WASHINGTON DC, Sept 13, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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A scene of the Opposition strike on Friday, Sept 9

A Battle Royale or the Farce Called Elections

By M. Afzal Khan

ISLAMABAD, September 13: The most excruciating stage of local government elections, the grueling contests for city and district nazims, a battle royale of sorts, is cutting across party lines, bringing to forth divisions and factionalism within parties and causing strains within and among alliances.

Though every entity has been affected, nowhere the cleavage is more evident than in the ruling coalition. While the vanquished opposition is smarting under the blows dealt it by pre-poll rigging and polling-day fraud, the triumphant coalition partners are experiencing the pangs of victory.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) claimed landslide successes in Punjab and Sindh while its ally, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), swept through urban Sindh in the first two phases. Sindh Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim who discovered his latent charismatic qualities after entering the exalted office he occupies now, boasted to have performed the unthinkable feat of annihilating PPP from interior Sindh.

The fruits of his triumph, however, seem to have been soured by an unlikely challenge from Pir Pagara who is unwilling to let him have an unbridled sway over the province and has not demurred from coalescing even with the PPP in many districts.

Renegades of the PPP (Patriots) have been badly battered in most of their constituencies in Punjab while Sherpao’s group is struggling to find strange partners in order to seize control of some districts, despite making somewhat better than expected showing. The Wattoos and Legharis of the PML who, in a command performance, meekly merged their parties in the PML, are being meted out an equally humiliating treatment.

The MMA finds itself embarrassingly divided in its strongest bastion, the NWFP where some of the oddest alignments have taken place. The Jamaat Islami, with single-most obsession to get Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s son elevated to be boss in Nowshera district, abandoned its ally the JUI and conceded Peshawar to the ANP in the hope of a payback in Peshawar, Its gambit appears to be faltering as a resurgent ANP is eying Nowshera as well. The PPP and the PML-N who were at the receiving end of a blatantly manipulative electoral exercise, are currently facing a campaign of attrition amid desertions and betrayals.

In the first flush of victory, the MQM claimed some of the major cities of Sindh including Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Khairpur Sukkur etc. where it was confident of forming government either independently or with the help of allies. Soon it had to come down on earth and face a new reality in utter disbelief.

The power brokers at the center who had handed down, during past three years, some unbelievable gains to the group despite its narrow ethnic appeal, now appear to have different ideas. There is now talk of an outsider being imposed as city nazim in Karachi while Pir Pagara has stepped in to take away some of the towns in the interior Sindh which the MQM was claiming. No wonder Altaf Bhai seems to be a worried man and has called an emergency meeting in London inviting dozens of followers from Pakistan.

It is, however, in Punjab where we are witnessing the incredible manifestation of factional politics that has put the PML in real soup. The mischief started when chief minister went about nominating officially backed prospective candidates in every district long before the elections. There was no consultation with interested parties in the districts who were expecting the PML leadership to leave the competition open at least for the top slot of district government and then claim allegiance of whosoever wins.

After all that was the purpose behind holding the overall elections on non-party basis and exclusively making that of district and tehsil nazims as indirect and out of reach of common voters who could have proved to be unpredictable. But the arbitrary nominations continue till to date leaving a whole mass of disgruntled elements within the party who believe that the leadership is arrogantly imposing its will to bring a particular set of favorites in power.

The chief minister has also demonstrated an obsessive proclivity of enticing PML-N and PPP leaders and offering them the lucrative district job in preference to his own party men. Many, particularly in the PML-N, have caved in to the temptation or some time arms twisting to desert the party.
Thus we see Rafique Leghari being named candidate in Rahimyar khan, Cheema in Bahawalpur, Mumtaz Matiana in Bahawalnagar, Shujaat Husnain in Mian Channu, Hameed Sultan in Jhang, Sardar Abbas in Chakwal, Jameel Sharqpuri in Sheikhupura, Piracha in Sargodha etc etc.

For once the disgruntled elements within the party appear to be up in arms and fiercely challenging the unilateral decisions. Jehangir Tareen and Ahmed Mahmood in Rahimyar Khan, Riaz Pirzada in Bahawalpur, Dr. Sher Afgan in Mianwali, Sardar Farooq Leghari in D.G. Khan, Amin Aslam and Allahyar in Attock, Wattoos and Rao Sikandar Iqbal in Okara, Faisal Saleh Hayat in Jhang, Tariq Kiyani and Raja Nasir in Rawalpindi, Tawakkal Virk in Sheikhupura, Variyos and Ghummans in Sialkot, Daniyal Aziz in Narowal/Shakargarh, Anwar Cheema in Sargodha and above all the senior most party vice president Lt. Gen. Majeed Malik in CHakwal, all have a common grouse.

President Musharraf has intervened in certain cases to settle factional disputes. In his absence abroad his surrogates in the institution would do the job. There is also ample use of carrot and stick to settle infighting.

In Sargodha, for instance, Anwar Ali Cheema seems to be winning the favor for his daughter much to the dismay of Piracha who have shelved plans to quit the PPP. Sardar Farooq Leghari facing certain defeat against Maqsood Leghari-Dreshak-PPP combine, has probably secured federal support to escape the humiliation.

One device being contemplated to paper over internal strife is to leave the contest open like in Mianwali, Chakwal etc. But it evokes little comfort and trust among those who had challenged chief minister’s decision. The local police and the administration know who is the favorite and can always tilt the balance.

The writer is a senior Islamabad-based journalist who writes for The Nation and Dubai-based Khaleej Times

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