All major political parties have high stakes in the by-elections in NA-120, a National Assembly seat in Lahore, which fell vacant after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He has fielded his wife Kulsoom Nawaz, who could become the next prime minister. It will also indicate whether the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has gained from the loss of the ruling party or the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has any chance of revival in the Punjab in the next general election. Besides, it will be the first election of the Milli Muslim League, a political party, launched by Hafiz Saeed of the banned Jamaatud Dawa.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has the highest stakes in the election. If Kulsoom Nawaz loses, though its chances are remote, it will badly bruise the ruling party, especially the Sharif family which has already been reeling from disclosures by the joint investigation team (JIT) and subsequent disqualification of Nawaz Sharif. It has been the home constituency of the Sharif family since 1985 and it has not lost even once. The former prime minister wants her to win the seat to materialize his dream of returning to the Prime Minister’s House again, though as husband of the prime minister. In this way, he wants to taunt some powers and the judiciary that he has again reached the Prime Minister’s House despite being disqualified. It will also provide him with better leverage to handle his party.
However, Kulsoom Nawaz faces some serious legal and health issues. She was in London for treatment when her nomination papers were challenged in an election tribunal and in the Lahore High Court. According to the joint investigation team (JIT), she has been part of the family business and filing tax returns since 1984-85. However, her total assets increased 17.5 times during the course of one year; from Rs1.64 million in 1991-92 to Rs28.62 million in 1992-93, against a reported income of only Rs279,400. Like her husband, she also holds an Iqama (work permit) for the UAE. Her son, Hussain Nawaz, had told news channels in interviews at the onset of the Panama leaks that she is a trustee of a London house. Her financial issues would be challenged at every possible forum till she becomes the prime minister. It has been revealed that Kulsoom Nawaz is in England for the treatment of throat cancer. Her election campaign will be run by her daughter Maryam Safdar
Her election campaign could also lay bare rifts in the Sharif family. The ruling party has appointed its Lahore president and newly-appointed Commerce and Textile Minister Pervaiz Malik to oversee her campaign after MNA Hamza Shahbaz’s departure from the country. According to experts, it indicates differences in the family as he has supervised all by-elections in the Punjab. It is said he decided to skip the polls as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had not appointed his father, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, his successor after his ouster. Shahbaz Sharif was also not appointed the president of the ruling party because of family rifts. When Khaqan Abbasi was appointed the prime minister, the PML-N had announced that Shahbaz Sharif would become its president, but the post was given to Senator Sardar Yaqoob Nasar from Balochistan, because of internal rifts.
In Pakistan, by-elections and local bodies elections are won by the ruling party in the province. The PML-N has its governments in the province and the Centre. It can use state machinery, announce development projects in the constituency and promise jobs to locals. Despite family rifts and humiliation in the Panama case, Kulsoom Nawaz is a strong candidate and it will be a big upset if she loses. However, even if she returns to Pakistan after treatment and becomes the prime minister of Pakistan, she will not be able to save her husband from going to jail in corruption cases.
Fresh from success in the Panama case against the Sharif family, the PTI hopes to improve its votes in the constituency after it had bagged almost half of over 100,000 votes obtained by the former prime minister in the last election. If it closes the gap and loses with a margin of less than 10,000 votes, it will be an achievement for it, as its candidate, Dr. Yasmin Rashid, is little known and entered politics only in the last general election.
The PPP also has a point to prove. The party has launched a serious campaign in the area and hopes to improve on its performance in the last election, when most of its candidates failed to get even a few thousand votes. It is the first election after it has dumped the Charter of Democracy (CoD), signed with the PML-N. As it attempts to become a real opposition instead of being friendly to the ruling party, it faces the old tactics of the use of state machinery. In a case, the police raided its main election office at midnight and attempted to close it forcibly. They also allegedly warned the PPP workers of dire consequences if they did not stop their election campaign. It will be a great achievement and considered as a sign of revival of the party even if it bags about 10,000 votes in the election.
It will be the first election for Hafiz Saeed, chief of Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), after he decided to enter mainstream electoral politics and launched his Milli Muslim League (MML) party. It is not only opposing the PML-N, but also the PTI for being a “liberal” party. Its opposition to Kulsoom Nawaz is because of PML-N politics and policies of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the Kashmir issue. However, religious votes have shrunk in every election, especially in urban centres. Candidates of religious parties could not bag more than a few thousands votes in the last general election and the situation will not be drastically different for the new party. However, the NA-120 constituency falls under its headquarters and it could get more votes than other religious parties could get in the last election.
The real contest will be between the PML-N and the PTI, though the ruling party has a clear edge. If the PTI launches a full-fledged drive and some disgruntled elements in the ruling party secretly help it and work against Kulsoom Nawaz, it could dash the Nawaz Sharif family’s dream to reach the Prime Minister’s House again.