Independent candidates hope to win at polls as anti-incumbency fervor sweeps through Seraiki-speaking belt.
Political heavyweights from the Seraiki-speaking belt of southern Punjab, including former caretaker prime minister Balakh Sher Mazari, former federal ministers Awais Leghari and Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar, and former Pakistan Muslim League chief whip Nasrullah Dreshak are eschewing party affiliations in favor of contesting the May 11 polls as independent candidates.
Fielding the elections under the same election symbol, a pitcher, the southern Punjab candidates have decided to fly solo this year with the hope that they can prove their electability without being held hostage to any single party’s agenda. Their decision is also likely motivated by their constituents’ dissatisfaction with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Peoples Party–two parties that have fielded these candidates in the past.
The PPP is facing a huge anti-incumbency issue, while the PMLN is suffering from a trust deficit from its Seraiki-speaking voters after it opposed the creation of a proposed South Punjab province. Imran Khan’s wildcard Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, largely popular in the rest of Punjab province, also faces an uphill battle in the Seraiki-speaking belt.
Due to the largely rural nature of the area, the party has been unable to find a foothold here, as it has in the urban centers of central and upper Punjab. Former president Farooq Leghari’s sons, Awais and Jamal, had actually joined the PTI before deciding to contest the upcoming elections as independents. The move is seen by pundits as emblematic of the deep polarization in Pakistani politics, which will likely result in a predominantly hung Parliament in which no single party will be able to attain a conclusive majority to form the next government.
Foreseeing such problems, the political heavyweights of the region have decided to contest the elections as individuals rather than party mouthpieces. Bakhtyar is contesting from his traditional constituency of NA-194, Rahim Yar Khan. He is also contesting from NA-195, where he is facing off against PPP candidate Syed Mustafa Mahmud, one of Punjab Gov. Ahmed Mahmud’s sons. Bakhtyar’s decision to contest the polls from NA-195 is being seen as a retaliatory strike for Ahmed Mahmud contesting from NA-194 in the 2008 elections. Political analysts believe that Mahmud’s decision to contest the 2008 polls from NA-194 allowed the PPP candidate—Makhdum Shahabuddin—to win against Bakhyar, who came in second to Mahmud’s third.
Mahmud’s decision to field his son as a candidate from NA-195 is causing its own problems. A politically active governor—or in this case his family—is a contentious issue and has not gone down well in political circles of south Punjab. Analysts believe this is why the PMLN has granted tacit support for Bakhtyar’s candidacy from NA-195 by not fielding any of its own candidates.
Despite the potential for the governor’s own political standing having a direct bearing in contest such as the one between his son and Bakhtyar, in south Punjab independent candidates without any party affiliations have the best shot at emerging victorious in today’s anti-incumbent climate.