Lahore: Ousted premier Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on Sunday made a ‘clean sweep’ in the crucial Punjab assembly by-polls, in a major setback to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif whose Chief Minister son Hamza Shehbaz is all set to lose his post. The election for the chief minister will be held on July 22 on the Supreme Court’s order and PTI-PMLQ joint candidate Chaudhary Parvez Elahi is likely to be the new chief minister of politically crucial province Punjab.
According to unofficial results so far, the PTI has secured victory on 16 seats while Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) just three. An independent candidate has also won.
The ruling PML-N of the Sharifs has accepted its defeat and even congratulated PTI Chairman Khan for ‘landslide victory’ in the by-polls.
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“We respect the mandate of the people. Now we ask the PTI-PMLQ to form the government in Punjab,” the Prime Minister’s spokesperson Malik Ahmad Khan told PTI.
To a question whether Prime Minister Shehbaz would dissolve the National Assembly to call early general elections, he said: “The PML-N leadership will decide about it in consultation with its allies.”
PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz also accepted her party’s defeat. “We should accept our defeat with an open heart,” the daughter of PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif said in a tweet.
She said that in politics, victory and defeat is a part of the game. “We will see our weakness and remove them,” she said.
“Tehreek-e-Insaf is winning at least 15 seats. But it is very important for all our people on duty at all polling stations not to leave their place until the official results are obtained from the returning officers,” Khan said in a tweet.
His party’s senior leader Asad Umar said Khan would announce the party strategy after a meeting of the core committee on Monday.
He said now the PML-N is left with only one option and that is “immediately calling for fresh general elections.”
Earlier on Sunday, the by-polls on 20 assembly seats of Punjab were held in relatively a peaceful manner amid scattered incidents of violence. A heavy contingent of police was deployed in five ‘sensitive’ constituencies of Lahore and Multan.
A couple of political workers were injured in Lahore during a clash between the PML-N and PTI supporters. A violent clash was reported between the two arch-rivals in Muzaffargarh (some 350 kms from Lahore) too. Turnout in most constituencies reportedly remained low.
According to Punjab police, they arrested 15 persons near different polling stations for indulging in violence and carrying arms. The police have also arrested PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s close aide Shahbaz Gill from Muzaffargarh for keeping armed guards.
Khan strongly condemned Gill’s arrest and alleged that the PML-N-led Punjab government had “brazenly violated the Supreme Court’s” verdict by resorting to rigging.
“Today Punjab government has brazenly violated SC orders [and] election rules by openly using all government and state machinery to rig Punjab elections through illegal ballot stamping [and] harassing voters while arresting PTI leaders,” he said.
He also accused the Election Commission of turning a blind eye and said “courts must open now [and] act.”
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb rejected Khan’s rigging claim, saying “not a single complaint” of rigging was reported in these 20 constituencies. She said these were rigging free by-polls unlike the ones held during the tenure of Imran Khan as premier.
This contest was seen as a matter of ‘life and death’ for both major competitors who practically have their political futures in the province on the line.
As the opposition PTI managed to win majority seats, it is going to dethrone Hamza as the Punjab chief minister, which the Sharifs, especially Hamza’s father Prime Minister Shehbaz, cannot afford, as it could restrict the junior Sharif’s rule to the Centre only.
Khan’s victory could trigger a new political crisis in Pakistan as Prime Minister Shehbaz’s rule would be reduced to Islamabad and his government has yet to get a final approval of its financial life line from the International Monetary Fund.
The PML-N had hinted that if it loses the Punjab chief ministership to PTI, it may leave the federal government too. For the PTI, today’s by-polls mean a lot more than defeating the Sharifs and Zardaris.
Khan and his companions had painted the contest as “a fight between good (his party) and evil (the ruling coalitions in the Centre and Punjab)” and a matter of the country’s sovereignty in the face of alleged foreign (US) meddling in its affairs.
The PML-N-led coalition needed at least 11 seats of the 20 to achieve the magic 186-member majority in the assembly for Hamza to survive as the chief minister.
The joint candidate of PTI-PMLQ Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, who required 13 to oust Hamza, is in a comfortable position to form a government.
The Punjab Assembly currently stands at 349 members: the PTI has 163 lawmakers and its ally PML-Q 10. The PML-N has 163 members while its coalition partners PPP seven, four independents and one Rah-i-Haq Party. Three-time premier Nawaz Sharif who has been in London since November 2019 in ‘self-exile’ had monitored his party campaign.