Battle royale in Punjab: Vote on political heartland’s fate begins


With Punjab hitting the by-polls in 20 constituencies on Sunday (today) with bated breath, the outcome of the high-voltage ballot will not only determine the province’s next premier but also the fate of the young PML-N-led coalition government to steady its boat in the centre.

For both the PML-N and PTI, clawing back to power would also ensure their fresh mandates in the next general elections. Meanwhile, a rebuke from the voters would leave the PML-N waiting for the other shoe to drop – a potential fall in Islamabad.

Although the polls seem too close to call, the stars seem nonetheless more aligned for the PML-N that is said to be sporting a fair shot while the PTI, despite finding a wider echo for its narrative, may have to face challenges in grabbing enough seats to gather up the reins of the province.

Former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from power in April this year, is eyeing the crucial polls as a make-or-break opportunity to test the popularity of his party’s post-ouster narrative in Punjab. A victory will inject a mega shot into his bruised arms.

The ‘historic’ by-polls are likely to settle the dust on the long drawn-out imbroglio triggered by the move to oust the then PTI government led by (former) chief minister Usman Buzdar. However, observers anticipate the outcome might also precipitate a new one as the air in Punjab is already getting thicker with allegations of pre-poll rigging.

The PML-N, which has the government in both Punjab and the centre, enjoys the support of all major political parties for the crucial elections. Furthermore, it requires lesser victories to retain the provincial government.

Another advantage for the PML-N is having the winning players of the last general elections on its side. The PTI, which does not even enjoy the support of a single major political party in its entirety – even the PML-Q is divided on the matter – has managed to pull off mega by-election rallies that helped it to consolidate its support among the people.

The magic number

The PTI currently has 163 seats in the Punjab Assembly on paper. Among these, Deputy Speaker Muhammad Dost Muhammad Mazari is highly unlikely to vote in the party’s favour, bringing the total tally down to 162.

Combined with 10 seats of the PML-Q in the province, its total strength comes up to 172 (minus one).

Interestingly, the PML-Q is an ally of the PML-led government in the federal government.

The PML-N has a combined strength of 175 votes. The party lost two seats just hours before the polls after MPA Faisal Khan Niazi and Mian Jaleel Ahmed Sharaqpuri tendered their resignations. Otherwise, the PML-N with his would have had 177 seats. The situation has altered the previous number game.

The magic number to attain the chief minister’s slot is 186, which means that the PTI is 14 seats short and the PML-N 11.

Despite the odds, the PTI is very much in the run for these elections as it enjoys massive public support that it managed to exhibit during the by-election rallies.

The PML-N too had their heavyweight Maryam Nawaz in the arena to take PTI Chairman Imran Khan head-on. Both sides kept their focus on berating each other.

The talk of performance during their speeches was a mere formality, only included as passing remarks.

The PTI chief, who is also the recently ousted prime minister, continued with his rhetoric of corruption and foreign interference.

Maryam on the other hand kept her focus on Imran’s tenure as the premier.

In her speeches, she accused Imran of corruption, nepotism and victimising his opponents. To neutralise the effects of inflation that happened during her party’s tenure, she tried to shift the burden of perpetual price hikes onto Imran’s shoulders, terming it a failure of his economic policies.

Her party’s leaders in government in the centre also joined the chorus — levelling allegations of corruption against Imran and accusing him of blackmailing the former National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman with a controversial video.

The PML-N, with all the might of the governments in the centre and Punjab behind it, has thus far failed to bring to the fore one solid case of corruption against Imran.

In haste, the PML-N is only bringing up cases that are showing its desperation. This factor alone helped the PTI retain a lot of its vote bank despite its below-par performance.

However, Imran and his party also kept the “powers that be” on their target, further complicating matters for the PTI.

The PMLN, which pushed an anti-establishment narrative throughout its days in the opposition, after acceding to power suddenly had a change of heart. Now it can be seen as defending the security establishment.

Further compounding the PTI’s problems are its strained relations with the conventional media.

Though the PTI manages to make up for the lost ground on social media, where it enjoys ‘thundering’ support, two media owners are actively supporting the PML-N in these by-elections.

As far as prospective poll position is concerned, it might end up being a neck-to-neck competition between the two sides.

Since these constituencies range from urban to rural and from north Punjab to south Punjab, so every constituency has a different dynamic and different set of issues. Of the 20 constituencies, those seats in Lahore and a seat in Multan will be visibly more important and have a greater symbolic value.

If of the four seats in Lahore, which the PML-N claims to be its bastion, that are up for grabs in these by-elections, even three are bagged by the PTI, it will serve as a big blow to its rival party.

Political pundits see the PTI comfortably bagging two seats.

In Multan, PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood’s Qureshi son Zain Qureshi is contesting against disqualified PTI MPA Muhammad Salman, who is now in the race on a PML-N ticket.

This seat of Multan carries a lot of value for PTI stalwart Qureshi.

The four constituencies in Lahore where by-elections are being held are PP-170, PP-168, PP-167 and PP-158.

PP-167 (Lahore)

In this constituency, the PTI has fielded Shabbir Gujjar while the PML-N has fielded disqualified PTI MPA Nazir Ahmed Chohan. Chohan, who had joined the PTI some 10 years ago, was elected as an MPA in 2018 on a PTI ticket.

Even in 2018, it was a closely contested election between the two sides. The PTI won, securing 40,704 votes. The PML-N’s then candidate Mian Muhammad Saleem secured 38,463 votes.

Nazir later defected from the party and voted for the PML-N candidate for the chief minister’s slot, Hamza Shehbaz, and was subsequently disqualified from his seat.

The PML-N, as a reward, allotted party tickets to the 20 PTI defecting MPAs or to anyone of their choosing.

This constituency falls under NA-133. Shaista Pervaiz Malik is the MNA of the area. This seat is less a contest between the candidates and rather party popularity would determine its fate. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan also has a sizable vote bank in the area.

PP-158 (Lahore)

The PTI has fielded Mian Akram Usman while the PML-N has chosen Rana Ahsan Sharafat as its candidate.

This constituency in 2018 was won by PTI leader Aleem Khan, who was later disqualified for defecting from the party. Aleem was a PTI stalwart, who back in 2018, was seen as an ideal candidate for the position of the Punjab chief minister. However, Aleem who felt sidelined for him being placed in former Punjab CM Usman Buzdar’s cabinet gradually receded from government affairs and later when a faction emerged in the PTI by the name of Jahangir Khan Tareen Group, he too tried forming his own group.

Aleem, who now owns a national new channel, however, himself decided not to run for the election and the PML-N has fielded Sharafat in his place.

Sharafat contested the 2018 election from a PML-N ticket but lost to Aleem Khan by a large margin.

Aleem had obtained around 52,000 votes while his counterpart from the PML-N had obtained around 45,000 votes.

Similar to the previous constituency, it will be the party vote bank that makes the winning difference.

PP-168 (Lahore)

The PTI has fielded Malik Nawaz Awan and the PML-N has selected disqualified MPA Malik Asad Ali Khokhar for the race.

Malik Asad, the PML-N candidate seems to be in a much more comfortable position in comparison with his rival from the PTI. The seat falls under the constituency NA-131 from where PML-N’s Saad Rafique is the MNA.

The only visible disadvantage is an inter-party rivalry between him and senior PML-N leader Afzal Khokhar.

PP-170 (Lahore)

The PML-N has allotted the ticket to PTI’s disqualified MPA Amin Zulqarnain Chaudary, while the PTI has chosen Zaheer Abbas Khokhar for the race.

PML-N candidate Amin is the brother of Awn Chaudary, who was a well-placed PTI leader until a splinter group emerged including and both brothers decided to defect from the party.

Amin started his political career in 2005 from the platform of the PML-Q. He joined the PTI in 2011 but defected earlier this year.

The PML-N leaders used to accuse Awn during the days when he was in the PTI of being a drug supplier. Amin, who had won against the PML-N candidate by a reasonable margin, seems at a slight disadvantage.

Half the areas falling in this constituency, including Johar Town and Wapda Town, are seemingly more pro-PTI.

Additionally, Zaheer Abbass Khokhar, a nephew of PTI MNA Karamat Khokhar, had driven an aggressive campaign for his party.

PP-170 falls under the constituency of NA-134, where PML-N’s Rana Mubashir Iqbal is the MNA.

PP-140 (Sheikhupura)

The PML-N has chosen PTI dissident MPA Mian Khalid Mehmood for this race and the PTI has fielded Advocate Khurram Shehzad Virk.

PP-140 falls under the constituency of NA-121, from where PML-N’s Javed Latif is the MNA.

In 2018, Mian Khalid Mehmood won from PP-140 on a PTI ticket with a lead of 6,000 over the PML-N. This constituency has both urban and rural areas in it so both party loyal vote and the party’s narrative will play a vital role in determining who bags more votes.

