The 2018 general elections are two years away, but the ruling PML-N is already in the election mode, with focus on fulfilling the election promises that brought it in power for the third time in May 2013. In fact, Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal has made that much known.
“Come up with your proposals for next year’s PSDP (Public Sector Development Programme) which are linked with Vision 2025 and fulfilment of the manifesto of the (PML-N) government,” he told a budget-preparation meeting the other day, lamenting that almost half of the Rs700 billion budgeted for the programme for 2015-16 were not utilised.
Such preparations make good sense, but the PML-N faces a test of its performance much sooner – the by-election in the Wazirabad (Gujranwala) NA-101 constituency, set for March 22. It promises to be an interesting contest for many reasons.
It pitches the PML-N and PTI against one another once again. The by-election was called because PML-N’s retired Justice Iftikhar Cheema occupying the seat was de-seated for giving wrong information about his assets to the Election Commission. The party has put him as its candidate again after the Supreme Court allowed him to participate in the by-election.
Retired Justice Cheema polled 99,924 votes in the 2013 general elections against the 60,795 of the runner-up Mohammad Ahmad Chatha, whose father Hamid Nasir Chatha, the former Speaker National Assembly, he had defeated in the 2008 general elections.
Now both father and son have joined PTI. The entry of PTI in the Wazirabad constituency, situated on the fabled Grand Trunk Road traditionally dominated by the PML-N, makes the contest “exciting” to many.
PTI chairperson Imran Khan has already visited the constituency as part of the Chathas campaign. Imran deftly pandered to the local farming community by highlighting its grievance that PML-N had ignored agriculture sector.
Of late, PTI has been accusing the PML-N government of looking after the interests of the corporate sector while only adding to the woes of farmers.
Some analysts feel PTI’s pitch on the crisis-ridden agriculture sector is gaining traction. They recall the instructions Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued only last weekend to the ministry of national food security to prepare a new integrated framework for uplifting the agriculture sector.
In his order, the prime minister accepted in so many words that farmers, particularly those with small land holdings, had been constantly in distress for the past few years.
Most economists agree that the PML-N has done little for the farmers’ community, which has taken a toll on their annual income.
In that context, a win for PML-N in the NA-101 by-election would only regain it a lost vote in the National Assembly, where it already enjoys a comfortable majority, but not real political prestige.
And that is what matters most for both the contesting parties. Both the Chatha and Cheema families have their traditional vote banks in the area and the outcome will be taken sort of bellwether – how future electoral contests between the two parties will fare.
Notwithstanding results of the local government elections, which, traditionally, ruling parties win because of their control over the purse, PTI has steadily put up a strong show in the by-elections in PML-N ruled Punjab.
Speaker National Assembly Ayaz Sadiq narrowly managed to win back his seat in Lahore, the heart of Punjab, last October but the PML-N lost a provincial assembly contest to PTI in the same constituency.
More importantly PPP, which had sizeable vote in the GT Road belt until 2002, is down and out. And its leadership, at least for now, seems uninterested in reviving the party’s fortunes in the Punjab. Though young Bilwal Bhutto Zardari is seen visiting Lahore quite regularly, PPP is yet to take meaningful initiatives to put the party back into the fray. On the other hand, the PTI and PML-N leaders don’t miss an opportunity to go out and address election rallies.
So, come the next general elections and pundits see the two battling for power in Punjab.