Almost 15% of the 700,000 registered voters in Jhelum district have never seen a polling booth. They have been living abroad, swamped with busy schedules, and all too aware of the costs of travelling home.
But this time around, things are different. Very different. From the Gulf and Europe, hundreds of Jhelum natives have returned home to fulfill their civic duty, to make their voices heard. The pardesis are coming home.
Your flight, my vote
Interestingly, the two strongest parties in the district, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), both claim these returning supporters as their own.
“A businessman from Dubai has sponsored air tickets for almost 250 Jhelum natives based in the Gulf states, offering them a chance to come and vote for the PTI,” says Naveed Ali, the local campaign leader of the PTI in NA-63. “This pull is being exerted by PTI’s slogan of change and party chief Imran Khan’s personal charisma.”
According to Ali, this is the first time in the district’s history that expatriates are coming home just to vote.
In the other hand, Shabir Ahmed, a local businessman in Jhelum city, says that many people from England are certain PML-N voters.
“This is a small town and I know many people who live in England and have come back just to cast their votes for the PML-N,” claims Ahmed.
Both PML-N and PTI’s political workers said they don’t know the exact number of registered voters settled abroad, but it was the PTI that gave the estimate of 10-15% of total voters whereas PML-N puts that figure at 25%.
Jhelum does not have a strong industrial base. Many young people head to foreign countries for work, while others join the armed forces.
It is this very youth that the PTI has pinned its hopes on. “Most people settled abroad are young and they are supporting [Imran] Khan,” said Moazam Usman, the local PTI office bearer.
The great spoiler
And yet, despite the zealous PTI campaigning, and the heightened anticipation of an entertaining clash between the parties, analysts believe the outcome is already rather predictable.
For decades, Jhelum has been a PML-N fortress. Defeating the party’s National Assembly candidates, Mehdi or Hussain, would take nothing less than a miracle. Even this time around, they have no real challengers, although PPP, PML-Q and some independent candidates would be considered notable opponents.
The two PML-N men have the support of all major tribes and families, and Mehdi reigns over 20-25 villages. Thus, according to PTI worker Ali, even if Khan snatches the urban vote, Mehdi can easily rely on the rural areas. Today, the only party that poses some challenge to the N-League is the PTI.
Banking on the 60
The PTI’s strategy is simple.
“It is to focus the 60% voters that do not cast their votes, because the district’s average turnout remains 40%,” says Ali. According to him, there is no use trying to change the minds of those 40% who were never PTI supporters, and probably never will be.
“Even if we get 15% of that remaining 60%, we can easily win,” he says confidently. “The biggest share of the 40% for a single party has never been above 18%. Anyone securing over that can emerge victorious. In this manner, PTI will surprise many on May 11.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2013.