Friday, April 02, 2021

PTI, PML-N or TLP: Who can win Karachi’s NA-249?

An inside look at the upcoming NA-249 by-polls in Karachi

NA-249 is an important constituency. Situated in the most populous city of Pakistan, Karachi, it has to date over 300,000 registered voters. Photo: file

For now, it would be premature to predict with certainty who will win the by-elections in NA-249 (Karachi West-2), a crucial Baldia Town seat which fell vacant after Prime Minister Imran Khan rescued his blue-eyed politician Faisal Vawda and helped him succeed in the Senate.

At the moment, Vawda is under probe for holding a dual nationality at the time of the 2018 national polls. The fear in the ruling party was that he could be disqualified from the lower house if the case was decided against him, which is why he is now a Senator.

NA-249 is an important constituency. Situated in the most populous city of Pakistan, Karachi, it has to date over 300,000 registered voters.

Last time, in 2018, PTI won the seat, but with a slim margin.

This time, when by-polls are held, on April 29, the turnout of voters could be low. 

One reason is that the constituency is made up mostly of laborers and the working class. Since the polls are being held on Thursday, a working day, candidates and the parties will have to do extra logistical work to pick and drop voters to the polling stations. 

Read more: Election Commission of Pakistan announces by-poll schedule for Karachi's NA-249

Secondly, the day of polls will be during Ramazan, on a hot day, which means few are likely to leave their homes to cast a ballot. 

Thirdly, turnout in by-elections as a rule is usually low.

All these factors could throw up a surprise on the final day.

Even in the general elections 2018, of the 340,000 registered voters, the winner, Vawda, only secured 35,344 votes, while the runner up got 34,625 votes and the second runner up around 24,000 votes.

NA-249- the constituency

NA-249 is divided ethnically between Punjabis, Pashtuns and an Urdu-speaking population. It also has a fairly strong religious vote bank.

Then, there are different tribes such as the Mahsuds and Afridis as well as Kashmiris and Hazaras in the area.

In the 2018 election, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf surprised many when they swept the polls in Karachi by winning 14 out of 20 seats. In 2013, they had only picked up one National Assembly seat from the city.

Of all the seats won by PTI, NA-249 presented the most interesting scenario.

NA-249 by-election: GDA seeks PTI support for its candidate

For the first time, a member of the Sharif family had decided to contest from Karachi, and not just anyone, Shehbaz Sharif, the former chief minister of Punjab.

In the past, late PML-N leader Ejaz Shafi had won this seat twice, which is why all surveys and predictions were in favor of Shehbaz Sharif bagging a win. But Faisal Vawda turned the tables and won with 600 more votes.

Another surprising factor was that the votes cast in favor of the new party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), whose candidate Mufti Abid Mubarak bagged 23,981 ballots. While MQM-P’s candidate Aslam Shah got only 13,534 and PPP’s Syed Attaullah Subhan got 10,307 votes.

Keeping the general polls in mind, the by-elections will likely be contested between three political parties – the PTI, PML-N and TLP.

The TLP is a strong contender too, since the PTI won the NA seat in the constituency, the TLP candidate took home the provincial seat from the same area.

Who is in the race?

The two prominent names in the running for the by-polls are PML-N’s frontline leader Miftah Ismail and Pak-Sarzameen Party’s (PSP) Mustafa Kamal.

The latter really has to defeat history to win this seat as the PSP candidate in 2018 got only 1,600 votes.

Ismail expressed his concern to me recently over the Election Commission of Pakistan’s decision of holding elections on a working day, which he believes will be a disadvantage for all the political parties.

Read more: A Pakistani candymaker's unique election campaign

“If we are able to bring the voters to the polling stations we have a fair chance,” he said, “but we all know it’s a constituency where the majority are from the working class.”

He also agreed that it will be a trio fight between the PML-N,PTI and TLP, but did not rule out that the MQM was also a strong contender in the race.

Ismail further confirmed that PML-N’s vice president Maryam Nawaz will be visiting Karachi to lead the rally in NA-249 ahead of the polls. “Her presence will surely give a boost to the campaign particularly among women voters,” the candidate said.

Separately, PTI’s leader Khurram Sher Zaman is equally confident of his party’s candidate winning. “Our candidate Amjad Iqbal Afridi is a local from the same constituency who is not only an active party worker but has been living there for the last 22 years,” Zaman told me.

But recently internal differences in the PTI also emerged when PTI’s MPA Shahzad Awan announced he would contest the seat independently. Zaman dismissed that as a disadvantage, adding that the prime minister has asked Awan to also support Afridi.

While, the PSP leader and former mayor Mustafa Kamal, who has taken a risk by putting himself in the race, believes that the kind of response he is getting in the constituency stands a fair chance. “I have done a lot for the people of this constituency when I was the nazim in 2002 and people still remember all that work,” he told me.

Read more: NA 249 Karachi by-poll: PPP rejects PML-N’s request to withdraw candidate

But PPP’s leader Saeed Ghani said that although PPP came fifth in the national polls, they expect a better result since recently the party retained their seats in the two by-elections held in the province. “I see a chance for my party as the vote bank of PTI has declined and there is no PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif contesting this time either,” he said recently.

Another contender, the MQM-Pakistan’s newly elected Senator Faisal Subzwari was of the view that MQM-P has in the past won from this seat. “We plan to win back this seat and there is little or no possibility of any alliance with PTI,” he told me.

Why does NA-249 matter?

After the Daska by-election, NA-249 will be crucial for both the PML-N and PTI to win.

For Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was also among the 14 MNAs who won from Karachi, the general perception about PTI in Karachi is that its elected representatives have not performed well.

Just for the record Khan first contested from Burns Road in Karachi 1997, about a year after his party was launched.

Electorally, Karachi, a city of over 16 million, does not belong to any one political party, ethnicity or community anymore. NA-249 may be an important contest, but the real political battle will be in the yet to be held local body’s elections.

Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO