The election symbol “Jeep” became popular among independent candidates after disgruntled Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader and former Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan chose it when he decided to run independently. The sudden rise of the jeep created rumours that he could play an important role in the next government.
Some experts say Nisar could be the next prime minister of Pakistan or, at least, the chief minister of the Punjab if his group of independents performs well and he attracts a large number of PML-N legislators after the election. They claim most of “electables,” who have joined the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) recently, could also break away with the party and form a new group under the leadership of PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi and both Niasar and Qureshi would lead the next government in the Centre and the Punjab. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) website, 65 candidates are contesting for National Assembly seats in the Punjab on the symbol of jeep, which was favourite among PML-N defectors. Besides Nisar, former Punjab Minister Zaeem Qadri, who quit the party after he was denied a ticket, is also contesting the election on the symbol.
The ECP data shows 119 candidates have been allotted the symbol in the country to contest elections. Besides 65 in the Punjab, 23 independents are contesting the polls on the symbol in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while the number is 16 in Sindh and 14 in Balochistan. The unexpected demand and allotment of the jeep to a large number of candidates is not without a reason, analysts argue. They claim the jeep group is being backed by the establishment, as the sign suggests. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also expressed his apprehensions about it and said it was understandable why a large number of candidates had been forced to climb the jeep, which represented the army. He alleged a candidate of his party in Multan, Rana Iqbal Siraj, was being forced to return his party ticket, though he later retracted his statement. “Our candidate had been called to the ISI office in Multan for the past few days. When he refused to give up, they slapped him in the face and humiliated him,” Nawaz alleged. In his video statement, Siraj said the incident had happened after a team of the Irrigation Department raided his pesticide warehouse.
Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, also tweeted that the symbol of jeep was a symbol of “aliens”. “Every vote for jeep is a vote for Khalai Makhlooq” (aliens),” she claimed. However, Nisar rubbished the speculation of making a group for the general election. Addressing a press conference, he said, “I am neither in contact with other independent candidates with the jeep symbol nor a Nisar group is in the making in the PML-N.” Targeting Maryam Nawaz without naming her, he said, “A woman in London speaks first but thinks later.”
Despite his denial, observers say the sudden demand in the symbol was deliberate and a clear message to all political parties. After Nisar ended his 30-year association with the PML-N, the party saw more defections as candidates, mainly from impoverished parts of south Punjab, returned party tickets to run as independents. Surprisingly, most of them were also allotted jeep as election symbols, though some of them opted for it. They included five politicians from the influential Gorchani family of Rajanpur district. It set off the rumour mill.
For many, it was unusual for dozens of independent candidates to contest the election on the same symbol. “It could be a coincidence but interestingly, almost all independent candidates are from the PML-N, which leads us to a question if there is another PML-N in the making in which the “N” would stand for Nisar,” noted analyst Mazhar Abbas told a news channel. “External pressure exists in politics and nobody can deny it, as it was clear from the formation of Junoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz, an alliance for a separate south Punjab province. Earlier, PML-N defectors were joining the PTI, but the party did not receive a dent because its vote bank remained intact. However, the new trend of quitting the party and contesting as independent candidates shows a change of strategy,” he noted.
Others say Nisar has always been a faction within the PML-N and differences have created space for new factions. However, he is fast becoming popular among people in the former ruling party, who are against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s policy of clash with national institutions. At one point, it is said he headed a large group in the party. In 2016, differences among top leaders of the party had intensified when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was recovering after his heart surgery in London. In his absence, Nisar developed problems with the then Finance Minister Ishaq Dar as he thought he was the senior most member of the cabinet, therefore, it was his right to look after the affairs of the state in Nawaz’s absence. Nawaz Sharif, however, entrusted Dar with the task. The former interior minister was unhappy because Dar and Maryam Nawaz acted as the former prime minister’s deputies and did not bother to consult him on any issue. In those days, former Defence Minister Khawaja Asif was very close to Dar while Asif and Nisar have an old enmity and they publicly admit it.
It is said Nisar has also been in touch with the PTI and could be its candidate for the Punjab chief minister. He is also eying the PML-N to fall in his lap after the arrest of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and possible arrest of former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shahbaz after elections. In the absence of the Sharifs, he could be a natural choice for the legislators of the former ruling party.
[On July 6, 2018, Nawaz sharif and Maryam Nawaz were sentenced to ten and seven years, respectively, in prison. Both are in England at the time of writing of this article.]