Despite looming uncertainty over whether general elections—due no later than November—in Pakistan will be conducted per schedule, political parties have ramped up their electoral efforts, with south Punjab figuring large in the crosshairs of all aspirants to the next government.
Comprising nearly 40 percent of the population of Punjab, seen as key for any party seeking to form the government at the center, the region comprising the Bahawalpur, Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Mianwali divisions boasts 45 lawmakers in the National Assembly and 96 in the Punjab Assembly. In the 2018 general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan secured 30 seats in the Lower House and 57 in the provincial assembly from the region, helping it form the government that was ousted through a vote of no-confidence last year.
Largely rural, the region’s politics are dominated by “electables,” with feudal lords, tribal chiefs, traders, capitalists and shrine custodians securing major wins in the past. The PTI claims this trend will be broken in the upcoming polls, but with all its rivals indicating their primary goal is to ensure Khan is “sidelined,” the campaign is shaping up to reflect the crackdown initiated against the party after the May 9 riots that have been described as a “black day” in Pakistan’s history by the military leadership.
“Politics differs between north and south Punjab,” explained veteran journalist Suhail Warraich. “Electables still play a very decisive role in south Punjab and another important factor is the swing vote, which changes its direction according to the wind unlike north and central Punjab where party vote matters,” he said, recalling that these conditions had favored the PTI in the last general elections. “In the wake of the May 9 situation, however, the PTI is likely to be deprived of both these factors in the next general elections,” he continued. “In south Punjab, electables always go with the leading party,” he added.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), echoed these views. “I doubt pattern of electables will change in the next general elections,” he told the Standard. “The electables that win the elections without any support of political parties will likely go with the winning party and be on the right side of the establishment, which can ensure them development funds and other resources,” he added, reflecting the manner in which various political parties are approaching the electoral campaign.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), traditionally drawing its support from central Punjab, claims to have secured “strong” candidates for south Punjab in the next general elections. Senior PMLN leader Awais Leghari, who hails from Dera Ghazi Khan, told the Standard that his party’s position in the region was “quite comfortable.” Claiming 20-25 percent of swing voters were favoring the incumbent government due to dissatisfaction with the PTI’s rule, he said it had also regained electables who had left it for the PTI in 2018.
Dost Muhammad Mazari, the PTI’s deputy speaker in the last Punjab Assembly, is one such politician who has shifted loyalties to the PMLN. Claiming the PTI’s popularity bubble had burst after the May 9 riots, he said: “No doubt, people have been buying Khan’s narrative of accusing other political parties of corruption and money-laundering and portraying himself a pious leader,” he said. However, he added, the situation was changing in the rural heartland.
By contrast, the PTI maintains that it has not lost any ground. Mohsin Leghari, who was elected to the National Assembly from south Punjab in by-elections last year, claimed very few “electables” from the region had left the party after May 9. “Just analyze the data and the number of PTI candidates before believing in hearsay,” he cautioned. He went on to claim just one woman candidate from Dera Ghazi Khan; former Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar; two candidates from Muzaffargarh; three from Multan; and a “minimal” number from other districts had left the party in the wake of an ongoing crackdown against it.
He also rubbished the perception of the swing voter, saying rampant inflation and growing poverty under the incumbent government had bolstered support for the PTI. “Some big names may change loyalties but common supporters and voters still have sympathy for the PTI,” he said, reiterating the PMLN had no significant support due to the deteriorating economic situation and political instability.
However, he said, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) still retained a vote-bank in the region and would likely secure two NA and 4-5 PA seats. “As far as Muzaffargarh is concerned there are three seats of MNAs which the PPP can claim, but the party has no vote bank in Rajanpur, DG Khan and Layyah,” he added.
Journalist Warraich, meanwhile, said the key issue for the PTI in south Punjab would be convincing its voters to support politicians also considered close to the establishment, such as former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “It is yet to be seen how Qureshi succeeds in securing the PTI’s vote bank while being establishment’s favorite,” he said.
