Key by-polls start, putting Sharif loyalty to crucial test
LAHORE: Pakistanis began casting votes yesterday for the parliamentary seat vacated by ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a by-election seen as a test of support for the Sharif dynasty ahead of the 2018 general election.
Mr Sharif ’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party hopes a resounding victory in in the eastern city of Lahore would show that support for the family was undiminished despite the Supreme Court’s removal of Mr Sharif in July.
Mr Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, has spearheaded the PML-N campaign for her mother, Kulsoom — who is the PML-N candidate despite receiving cancer treatment in London.
Maryam Sharif, who some PML-N leaders see as a future leader, has framed the poll as a chance for voters to give a bloody nose to the judiciary by handing the party a thumping victory.
“Will you take revenge for your disrespected vote?” she asked supporters at a recent rally.
Opposition l eader Imran Khan — whose threats of street protests pushed the Supreme Court to launch a probe into Nawaz Sharif’s wealth — is seeking to build on the success of his anti-graft crusade by making inroads into Mr Sharifs’ power base in Punjab.
The Supreme Court in July disqualified Mr Sharif because he did not declare a monthly salary, equivalent to US$2,722, from a company owned by his son when the veteran leader, who had held power twice in the 1990s, became prime minister for the third time. Mr Sharif denies receiving the salary.
Mr Khan has turned the by-election into a plebiscite about corruption, and has accused the provincial Punjab government, which is run by Mr Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz, of abusing state resources to help the PML-N campaign.
“Your prime minister owns some of the most expensive real estate in the world — all in his daughter’s name. Meanwhile half the children of this country are malnourished,” Mr Khan told a rally on Saturday.
Analysts predict PML-N will win again but they say Mr Khan’s party would build momentum ahead of the 2018 poll if PTI candidate Yasmin Rashid, a gynecologist from the area, reduces the PML-N’s 40,000 vote-winning margin from 2013.
“PTI would be very happy if the margin ended up being small. That would be a victory for them,” said Hasan Askri, a political analyst.
Many of the 321,633 registered voters in the central Lahore NA-120 consituency are conflicted.
Kulsoom Sharif and Dr Rashid will be competing against about 40 other candidates, one backed by a new party that is led by an Islamist firebrand who is subject to a $10-million bounty offered by the United States.
Hafiz Saeed heads the Jammat-ud-Dawa charity, having founded and formerly led the Lashkhar-e-Taiba militant group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.