By-election NA-48: No steam in the race

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Aug 18, 2013.

Islamabad – The battle for urban Islamabad is turning out to be a dud, the second time around.

With just two days left before the campaign deadline for the August 22 by-elections, voter mobilization in the capital’s NA-48 appears to be low and election campaigns of the contesting candidates have struggled to gain momentum.

Twenty-two candidates are contesting for the seat vacated by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Javed Hashmi. But only three mainstream political parties — the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party and PTI — have fielded candidates.

Streamers and banners of the candidates are visible on some street corners and avenues and candidates are trying to muster crowds at corner meetings but the fervor of elections is missing. The campaign was also interrupted by Eid holidays and Independence Day.

The voter turnout might not touch the 59.55 per cent turnout on May 11. But that is not an anamoly.

Experts suggest the voter turnout in by-election seldom parallels the turnout during general elections.

“The euphoria and mass mobilization witnessed in general elections is usually not replicated in the by-elections,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the PILDAT guy. “It is because the possibility of government change through the general elections ceases to exist in the by-elections.”

Mehboob said there is no reason for the decrease in voter turnout to be disproportionate across political parties. The reduction might not affect any particular party, he said.

But he pointed out that people are more likely to vote for localized concerns such as which candidate can get their demands fulfilled realistically.

“On the basis of this consideration, people might prefer to vote for the ruling party’s candidate,” he said. “The logic is that the ruling party’s politicians would be able to help the constituents more, so the PML-N might have a slight edge in Islamabad.”

Anwar Ali, a shopkeeper in G-9 market, who said he did not vote in the general elections, seemed to agree with this assessment.

“I am thinking of voting for the tiger,” he said, referring to PML-N’s election symbol. “The people in power cannot at least make the excuse that someone stopped them from serving the people.”

But the PML-N’s official candidate, Advocate Ashraf Gujjar, has had a difficult time mobilizing party workers in the capital to back him up. Gujjar’s campaign was further hampered because of controversy surrounding PML-N’s official ticket.

That controversy, which involved former PML-N MNA from NA-48, Anjum Aqeel Khan, trying his best to get the ticket instead of Gujjar, was settled only recently when Khan withdrew from the by-polls on the direction of his party’s leadership.

On Saturday, Khan participated in a public gathering for Gujjar’s campaign at Tarnol along with Hamza Shahbaz and NA-49 MNA Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry to boost Gujjar’s odds for making it to the National Assembly.

The PTI’s candidate Asad Umar, however, has been a visible campaigner so far as his party tries to retain the constituency it won on May 11. Hashmi, supported by an above-average voter turnout, had upset incumbent MNA Anjum Aqeel Khan of the PML-N back then.

On August 16, PTI Chief Imran Khan showed up in Umar’s support at a public meeting in Jhangi Syedan and the leader is also expected to address a rally in Islamabad on August 20, the last day of the campaign.

Votes from the youth and women — the middle-class residents of upscale neighbourhoods mostly —- had helped the PTI in Islamabad during the general elections. The PTI is expected to retain some of the votes, including that of Saleem Ahmed, a college student who lives in sector F-10.

“The PTI wants to empower people at the grassroots by establishing a local government system in Islamabad,” Ahmed, 19, said. “I believe this is the correct way for bringing about true change in the country.”

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