The PPP, vowing to post a “surprise,” disagrees with the PTI’s assessment. Notable party leader Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood, who has served as Punjab governor in the past, said he had helped the PPP secure seven seats in the 2018 elections. “In 2013 and 2018, we did not have a leader like Bilawal Bhutto,” he said. “Bilawal’s conduct has won people’s hearts and minds. His conduct as an opposition member in the previous Parliament and now as a foreign minister has impressed the people,” he continued, citing the by-elections in Multan in which the PTI’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi lost his ancestral seat to the family of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. “We are the only party in south Punjab that has refused electables,” he claimed, adding he was “confident” the PPP would be the people’s first choice in the next general elections.
Referring to coalition partner PMLN, he said there was no contest between the two in south Punjab. “The N-League is popular among Punjabis, but is equally unpopular in the Seraiki belt where people’s first choice is the PPP,” he maintained, but noted seat-by-seat adjustment could happen in constituencies with “weak” PPP candidates. PMLN’s Leghari, meanwhile, said the reverse. “People’s hope with the PPP is at minimum in Punjab; their first choice is PMLN, second electables and then the IPP may secure some seats in the province,” he claimed.
The fourth aspirant for victory in south Punjab is the newly-formed Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP), led by business tycoon Jahangir Khan Tareen and largely comprised of PTI defectors. Senior party leader Ishaq Khaqwani claimed the PTI chief had failed to connect to his workers at the grassroots level. “Imran Khan created a wedge between himself and elected parliamentarians, which resulted in unfulfilled promises and people’s dismay over his leadership,” he claimed.
However, while noting that the PTI had lost ground after the May 9 riots, he acknowledged that the former prime minister remained popular among women and young voters. It is too soon to claim Khan has been sidelined, he said, as the ongoing crackdown against the PTI could boost the party’s sympathy vote.
Khaqwani was more blunt about the PMLN and PPP’s prospects, claiming they had both been vying for “electables” to secure seats in south Punjab due to weak candidates. “A large number of electables and sitting MNAs have joined the IPP,” he claimed, attributing this to Tareen’s popularity among rural citizens. He told the Standard that his party had no plans for an electoral alliance with either ruling party, but did not rule out the possibility of working together after the election, stressing they all had a shared goal of not ceding space for the PTI.
The PMLN’s Leghari rebutted this, however, claiming Tareen’s position was “frail” and Khaqwani lacked significant support in Vehari. The PTI’s Leghari, similarly, said no establishment-backed party could make a major dent in south Punjab. “No notables and persuasive candidates have joined them, therefore we don’t consider it a threat to the popular vote of the PTI,” he said.
PILDAT’s Mehboob said the IPP’s issue was a failure to attract major electables. “But the game is still on and the IPP may pick up some steam in the coming days, as the establishment will only back a party that shows potential to win elections,” he told the Standard, adding it was too soon to say which party would ultimately receive the establishment’s seal of approval.
Journalist Warriach, who expects IPP to emerge as the majority party from south Punjab, does not fully share this view. “I believe the IPP will bag a good number of seats while the PPP and the PMLN will not be able to secure a considerable number of seats,” he said. “It is going to be a mixture or coalition of these parties which will form the [Punjab] government,” he said.
While all political leaders who spoke with the Standard were confident of their success in the upcoming polls, they were far less certain on whether polls would occur as scheduled. PPP’s Mehmood said his party was hoping for the best, but noted “how things end up has yet to be seen.”
The IPP’s Khaqani was far more direct, stating he did not see elections this year. “Everyone in power corridors knows there will be no elections this year, as delimitation of new constituencies and constitutional requirement of census may delay this whole exercise to another year,” he claimed, adding all statements to the contrary by ruling parties were mere eyewash.
Whether polls take place this year or the next, one thing is clear: all aspirants are convinced that they will retain the maximum votes and form the next government. The ultimate decision-makers remain the general public, whose pick will only become apparent after the much-awaited polls.