With a large population of young voters and with a sizable population in the urban areas, the PTI has a better chance of winning the seat. Another edge that the party has is that Tayyab Rashid, who in 2018 had obtained 22,629 votes, has announced joining the PTI.

PP-97 (Faisalabad)

The PML-N from this constituency has opted for Haji Ajmal Chema while the PTI is fielding Ali Afzal Sahi.

Haji Ajmal won the election as an independent candidate obtaining 42,405 votes in 2018.

PTI’s Ali Afzal stood second with 37,973 votes. PML-N’S candidate Azad Ali Tabasam came third with 35,141 votes. Haji Ajmal later joined the PTI but was later disqualified.

He is now in the Jahangir Khan Tareen Group. The area is largely rural which means party and clan votes will be the main contributing factors. With Haji Ajmal in the PML-N camp, his winning chances have brightened.

PP-7 (Rawalpindi II)

The PTI has selected Lt Col Shabbir Awan while the PML-N has opted for Raja Sagheer Ahmed, who was disqualified for defection.

PP-7 falls under the constituency NA-57, from where PTI’s Sadaqat Ali Abbasi is the MNA. Despite having an NA seat, Raja Sagheer seems to have an edge. He won as an independent candidate, beating both PML-N and PTI candidates.

This time around as a PML-N candidate, Sagheer will have both his own party’s vote banks to cash on.

One interesting fact of this by-election is that former spymaster Zaheer Ul Islam is canvassing for PTI’s Lt Col Shabbir Awan.

PP-217 (Multan)

The PTI is fielding its senior leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s son Zain Mehmood Qureshi while the PML-N has opted for Muhammad Salman, an MPA disqualified from the Imran-led party.

PP-217 falls under NA-156, from where Shah Mahmood Qureshi is the sitting MNA.

Salman in 2018, as an independent candidate, had defeated PTI stalwart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for this seat.

Later, Salman joined the PTI. Salman was from the beginning a team member of Jahangir Khan Tareen. The victory of Shah Mahmood’s son Zain will in a way redeem the lost glory of his family in the area. However, securing this election has forced Zain to go from street to street. Salman still rides strong in this area. This seat can go either way.

PP-90 (Bhakkar)

The PML-N has opted for Saeed Akbar Khan Nawani, while the PTI has fielded Irfanullah Niazi, a cousin of ex-PM Imran.

Saeed Akbar Khan Nawani won as an independent candidate in the 2018 general elections from PP-90 and later joined the PTI. Nawani has a strong vote bank of his own and has won several times before.

Coupled with the strong vote bank of the PML-N, Nawani chances of winning are high.

The PP-90 constituency falls under NA-97, where PTI’s Sana Ullah Khan Masti Khel is the MNA.

PP-83 (Khushab)

The PML-N has selected Ameer Haider Sangha and the PTI has opted for Hasan Aslam Awan for this race.

Sangha is the younger brother of Malik Ghulam Rassol Sangha, who won the 2018 election as an independent candidate but later joined the PTI. PP-83 falls under NA-93, where PTI’s Umer Aslam Awan is the MNA. The PTI candidate for PP-83 is his younger brother.

Interestingly, it is not a simple match as in this area, Malik Asif Bha, the former PML-N candidate, has decided to contest as an independent candidate.

Bha has a strong vote bank of his own and his presence will divide the PML-N vote bank, giving an advantage to the PTI candidate.

PP-202 (Sahiwal)

The PML-N has fielded Nauman Ahmed Langrial, the disqualified PTI MPA. The PTI has opted for Major (retd) Ghulam Sarwar.

PP-202 falls under the constituency NA-149, from where PTI’s Murtaza Iqbal is MNA. Langrial won PP-202 on a PTI ticket Earlier this year, he was disqualified for defecting from the party.

This constituency mostly falls in rural localities including Kasowal, Okanwala Bangla and Shahkot. Langrial is considered to be electable but PTI’s narrative coupled with the ingress of social media in rural areas is expected to turn the tide on the politics of electables.

It is expected to be a close contest between the two sides.

PP-224 (Lodhran)

The PML-N has chosen Zawar Hussain Warraich, the disqualified MPA from the Imran-led party while the PTI has fielded Amir Iqbal Shah.

This constituency falls under NA-160, where PML-N’s Abdul Rehman Khan Kanju is the MNA.

