Zartaj Gul, a young woman who upended the Legharis' rule

Saleem Buzdar
Zartaj Gul with PTI Chairman Imran Khan  

There is something about Zartaj Gul Akhwand. How else would one explain the 34-year-old battering the entrenched and powerful Leghari family in Punjab’s Dera Ghazi Khan.

Born to parents from North Waziristan, Gul completed her education in Lahore, before joining the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf as a volunteer. After marriage, both her and her husband became avid supporters of Imran Khan’s vision. She contested her first election in 2013 from her new home in DG Khan, but lost. Then, for the 2018 general election, Khan’s PTI anointed 42 women for contestable provincial and national seats. Gul was one of the female candidates. And this, she was more determined than ever to not be outpaced.

On July 25, Gul soared to victory in NA-191 (DG Khan) with over 25,000 votes more than Sardar Awais Khan Leghari of the Pakistan Muslim League- N. (The other female candidate to win a national assembly seat from the PTI platform was Ghulam Bibi Bharwana).

What makes this race particularly fascinating is that Leghari, the former minister of power, has been elected from this constituency thrice in the past. His father, Farooq Leghari, the former president of Pakistan, also enjoyed an unscathed run for office from DG Khan.

From the start, Gul knew she was the underdog in a constituency sharply divided amongst clans.

Zartaj Gul on the campaign trail  

NA-191 is a potpourri of urban and tribe-dominated areas. In the 1970s, the constituency voted into power Dr Nazir Ahmed of the religious Jamaat-e-Islami. But since then, no other party has been able to break the Leghari’s hold. This election, upward to 380,000 voters were registered in the constituency, of which 44 per cent were women. Most of the female votes and those from the urban centre likely went to Gul, who ran a vigorous campaign. She moved door to door convincing voters of better development planning and other basic utilities. Leghari, on the other hand, faced much ire from the electorate for being absent in the last five years. In one video that went viral on the social media, his brother, also a PML-N candidate from DG Khan, was accosted by angry voters. “Where have you been for the last fives years?” one young man asked him. A peeved Leghari can then be seen demeaning the man for giving that much importance to his “one mere vote”.

For those, spoke to, gender was immaterial in the race for NA-191. “We wanted a new face,” a shopkeeper, who voted for Gul, explained, “We kept voting the same family into power and they never did anything for us in return. That is why we decided it was time for tabdeeli (change) in 2018.”