There is a reason why the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, more than any other party in the country, is worried about the rise of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: PTI chairman Imran Khan’s campaign schedule over the last few months has been focused almost exclusively on Central Punjab, the PML-N’s electoral heartland.
Through thick and thin, the PML-N has been able to hold on to its dominance of Central Punjab. The party currently holds 37 of the 68 seats that represent the region in the National Assembly. Punjab as a whole has about 148 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The region that consists of 13 districts, with a population of around 42 million, spread over nearly 50,000 square kilometres. It is one of the most densely populated regions in the country and has been known to vote for the PML-N in most elections.
PTI, which boycotted the 2008 election, has no representation in Parliament at all. The other major parties in the region are the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid.
Yet PTI chief Imran Khan’s schedule over the past four months, a copy of which was made available to The Express Tribune, reveals that he has been spending most of his time campaigning in this region, targeting Punjab’s ruling party in many of his stump speeches.
According to PTI’s deputy information secretary in Punjab, Khan in the last couple of months has visited Faisalabad and Gujranwala three times each while he has held rallies and public corner meetings in Lahore nearly every day. During his latest visits to Faisalabad and Gujranwala, the PTI chief had also managed to induct many seasoned politicians into his party.
The PTI chief has held rallies in Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad against the US drone strikes in the tribal areas. He has been vociferously critical of the government’s policy to allow the US to tacitly engage in these strikes. It appears that Khan feels there is an opportunity to target the PML-N’s traditionally right-wing vote bank with anti-US rhetoric, something that both Sharif brothers have so far hesitated to do in public.
The vast build-up of anger against what are perceived as US infringements on Pakistan sovereignty, coupled with the resentment and frustration against the mismanagement of the economy by both the PPP and the PML-N, appear to be driving the PTI’s rise in popularity. In particular, Imran Khan – a former cricket star who led the national team to its only World Cup win in 1992 – is highly popular amongst younger voters.
Political pundits note that in Central Punjab, the battle has shifted from between the PML-N and the PML-Q to that between the PML-N and the PTI. Both the PML-Q and the PPP, meanwhile, have decided to sit back and allow the PTI and PML-N to divide up a relatively narrow segment of the vote bank. The two parties, currently the two biggest players in the ruling coalition, appear willing to let the PTI weaken their biggest political rival.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2011.
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