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Lahore Takes Center Stage in Battle for Punjab

The PTI and PMLN are both vying for victory in the provincial capital as election date nears

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo. Arif Ali—AFP

In accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, President Arif Alvi earlier this month “consulted” with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and announced that general elections in Punjab will take on April 30. Despite the subsequent issuance of an election schedule, uncertainty persists over the polls, with security agencies urging a delay due to prevailing terror threats and even Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan claiming he does not see elections happening per schedule.

Amidst the ambiguity, Punjab capital Lahore—once considered a fortress of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)—has become ground central for politicking in the province, with the PTI hoping to use it as a launching pad for its campaign. Initially slated to begin from March 8, the party’s election campaign has already been delayed twice—both times due to the imposition of Section 144, barring public gatherings—but seems set to formally commence from today (Monday), with a rally from Khan’s Zaman Park residence to Data Darbar. At the same time, PMLN chief organizer Maryam Nawaz has been staging workers’ conventions across the province, seeking to revive the dwindling fortunes of her party amidst mounting public anger over rampant inflation under the leadership of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, also the president of the party.

Ahead of its rally, the PTI has accused the caretaker government in Punjab of bias, alleging it imposes Section 144 whenever it announces a rally. This has been denied by the interim setup, with Information Minister Amir Mir declaring it part of the PTI’s “propaganda campaign” against the caretaker government. “The caretaker government did not allow the PTI to take out rallies on March 8 and March 12 because of other happenings in Lahore,” he told Standard. “The city was already choked due to PSL matches, Aurat March and other happenings,” he said, adding that the PTI would face no hindrances to staging a rally today (Monday).

Mir also clarified that an election campaign does not begin until the list of contesting candidates has been finalized. “The election campaign begins after April 6 when the list for contesting candidates has been finalized. Before that any activity is called political campaign and it won’t be allowed,” he said. This view was echoed by Kanwar Dilshad—an adviser to Punjab C.M. Naqvi who holds the additional portfolio of law and parliamentary affairs minister—who said Section 144 could not be imposed after April 6.

Urging the PTI to “trust” that the caretaker government would ensure free and fair elections, he lamented that the party had started to malign it before it was even appointed. He further alleged that the PTI was seeking agitation because its demands for returning and district officers from the judiciary had been rejected by the Lahore High Court.

Lahore in limelight

The Punjab Assembly is the largest of all the provincial assemblies and victory here is often seen as a prerequisite for any party seeking to form the federal government. Of its 371 seats, including 297 general seats, 66 seats reserved for women and 8 reserved for non-Muslims, 30 are elected from Lahore—PP-144 to PP-173—as are the NA-123 to NA-136 seats of the National Assembly.

The Punjab capital is estimated to have a population of over 13 million people, with the bulk of the electorates comprising the Arain, Rajput, Kashmiri, Mughal, and Awan tribes, as well as Urdu-speaking migrants from India, and Pashtuns from the country’s north. Traditionally, the city has been considered the stronghold of the PMLN, which has consistently won elections here since 1997. This trend appears to have come to end, with the PTI securing a majority of by-elections in the city last year for both National Assembly and Punjab Assembly seats.

The PMLN’s senior leadership, however, believes this to be an aberration that will not be repeated in general elections, maintaining that Lahore remains the party’s citadel of power. While acknowledging the loss of his party’s political capital due to ongoing inflation, PMLN senior leader and Economic Affairs Minister Ayaz Sadiq stressed that it was the result of years of mismanagement and incompetence by the PTI-led government.

