Pakistan: Decisive battle in Punjab to decide next PM

By Aamir Latif

LAHORE, Pakistan (AA) – Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan, has become a battleground for two mainstream political parties in the upcoming general election.

Lahore, the provincial capital and second largest city, is witness to it. Life-size posters and banners line thoroughfares. Parties are holding corner meetings and door-to-door campaigns.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), of the three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by the former cricket hero Imran Khan, are flexing their muscles for the July 25 poll.

Punjab with its 120 million people — 60 percent of the country's total population — has the highest number of seats in the National Assembly. Usually a party which wins Punjab, forms the government for the next five years.

The province, especially Lahore, has traditionally been a PML-N stronghold for the last three decades. But the party is going to face a daunting challenge by a revitalized PTI across the province, including its heartland Lahore.

In the 2013 election, PML-N formed governments in the center and the province.

In Lahore, electioneering is picking up amid a divided public opinion in run-up to the polls.

Key politicians including two of the prime ministerial candidates, Shehbaz Sharif, chairman of PML-N, Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, and three-time Punjab chief minister; and populist Khan are contesting from Lahore.

Residents of Lahore are divided over who to vote for.

"I will vote for PTI this time. My vote will be for change," Zahid Ali, who owns a small grocery store in Gawalmundi, an old middle-class locality, said.

Hamza Shehbaz, son of Shehbaz Sharif and a potential heir of the Sharif political dynasty, is also contesting from this constituency.

"My vote will be for lion (PML-N's election symbol). They have built Punjab, especially Lahore," said Naveed Khan, who runs a small cafe at Bhaati Gate, another locality.

– Close fight

"It will be a tough fight between PML-N and PTI. Not an easy task for PML-N this time," said Salman Ghani, a Lahore-based political analyst.

The majority party from Punjab, he said, would still be PML-N.

Pre-poll surveys from local think tanks, including Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency ( PILDAT) and Pulse, suggest PML-N will win 26 percent of votes in Punjab followed by PTI at 25 percent.

"As per my assessment, PML-N may bag 70-75 National Assembly seats followed by PTI at 50-55," Ghani added.

In Lahore, he said, PML-N would bag 10 seats while PTI had a strong chance on four seats.

Ghani observed that the return of Nawaz Sharif from London to serve 10 years in prison in a corruption case has boosted the party's morale, as supporters see him resisting the powerful military establishment, which has been accused of pre-poll rigging by the party.

Azam Chaudhry, another analyst from Lahore agrees that PML-N will be the largest party in the city, but argues it will face a tough time in the rest of Punjab.

The party, according to him, is in hot water in southern Punjab and several districts of central Punjab, including Faisalabad, Okara, Gujrat, Gujranwala, Jhang and Sahiwal.

"Scores of PML-N stalwarts have either defected or returned party tickets in southern Punjab, where PTI is enjoying a better position. Similarly, in several districts of central Punjab, PML-N's position is not that strong," Chaudhry said.

He said PTI could grab more than 70 seats in the National Assembly from Punjab.

– Hidden hands

PML-N accuses the military establishment of harassing its workers and supporting rival PTI.

Shehbaz Sharif in an interview with Anadolu Agency accused that thousands of his workers were detained in Punjab, calling the move pre-poll rigging.

His claim was supported by nonprofit Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in a statement earlier this week, calling the upcoming election the "dirtiest" and most manipulated in history.