Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chant slogans after the sentence against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif during a protest in Peshawar on July 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Abdul Majeed

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Party is mysteriously losing candidates in southern and central Punjab constituencies ahead of the country’s national election, raising suspicions of a “soft creeping coup” by state political forces.    

Several PML-N candidates, including deputy speaker of Punjab assembly Ali Gorchani, suddenly announced they will contest the July 25 poll as independents. They also changed their election symbol from the PML-N’s lion to that of a jeep. 

The PML-N, which was a major contender to take power, is now left with virtually no candidates in these constituencies, and has been deprived of at least 12 potential Punjab and national assembly seats.

“The indecision of the party in resolving the Khatm-e-Nabuuwat (Totality of Prophethood) issue alienated voters, who are not prepared to vote for PML-N unless the party comes clean on a most crucial religious issue,” Gorchani told Asia Times. He said sardars (chieftains), religious leaders and community members in Rajanpur, South Punjab unanimously felt that the PML-N had harmed the religious sentiments of the people.

The Khatm-e-Nabuuwat controversy began last year when the PML-N-led government introduced the Electoral Reform Bill in the assembly and (intentionally or unintentionally) made changes to the oath of elected representatives. This change was termed “un-Islamic” by the Tehrik-e-Labaik Party (TLP).

Religious leaders said that the amendments clashed with the provision for finality of prophethood in Article 62/63 of the Pakistan constitution. They started a countrywide protest movement and paralyzed capital Islamabad for more than three weeks, demanding the resignation of the then Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid.

Gorchani said that people will not vote for PML-N candidates until those involved in the incident are punished

The government bowed to the pressure and sacked the law minister, establishing a commission of inquiry to identify all those who had played a part in the saga. Gorchani said that people will not vote for PML-N candidates until the inquiry report is made public and those involved in the incident are punished.

Findings of the inquiry were released on Wednesday by the caretaker government that is ruling Pakistan until after the election, with the report exonerating PML-N and shifting responsibility to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party.

“Despite all odds, unjustified forced defections and intimidation, the PML-N is going to win elections with a comfortable majority. This is what people, media, polls, and election surveys say,” Dr Musadik Masood Malik, a PML-N senator and former special assistant to the Pakistan prime minister, told Asia Times.

Malik said the unceremonious dismissal of the Baluchistan chief minister, large-scale defections by PML-N members in Baluchistan assembly and a controversial Senate election all had a purpose, but no explanation was given as to why they had happened.

“Nothing can stand in the way of the masses and no power can stop people from voting for a party they like to elect; let them do whatever they want, for the ultimate winner will be one having the people’s support and backing,” Malik said.

Tentacles of the deep state

Interestingly, the jeep election symbol was first allotted to former interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, who is contesting four Punjab constituencies as an independent. Formerly one of the most senior leaders of the PML-N, Khan became disgruntled when the party would not allow him to contest elections and then cornered him for opposing its stance on Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification in July last year.

Hailing from a well-connected military family in central Punjab, Nisar has immense influence in Pakistan’s military circles and was, until recently, considered a “man of crisis” for the Sharif brothers. His close ties with the deep state further paid off when the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) arrested Qamar-ul-Islam, a PML-N candidate opposing him in NA-59 (Rawalpindi-III) constituency.

The NAB claims Islamic interests were involved in the Saaf Pani Company scam, but speculation is rife in Islamabad that the establishment removed a hurdle in the way of Nisar’s electoral victory.

Political analysts say that the decision to allot the same election symbol to Chowdhry Nisar and dozens of disgruntled defectors from PML-N is aimed at creating a powerful parliamentary pressure group, led by Nisar. This could shape future political alignments in Pakistan and keep the government in check.

Meanwhile, hours later after PML-N candidates defected, a party ticket holder from Multan, Iqbal Siraj, was roughed up — allegedly by officials of a clandestine public agency — and told that he should contest the election as an independent candidate.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif directly accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind the incident, claiming that he knew the name of the ISI colonel who had manhandled his party leader and pressured him to change his loyalty. “I will reveal the colonel’s name when the time is right,” Sharif said in London.

However, Siraj eventually retracted his earlier statement, saying that officials from the agriculture department, and not security personnel,  had raided his godown.

Numbers game starting to hurt

On another front, the Supreme Court sentenced PML-N leader and ex-federal minister Daniyal Aziz for contempt of court, which automatically disqualifies him from becoming a member of the parliament for five years. Earlier, the court also sentenced Nihal Hashmi, another senior PML-N leader from Karachi.

Two more PML-N leaders, including ex-minister of state Talal Chaudhry and former federal minister for the railways Saad Rafique, are undergoing trial. The court is expected to decide their fate before the elections, which could be another setback for the party.

“These elections are not free and fair, as the PML-N is singled out for all sort of repression, humiliation, subjugation and framed litigation,” a PML-N senator from South Punjab, Ghous Muhammad Khan Niazi, told Asia Times. “But elections must be held to strengthen democracy and political institutions.”

 Niazi was confident PML-N’s voting bloc would remain intact and insisted “slanderous propaganda” by the state and its institutions would not dent the party’s image. “We are in a difficult phase of our history, but we are destined to stage a comeback,” Niazi said.

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