General Elections 2018 are promising to be the biggest and most competitive to date. Nevertheless, certain trends may remain unchanged. For instance, Sindh will continue to be dominated by Pakistan People’s Party, 20-seater Balochistan will have fringe parties with limited impact and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 55 seats will see a mix of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and religious parties. However, the real power, as always, resides with the big brother Punjab, with a grand total of 173 seats – which is more than the rest of Pakistan put together.
For many years, Punjab’s provincial assembly has been controlled by Pakistan Muslim League-League (PML-N) in all civilian governments and the province has faithfully served the party to give it governments with super majorities and rather strong oppositions alternatively. The primary vote bank for the PML-N lies in the extremely populous 100-seat strong GT Road region which sees Nawaz Sharif, the Punjabi speaking capitalist, as their true representative. Historically, the neglected area of south Punjab has often just followed the decisions and choices of the north.
However, the result of the 2018 elections hinges on 64 seats of the Seraiki-speaking south Punjab, like never before. With around 40 confirmed seats each for the three biggest parties, the Seraiki belt is the swing state of Pakistan – the party that triumphs here will essentially determine the winner the entire exercise. In this scribe’s opinion, the winners will be in the following order:
One has to credit Imran Khan for realising the potential of south Punjab before anyone else and changing everything about himself to be the perfect leader of the Seriaki people. Where PML-N claimed to represent the Punjabis, Imran Khan left his Zaman Park, Lahori identity and called himself a Niazi from Mianwali. When the PML-N turned Bahawalpur into a model city of the Punjab, he upped the ante by declaring that Bahawalpur would be the capital of a new province. He then organised a merger with the Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz movement and started mentioning the new province in every speech. He didn’t stop there: he filled his party to the brim with every pir and every guardian of a tomb he could find and his party swelled as it filled with the biggest feudal and tribal chiefs from the Seriaki belt. In the process, he completely ignored Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and filled all important positions in the leadership cadre with Seriakis and finally, he married Bushra Bibi from Okara with whom he went and prostrated before the tomb of Baba Ghulam Farid.
His transition from cricketer Imran Khan to Mehsudullah-mourning ‘Taliban Khan’ to the ever smiling shrine worshipping Imran ‘saeen’ is now complete. The Seraikis have been bowled over and now see him as their undisputed leader.
Though, the PML-N-led projects brought visible development to certain places in the south, even areas that were considered ‘Nooni forts’ have fallen, with every major electable from the region joining the PTI.
The PTI has taken all of Rahim Yar Khan and Sadiqabad, but might have to cede one seat to Ahmed Mahmood, the president of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the Punjab. With the Mazari and Dareeshak family in PTI’s fold, it is ready to take Rajanpur. Bahawalpur, which was the PML-N’s strongest center in south Punjab, also seems to have fallen to the PTI as the competition remains on only one seat: between PML-N’s Baleeghur Rehman and Farooq Azam of the PTI.
Lodhran is another strong PTI territory with Shafiq Arain bound to win because Jahangir Tareen’s patronage. Multan has Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Amir Dogar who have ensured that the city of shrines makes room for a new peerni with two at least two seats and a strong likelihood of four to six more. In Khanewal, the powerful Hiraj family might fetch two seats and give competition on two more. In Vehari, the PTI looks set to conquer all four seats. In Muzaffargarh, there will be tough contests but even a PTI loss could translate into a victory at a later stage. The PTI also looks strong in Mianwali and visits to Pakpattan shrines might fetch some seats too. Bushra Watoo, Khan’s wife is from Okara where plenty of support has poured in. Strong electables have been garnered by the PTI for Sargodha, Sahiwal, Layyah, Khushab and Bahawalnagar which all translates into a rich harvest of votes ready for reaping.
In the scribe’s opinion, of the 64 seats of the Seraiki belt, the PTI is all poised to get at least 34, with the number going up to possibly 45 seats.
Driving in at second position will be the Jeep – election symbol for independents. The Jeeps fall into two major categories: The first kind of a Jeep is a multimillion rupee Prado SUV that is being driven by the uber-rich. Many business persons have realised that elections are good business because for the price of an average one kanal house in Islamabad, one can just contest elections from the poorest parts of Punjab and win a seat in the national assembly. Investment perks include staying in Parliament lodges, priority gate passes to events and roads, blue passport and if business goes well perhaps even several houses in Islamabad in a few years. This is why the business community has come out in the open, commercialising politics and apart from advertising themselves as independents they are also taking this opportunity to market their brands.
The second kind of jeep is a camouflage painted jeep which is being fueled by certain interest holders. It may appear that these independents have been propped up to downplay only one political party but their positioning reveals a different picture. Imran Khan may have support from the power centers of politics but is viewed by them, as loose cannon and many feel that he may well bite the hand that feeds him. So in order to hedge bets and have the ability to create a swing within a swing, some candidates have been chosen as designated drivers of these jeeps that can add weight to any side, depending on what serves the purpose.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz
Coming in third will be the PML-N that has consistently won the Seraiki belt for the last 35 years. The party is currently claiming election rigging and manipulation and blaming everyone, including the military, the courts, the PTI, the PPP, terrorism etc. Their candidates are attempting to cajole voters by showing them shiny new roads and the magnificent Quaid-i -Azam solar park but the electorate is responding with apathy at best and downright hate in certain places.
There is tremendous resentment because the PML-N has robbed the Seraiki people of an identity and consistently lied about giving them a new province. Where all parties in the National Assembly and Senate have accepted that the Seraikis have a right to be recognised as a separate identity, it is only the PML-N which insists on calling Seraikis as Punjabis.
When confronted with the issue of a separate province, they have made countless promises to the people in public and press and then backed off. The last nail in the coffin was when Shahbaz Sharif visited Bahawalpur last year and swore in the city hall that he would give a new province and then actively tried to sabotage the movement. These lies, coupled with the fact that south Punjab remains one of the poorest and most neglected areas, has made the PML-N the most despised party in the region. Further fuel was added to the already raging fire when amendments were made to the affidavit which led to the Faizabad Dharnas. This has led to the impression amongst the sufi barelvi Seraikis that PML-N is anti-Islam and TTYLR is damaging PML-N with a minimum of 6000 votes in every constituency.
Pakistan People’s Party
Lagging behind at the very end is PPP with an exceptionally dismal performance in an area that was once their strength in the Punjab. Reports have it that former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani still has tickets to give but candidates are not interested in PPP tickets. For instance PPP stalwarts like Abdul Qayyum Jatoi and Hamid Saeed Kazmi have chosen to contest as independents rather than taking a PPP tickets and refused even after Zardari visited their houses. Recent by-election results also show that the PPP is struggling. Their losses come primarily from the fact that they, too, lied about making a new province and did not deliver as per their own manifesto. Further, aggravating factors include the reputation for immense corruption and Bilawal Bhutto’s mannerisms which do not sit well with the machismo in the region. Bilawal himself has started his campaign in south Punjab and is still there but the public response appears to be cold.
The writer is a barrister and a political activist