Everything is set for the by-poll scheduled in NA-154 Lodhran today (Wednesday), and a neck-and-neck context is expected between the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz’s (PML-N) Siddique Khan Baloch and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Jahangir Khan Tareen, while 16 others are also trying their luck.
NA-154 is one of the four National Assembly constituencies where PTI Chairman Imran Khan had called for a vote audit before launching his long march and 126-day-long dharna against the PML-N government in 2014.
Around 370,150 registered voters are set to vote today, but over 425,000 ballot papers have been published for NA-154 by-polls. The personnel of Pakistan Army will also be present inside and outside every polling station for a peaceful, free, fair and transparent polling process.
The polling will start at 8am and continue until 5pm without any interval. According to a statement of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), as many as 303 polling stations have been established in the constituency.
A public holiday has been announced in NA-154, while the Ministry for Water and Power has also been requested for zero load shedding of electricity on polling day.
The seat fell vacant when an election tribunal declared Siddique Baloch’s election null and void in August. During the 2013 polls, Siddique Khan Baloch, then an independent candidate, received 86,177 votes while Tareen bagged 75,955 votes. PML-N’s candidate Rafiuddin also received 45,000 votes.
Later, Baloch joined the ruling PML-N while the election results were challenged by Jahangir Tareen in election tribunal. After a long legal battle, however, election tribunal had disqualified Baloch, calling for a re-election in the constituency. Baloch later got his disqualification overturned from Supreme Court, paving the way for re-election.
A majority of the constituents comprise of Baloch tribesmen whose votes are decisive. In the past, this constituency has been won by Siddique Khan Baloch, who faces a tough challenge from Jahangir Tareen.
A detailed survey conducted by Pakistan Today in the constituency has revealed that Tareen is riding a popularity wave across the constituency, which consists of 90 per cent rural and 10 per cent urban area. Interestingly, PTI is equally popular in rural and urban areas.
On the contrary, the ruling party has successfully used the state machinery to turn the tide against Tareen. Many top PML-N leaders have visited the area and addressed corner meetings while provincial secretaries and their subordinates have been stationed in Lodhran to address the issues faced by the people to win their votes.
Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the elder son of Punjab chief minister, whose words are final for Punjab’s bureaucracy, has also spent much of his time in the constituency.
Despite the fact that most ruling party candidates won the recently held local government election in Lodhran, successive successful public meetings addressed by PTI chief Imran Khan have helped mobilise young and energetic supporters in favour of Jahangir Tareen.
Moreover, the locals are also unhappy with Siddique Khan Baloch, who is notorious among the public for harbouring criminals and victimising locals who do not vote for his candidates.
Rao Sikander, a small farmer of the area told Pakistan Today that Siddique Khan Baloch was unpopular among the people because of his use of force against poor villagers. He said that this time around, Tareen had successfully dented the vote bank of Baloch as several major clans from Baloch’s traditional supporters have joined Tareen.
Among them, include heavyweights like Baloch, Qureshi, Arain, Chachar, Ghalloo, etc. Tareen has even received the support in Baloch’s stronghold areas for the first time.
Tareen enjoys support in PP-211 while Baloch has strong support in PP-210.
Rana Aslam, a PPP candidate from PP-211, had recently joined Tareen but the PML-N got two FIRs registered against Rana Aslam for gas theft. Therefore, Rana Aslam had to announce his support to Baloch.
Rao Wasim, another local, told Pakistan Today that Baloch had support from powerful and influential landlords who were feared among locals. He said former MPA Ahmed Khan Baloch whose influence was immense among Baloch tribes living from Gilawala to Lodhran was backing Siddique Baloch.
“This factor can greatly help Baloch win majority votes,” he added.
PML-N’s former candidate from NA-154 Pir Rafiuddin had also joined Tareen. However, Hamza Shahbaz visited his residence and persuaded him to back Baloch.
Rao Wasim said that several provincial secretaries and some other top officers of Punjab government have been tasked to remain on duty and they are working day and night to redress public issues to help Baloch win the polls. He said PML-N MPA Rana Mehmoodul Hassan also visited Lodhran to influence the Rajput clan. However, majority of Rajputs would vote for the PTI.
He said that in a bid to confuse the voters, Siddiq Khan has another candidate named Jahangir Khan to stand for the polls with an election symbol of batsman to confuse the voters of Tareen.
“All lawmakers and ministers from Multan and Bahawalpur have been assigned duties to help Baloch win,” he added.
He said it seems that Jahangir Tareen would face a tough challenge to win due to government pressure tactics. He said that Tareen had also imported former federal minister and eminent Baloch tribal chief Sardar Yar Mohammad Rind to visit the area to win the votes of Rind clan in the area.
“PTI’s campaign is organised but the PML-N is using machinery to help the government candidate,” he added.
Shahid Rana, the bureau chief of a private TV channel in Multan, told Pakistan Today that state machinery was being misused to help Baloch win the poll.
“We have recorded sorts of 20 women who on camera have said that they had been transported forcibly to Lodhran from Burewala and Vehari to attend Hamza Shahbaz’s jalsa. Moreover, schoolteachers, health department officials have been asked to work in favour for Baloch. They have been told that if PML-N loses the polls, they would be transferred to Loralai, Sibbi or anywhere in Balochistan,” said Rana.