askari Rizvi of being pro-Army and taking the side of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the main political rival for the PML-N in Punjab.

Rizvi has categorically denied all allegations from the moment he was first nominated for the position by the PTI to the aftermath of Nawaz and Maryam’s arrest. The Punjab CM maintains complete neutrality and reiterates that the provincial administration has been strictly tasked with conducting their duties in a non-partisan manner as well.

Nawaz-Shehbaz divide?

Insiders reveal Shehbaz Sharif has faced severe backlash from the senior party leadership for his failure to reach the airport, further aggravating claims of a divide within the party along the fault-lines defined by Nawaz and Shehbaz families.

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The news of a divide between the Shehbaz and Nawaz families has circled following the latter’s disqualification as the prime minister of Pakistan last July and the former’s taking over of the party. This divide was visible in September’s by-election in Lahore’s NA-120 (now NA-125) constituency where Kulsoom Nawaz’s election campaign wasn’t supported by Hamza Shehbaz, the son of Shehbaz Sharif.

While Kulsoom Nawaz eventually won the by-election on the seat vacated by her ousted husband, differences continued to emerge between the two families despite both denying it. The most tangible of these differences was between the narratives peddled by the two camps with Nawaz and Maryam accusing the military and judiciary of allying to disqualify Nawaz Sharif and undermine the democratic process, while Shehbaz Sharif is unwilling to point fingers at the all-powerful military.

While the Nawaz camp claims that its narrative is echoing across Punjab, multiple interviews with different sections of voters in Lahore constituencies show mixed results.

Battlefield Lahore

With 14 out of Punjab’s 141 National Assembly constituencies, Lahore has a diverse array of vote banks. As the province’s urban hub, the PTI has managed to strike many chords among the urban youth, a lot of whom reside in what is NA-131 encompassing the city’s cantonment area and posh localities like the Defence Housing Authority.

It is NA-131 that will host one of Lahore’s biggest showdowns with the PTI chief Imran Khan up against senior PML-N leader and former Federal Minister for Railways Saad Rafique. Rafique beat Hamid Khan five years ago, amidst massive cries of foul play by the PTI. The PTI chief is yet to win a seat in Punjab’s capital despite over two decades of contesting elections.

While NA-131 might be the contest to watch out for in Lahore, tough battles are expected throughout the city.

In NA-123, PML-N’s Malik Riaz would look for a repeat of 2013, when he won over 100,000 votes. In NA-126 a close contest is anticipated between PML-N’s Mehar Ishtiaq Ahmed and PTI’s Barrister Hamad Azhar. Meanwhile, NA-128 has PML-N’s Shaikh Rohail Asghar and PTI’s Ejaz Diyal slugging it out.

NA-130 has the heavyweight contest PTI’s Shafqat Mehmood and PML-N’s Ahmad Hassan, with Mehmood looking to defend his constituency which he had won five years ago with a narrow margin of around 7000 votes.

NA-129 has the PML-N leader Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, former National Assembly speaker, taking on PTI’s business tycoon Aleem Khan, with the two having come face to face in the 2015 by-elections, which Sadiq won by less than 3000 votes.

Other prominent constituencies include NA-124 where Hamza Shehbaz would look to maintain his hegemony and NA-127 where PML-N Lahore President Pervez Malik’s son Ali Pervaiz will contest from after Maryam Nawaz’s disqualification.

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The coveted NA-125

NA-125, formerly NA-120, which is Nawaz Sharif’s electoral home with the former premier winning in the constituency since 1985. Veteran Waheed Alam Khan has been entrusted to retain a seat that the PML-N has historically taken for granted. He would face PTI’s Dr Yasmin Rashid who gave a tough fight to Kulsoom Nawaz in September’s by-election.

NA-125 usually mirrors Lahore’s overall political perception, and what has been visible in the constituency is the fact that PTI is fast making up ground on the PML-N. However, age old PML-N voters still dominate, with the business community wanting the party to retain their government in this election, with the PML-N government’s business friendly taxation policies.

What will also impact the PML-N’s vote bank in Lahore, as was evident in the NA-120 by-elections in September, are the Islamist parties which won thousands of votes in the by-elections. These include the Muttahida Masjlis-e-Amal (MMA), which is a coalition of top Islamist parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Allah O Akbar Tehreek (AAT).

Islamist players

TLP was formed in 2016 after Mumtaz Qadri, a former Punjab Police commando who killed former Governor Salmaan Taseer over his criticism of the blasphemy law, was hanged by the state. The TLP’s rallying cry is in defense of the blasphemy law and protection of ‘Namoos-e-Risaalat’ and ‘Khatm-e-Nabuwwat’ for which they kept the capital Islamabad hostage in November last year, following controversial amendments in the original draft of the Elections Reforms Bill, 2017 in October.

AAT is an offshoot of the Milli Muslim League (MML), which is the political front of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which are banned groups headed by Hafiz Saeed, who after February’s Anti-Terrorism Ordinance, 2018 has been declared a terrorist in Pakistan as well.

But that isn’t stopping Saeed’s allies and family members from contesting the upcoming elections. Multiple sources within the military and government say that these jihadist organizations contesting the elections is a part of a ‘mainstreaming’ process spearheaded by the Army.

Even so, while the Islamist parties are expected to dent the PML-N’s traditional religious vote bank and the party feels that the military establishment is going out of its way to ensure that they don’t come to power, the party leadership is still confident that it would win the upcoming elections in Punjab, and its capital Lahore.

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