“One needs to know that inflation doesn’t come overnight,” he told Standard. “The Ukraine-Russia war reshaped the fuel market and oil and gas prices surged to their highest. Economic recession is [now] a worldwide phenomenon and even Europe is going through its worst period. We are trying to overcome this issue and our efforts will bear fruits,” he claimed, adding that the PMLN was readying itself for polls. In this regard, he said, former Punjab chief minister Hamza Shahbaz—who has been in New York for the medical treatment of his youngest daughter—would return to Pakistan “soon” and join Maryam Nawaz’s campaign efforts. At the same time, he claimed, Khan was losing ground due to multiple cases of corruption, deceit and conspiracy pending against him. “Things are different now as the PTI chief is no longer backed up by the establishment as he was in the 2018 general elections,” he said.

Referring to a recent poll of Gallup Pakistan that had found Khan as the most popular politician of Pakistan—with 61 percent favorable ratings—Sadiq said this view would be corrected after elections. Noting that Khan’s popularity had been at its peak in 2013, he recalled that he had still managed to emerge victorious against the PTI chief. “Lahore has been the stronghold of the PMLN and will remain so in the future as well,” he added.

By contrast, PTI leader Mian Aslam Iqbal has predicted that the 2023 elections would see his party win over Lahore. “Lahore has been the stronghold of Nawaz Sharif the way Larkana has been the stronghold of PPP Co-chairperson Asif Zardari,” he said, recalling that the PTI had won four seats from the city in the 2013 general elections—two provincial and two in the National Assembly—followed by 12 in 2018—eight provincial and four NA. “We are set to make history in the 2023 elections,” he stressed.

“Lahore plays a decisive role in the elevation of any political party,” he told Standard. “Given the current situation, which is increasing people’s confidence in Imran Khan, we are optimistic to win maximum seats on both provincial and national level from Lahore,” he said, adding that the party had prepared its list of candidates, including women it hoped to get elected on general seats.

Criticizing the political campaign of Maryam Nawaz, Iqbal claimed the narrative she was attempting to sell was not finding buyers among the public. “They are more concerned about ending their cases and proving Nawaz [Sharif]’s innocence,” he claimed. “Their narrative doesn’t sell with the public as it’s more subjective rather than concerning the problems the common man is facing,” he said, referring to inflation and the recent imposition of additional taxes by the incumbent government.

On concerns over voter turnout, the PTI leader said he hoped it would exceed 65 percent and prove the voters’ frustration with the incumbent leaders. However, he echoed his party’s concerns about free and fair elections under the caretaker government, which he accused of bias.

Anyone’s game

The confidence expressed by both the PTI and PMLN is not reflected in the views of independent experts. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, director of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), said the current trends could change “drastically” once the election campaign begins in earnest. “This is what happened in the 2018 general elections. The polls were showing a different kind of public opinion but in the last one month the public opinion got swayed in favor of PTI Chairman Imran Khan and away from PMLN,” he recalled.

According to Mehboob, the PMLN needs Nawaz Sharif—currently in London for medical treatment—back in Pakistan, as he remains their most important campaigner. However, he stressed, the party faces a tough road as it has the sword of inflation hanging over its head. A way to address this, he said, was an effective communication strategy that would allow the party to connect with voters. However, he noted, in this the PTI has an edge over the PMLN. “The PTI has better communication strategy, Imran Khan is a better communicator than Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif,” he said. “However, after Nawaz Sharif comes back and Maryam Nawaz gets fully charged up, the PTI’s communication strategy could falter,” he added.

The biggest risks to the PTI, said the PILDAT director, came from some cases against Khan—prohibited funding, Toshakhana assets, the concealment of his alleged daughter—as a conviction in any of them could hamper the party chief’s active participation in the election campaign. “So things will be in influx and it can go either way,” he said, noting neither party had an unassailable advantage over the other. “Though the PTI’s popularity has peaked, it might be dented in a way that helps the PMLN,” he added.

Apart from the PTI and PMLN, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) also hope to make some inroads in Lahore, but observers don’t expect them to make any major dent. The PPP, while popular in south Punjab, has yet to secure a foothold in central Punjab, while the TLP has collapsed in every by-election of the past year and the JI has traditionally found little support in the provincial capital.

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