November Issue 2015
Test of Wills
Last month, the drumbeats of NA-122’s by-elections in Lahore reverberated loud and clear across the country. Even though it was only a by-election, it was turned into a battle for survival. It was as if the lives of the two leading contenders — and their respective parties — depended on this single event.
Imran Khan’s challenge to his arch nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, at the PTI jalsas, had set the stage for a grandstand finish. And a grandstand finish it was, with Ayaz Sadiq, former Speaker of the National Assembly and PML-N’s candidate for NA-122, edging out his rival, Aleem Khan, by 2,443 votes.
This election, besides being a matter of life and death for PTI and PML-N, was also a litmus test that was expected to put to rest PTI’s 30-month long allegations of rigging during the elections. That, unfortunately, has not happened; PTI continues to insist that the 2013 general elections were rigged and so was this by-election, and that their mandate was stolen.
The NA-122 by-election proved to be memorable on many counts. There were allegations and counter-allegations galore and name-calling of the worst kind. What’s more, money was the order of the day. The contestants opened their coffers, and accusations of buying votes flew back and forth.
A quick run through the speeches delivered at assorted jalsas on pre-polling day, reveals that the contestants of NA-122 raised all issues, except those that impact the lives of its constituents. The speeches covered everything, ranging from foreign policy to the personal assets of our leaders. However, what was missing from the agenda was the real issues that concern the day-to-day life of the voters of NA-122. Occasionally, one did hear the PTI candidate, Aleem Khan, mention the lack of clean drinking water and congested streets, but 98% of the debate was centred around rigging or riches. We heard PTI Chairman Imran Khan refer to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as ‘the most corrupt person of Pakistan’ and we heard Hamza Shahbaz describe the election as a ‘battle between qabza and jazba.’
A worrying trend witnessed in the NA-122 campaign was the lavish spending by the two leading contenders. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) asked all the candidates to furnish details of the money they had spent on the campaign and contrary to what Lahore had actually witnessed, each candidate submitted that they had spent less than the Election Commission’s stipulated amount of Rs. 1.5 million. A quick glance at the campaigns of both front-runners is enough to refute these claims. Ayaz Sadiq or Aleem Khan may argue that any additional expenditure was incurred by their associates and ‘well-wishers,’ but the fact of the matter is that the expenditure incurred on each of these campaigns ran into the billions. In fact, the stipulated amount of Rs. 1.5 million was spent in just one ward alone, according to some estimates. Sources reveal that the cost of printing the banners and posters alone was around Rs. 10 million. Add to this the cost of the corner meetings, daily jalsas, running of polling camps and offices and the cash and rations disbursed among potential voters.
As for the fairness and transparency of the elections, Newsline spoke to eight to 10 polling agents from both PTI and PML-N on polling day, and all of them concurred with each other that the elections were being conducted in a transparent and fair manner.
Once the polling process stopped and the results started pouring in, Ayaz Sadiq and Aleem Khan were running neck and neck for the first five hours, with a margin of no more than 3,000 votes between them, but eventually, Ayaz Sadiq was declared the winner. Sadiq and Hamza Shahbaz didn’t waste any time and launched on their victory sermons around 1 a.m. from their Model Town headquarters.
Interestingly, PTI won the provincial assembly seat, PP-147, and not only that but managed to notch up more votes than PML-N on that day, if one were to combine the votes of PP-147 and NA-122. The vote difference was primarily due to the “poor choice of candidate” fielded by the PML-N, which was later acknowledged by Mariam Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N candidate for PP-147, Mohsin Latif’s only qualification was that he is related to the Sharif family — and his nomination was a clear case of nepotism.
Independent observers and political analysts maintain that the NA-122 by-election was overhyped and overbilled — but not without reason. The stakes of the leading contenders and the parties involved were very high. PTI had to win the seat to prove its allegations of rigging, while PML-N had to win to refute PTI’s allegations. In a sense, it was more of a referendum than a by-election. People close to Aleem Khan told Newsline that he had pinned all his hopes and political future on this by-poll and possibly fancied the idea of using a win in this election as a stepping stone to the coveted post of Punjab Chief Minister in the 2018 general elections.
For Ayaz Sadiq, too, his political future was at stake. It is widely believed that PTI leader Imran Khan will contest the 2018 general elections from this seat like he did in 2013. Defeating the mighty Khan in the elections will be a tough call, and Ayaz Sadiq knows that. Hence it was imperative that he win this by-poll to prepare for the clash of 2018.
Contenders aside, the leadership of both the PML-N and the PTI was also interested in the outcome of NA-122 because of the upcoming local government elections in November and December, which are extremely important for both parties. The next general elections will be held under the aegis of the local bodies elected through the local government elections, and both parties know the advantages of having favourable mayors and councillors in place during the general elections.
For now, Ayaz Sadiq is back as Speaker of the National Assembly, while Aleem Khan and the PTI are still in a state of disbelief and looking for any proof of PML-N’s rigging in NA-122.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.
The author is an Islamabad-based journalist and has been associated with various media houses, including Geo, Sach TV, AbbTakk News and Capital TV.