On April 29, big public meetings were organided by five political parties in three out of the four provinces to prematurely launch their election campaign.
The only exception was Balochistan, Pakistan’s most under-developed province suffering from a low-intensity insurgency since 2006 following the assassination of Baloch tribal elder Nawab Akbar Bugti in a military action ordered by President General Pervez Musharraf. The pace of politics is usually slow in the province where most politicians, many of whom are tribal chiefs, keep changing political parties to stay close to the corridors of power.
There is no doubt that the biggest public meeting on April 29 was staged by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the shadows of the Minar-e-Pakistan at the Iqbal Park in Lahore. It was a show of strength by the party after weeks of preparations. The PTI Chairman Imran Khan was hoping the public rally would provide his party the kind of momentum that it had received after the mammoth gathering at the same place in October 2011. That was a watershed moment as Imran Khan was catapulted into a major political player to become a serious contender for power.
On the same day, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ventured into an almost alien territory in Karachi when the party’s Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addressed a public meeting in Liaqatabad, hitherto the stronghold of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It would have been unthinkable some years ago that the PPP would dare to organise such a gathering in an area populated by the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs. However, the splintering of the MQM into at least four factions has provided an opportunity to not only the PPP, but also the PTI, Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and other parties to snatch a share of its vote. Being in power in Sindh, the PPP is better placed to attract the floating MQM vote. The Liaqatabad public meeting was organised with an eye on the Mohajirs who would like to return to the mainstream after being put-off by the MQM factionalism.
The remaining three public meetings on April 29 were organised in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Punjab Chief Minister President Shahbaz Sharif, who has replaced deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as the PML-N President, travelled to Shergarh in Mardan district to speak at a public meeting organised by the local party lawmaker Jamshed Mohmand. Shahbaz Sharif is increasingly focusing on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a bid to put Imran Khan on the defensive by criticising the performance of the PTI government. Jamshed Mohmand was elected as an independent MPA in the May 2013 general election and was supporting the PTI-led coalition government until 2017 when he switched sides and joined the PML-N. The PML-N’s federal government rewarded him with gas supply and electrification projects in his constituency to strengthen his prospects for winning the 2018 polls.
Unlike Punjab where the PML-N and PTI would be dominating the coming election and Sindh where the PPP would face-off the challenge from an alliance of smaller and weaker parties, the contest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would be wide open as the ruling PTI, PML-N, PPP, Awami National Party (ANP), the revived Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) and Aftab Sherpao’s Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) are all capable of winning enough seats to be able to demand a share in the coalition government that would emerge after the polls. Even the party with a few seats could bargain to become part of the ruling coalition as the mandate would be split.
On April 29, the MMA held its maiden public rally after its revival at the Railway Ground in Mardan. This was the first time since 2008 when the MMA broke up that the JUI-F and Jamaat-i-Islami shared the stage with each other along with the three smaller parties – Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Jamaat Ahle Hadith and Tehrik-i-Islami. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the JUI-F leader who is also the MMA head, and the JI chief Sirajul Haq were the star speakers at the Mardan public meeting.
The MMA performed well in the 2002 general election and managed to form its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and became part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan. However, that kind of success cannot be repeated 16 years later considering the fact that the issues that ensured MMA’s victory then are no longer valid. The MMA’s revival despite lack of cohesiveness among its component parties is a desperate move to avoid defeat in the July 2018 polls as was the case in the 2008 general election.
Also on April 29, ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan addressed a public meeting in Upper Dir in the hope of rallying support for the party in an area dominated for years by the Jamaat-i-Islami and PPP. With the PTI having made inroads in Malakand division, which includes Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Chitral, Swat, Shangla, Buner and Malakand districts, the space for the ANP to make its mark has been shrinking.
Perhaps no other party in the province has made such timely preparations for the coming polls as the ANP was the first to select its candidates, bring back the estranged activists into the party fold and finalise the issues to be highlighted during the election campaign. It is hard to predict the outcome of ANP’s determined effort to do better than its dismal electoral performance in 2013 after having ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for five years from 2008-2013 as the senior partner in coalition government with the PPP. It would certainly do better than the 2013 polls, though not to the extent to emerge as the leading vote-getter in the province.
The fifth public meeting on April 29 was staged by QWP in Swabi. Aftab Sherpao, who twice served as chief minister of the province and was federal interior minister during General Pervez Musharraf’s rule, spoke at the meeting along with his son, Sikandar Hayat Sherpao, who is president of the QWP’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter and is also a former provincial minister.
The QWP had done better than the ANP, PPP and Jamaat-i-Islami in the 2013 general election, but has been steadily losing its assembly members to other parties in recent months. The Sherpaos are trying to salvage the party on the eve of the next general election and looking for electable candidates who could win seats in the provincial assembly to give the QWP some bargaining power during the post-polls negotiations for formation of the coalition government.
The general election is due to be held in July, but an early start in the election campaign has been dictated by the arrival of the month of Ramazan from May 17. Electioneering would become tough during Ramazan as fasting is energy-sapping due to the hot summer weather. Eidul Fitr would be celebrated after June 16 and that would leave barely a month before the polling day for the election campaign. The political parties and candidates are trying to make use of the time before the advent of Ramazan to run their election campaign.
This was the reason five big public meetings were staged in different parts of the country on April 29, not to mention the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM)’s rally in Mingora, Swat the same day to highlight its demands rather than to seek votes. The electioneering would gather pace until the start of Ramazan, then slow down, and pick up again after Eidul Fitr. It would be a hot contest made hotter by the weather.