Warraich won this provincial constituency in 2018 on a PTI ticket, while Amir a PML-N candidate back then, had lost. This time both have swapped candidates.

It is expected to be a close competition. Amir belongs to a strong political family and has a sizable vote bank in the area. Zawar, who won in 2018, has his own vote bank and is also enjoying the support of the PML-N camp.

PP-228 (DG Khan)

The PML-N has fielded Nazir Ahmed Baloch, a PTI disqualified MPA, while the PTI has opted for Captain (retd) Javed Khan.

PP-228 falls under the constituency NA-161, where PTI’s Shafiq Arain is the MNA.

Nazir won on a PTI ticket but later defected from the party and was disqualified. The PML-N granted a ticket to Nazir as per its commitment to him, but influential party leaders are not supporting him.

This contest too is a three-way match. Rafi Uddin Bukhari, who had contested the previous election on a PML-N ticket, has decided to contest as an independent candidate. He also has the backing of influential PML-N leaders in the area.

PP-272 (Muzaffargarh)

The PML-N has fielded Zehra Basit Batool, the wife of MNA Basit Bukhari and the PTI has selected Mozzam Khan Jatoi for this race.

PP-272 falls under the constituency NA-185, which belongs to PTI’s disgruntled MNA Basit Bukhari.

Zehra won on a PTI ticket in 2018 but later defected from the party. Whereas Mozzam belongs to the influential Jatoi family.

The election will squarely bank on a clan vote that gives both sides an equal chance. The only disadvantage to the PML-N is Haroon Bukhari, Basit’s brother is also running for the seat as an independent candidate. His presence is expected to damage the PML-N vote bank.

PP-273 (Muzaffargarh)

The PML-N has chosen Muhammad Sibtain Raza, a disqualified PTI MPA.

The PTI has fielded Yasir Khan Jatoi.

PP-273 falls under the constituency NA-186 which belongs to PTI MNA Aamir Talal Gopang.

Both the PML-N and PTI have a considerable vote bank in PP-273. However, the PML-N candidate seems to have an advantage over his PTI rival.

PP-237 (Bahawalnagar)

The PML-N has allotted the ticket to Fida Hussain while the PTI has fielded Aftab Mehmood.

PML-N ticket holder Fida Hussain had contested the election independently in 2018 and won and later joined the PTI. PP-237 falls under the constituency NA-166, from where PTI’s Muhammad Abdul Ghafar Wattoo is the MNA.

This is a rural area which was why clan vote would make all the winning difference. Fida Hussain comes from a notable political family whereas Aftab is a relative newbie in the area.

PP-288 (DG Khan)

The PTI has selected Saif Ud Din Khosa whereas the PML-N has opted for Abdul Kadir Khosa for this race.

It is all a Khosa affair in DG Khan where it is “clan versus clan”.

This seat was won by Mohsin Atta Khosa as an independent candidate in 2018. Currently, he is supporting PML-N’s Kadir Khosa.

Saif Ud Din Khosa is the son of the tribal head of the Khosa clan. Kadir is the son of defecting PTI MNA Amjad Farooq Khosa.

PP-282 (Layyah)

The PTI has fielded Qaiser Magsi while the PML-N has opted for Tahir Randhawa for this contest.

Randhawa won the 2018 election as an independent candidate but later joined the PTI. He too was disqualified for defecting from the party. Randhawa had secured 37,607, PTI’S Qaiser Magsi 26,992 and PML-N candidate Rizwan Girwan 25,556. Rizwan refused to accept the party’s decision and has decided to run as an independent candidate. This will divide the party vote and benefit the PTI.

PP-125 (Jhang)

The PTI has selected Mian Afzal Chela for this race while the PML-N has fielded Faisal Hayat Jabwana.

Faisal won with a wide lead as an independent candidate and later joined the PTI. He was disqualified for defecting from the party. Faisal is now contesting on a PML-N ticket. However, to his disadvantage, PML-N 2018 ticket holder Iftikhar Khan Baloch is also contesting the election as an independent candidate.

PP-127 (Jhang)

The PML-N has opted for Mehr Aslam Bharwana while the PTI has fielded Nawaz Bharwana.

Mehr had won 2018 as an independent candidate and later joined the PTI. He was disqualified for defecting from the party. There was less than a 1,000-vote difference between the two Bharwanas in 2018, so this time too it is expected to be a close fight.

There are two important shrines in the area. The Sial Sharif shrine is supporting the PTI candidate. The Shah Jewna shrine is backing his rival candidate.