Independent may leave major parties in the dust in Okara by-poll


Neck-and-neck fight is likely to take place between four candidates vying for NA-144 Okara by-election being held on Sunday, Oct 11, and an independent candidate may pull a surprise over both major parties of the country ­ the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

While the media spotlight remains on NA-122 Lahore for Sunday’s by-election, situation is precarious for candidate of the ruling PML-N Ali Arif Chaudhry where independent candidates are putting up a strong challenge to the candidates of both PML-N and PTI.

The two independent candidates, Riazul Haq and Mehr Sattar, are set to pose a major challenge to the prospects of PML-N’s candidate, Ali Arif Chaudhry, in Okara while PTI’s nominee, Ashraf Sohna, has also joined the fray and any one of the four lead runners may end up winning the by-poll.

Arif Chaudhry of PML-N was elected MNA from NA-144 Okara-II in May 2013 elections securing around 105,000 votes. However, this seat fell vacant due to disqualification of Arif on account of a fake degree. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) de-seated Arif and ordered a by-poll in the constituency.

Five candidates are in the run for the by-election in NA-144. The PML-N has fielded Ali Arif Chaudhry, the son of former MNA Arif Chaudhry, for the by-polls while PTI has awarded party ticket to former PPP leader Mohammad Ashraf Khan Sohna, who is widely respected for being a diehard worker of the PPP but joined PTI recently after differences with PPP Punjab President Manzoor Wattoo.

NA-144 is heavily divided along biradari lines. The constituency is dominated by voters belonging to Arain caste who make up around 60 per cent of the population while Rajputs form around 30 per cent. However, the presence of four Arain candidates for the by-election has encouraged the Rajputs who have decided to vote for Ashraf Khan Sohna, the PTI candidate, who claims to be a Rajput himself.

Among the independent challengers, Riazul Haq Juj and Mehr Abdul Sattar are heavyweights who could pull a surprise victory on Sunday.

Neither Chaudhry nor Sohna has a clear lead in the race for now, and till the filing of this report, the two independents are putting up a strong showing.

It is likely that Riazul Haq, also known as Judge, might become the eventual winner. Riaz is not only Arain by caste, he is also a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, who is said to be spending a lot of money to win support of the voters.

Riazul Haq “Judge” is owner of Naimat Banaspati and other industries besides being a landholder. People of the area claim that Riaz is using money to win votes in open violation of the ECP’s code of conduct. Riaz has purchased 100 CD-70 motorbikes which he has distributed among youth to run his campaign.

Riaz is also spending huge sums over his publicity campaign and massive billboards and banners have been placed throughout the Okara city and nearby towns. He is also being supported by PTI MPA Masud Shafqat, who is vigorously campaigning for him rather than Ahraf Sohna, the PTI’s candidate.

PTI chief Imran Khan has also issued a show cause notice to Masud Shafqat for violation of the party discipline and has sought explanation from him. There’s a strong possibility that PTI may de-seat Masud Shafqat if Sohna loses to Riaz.

Interestingly, one of the cousins of Riaz is campaigning for the PML-N candidate as he himself is contesting for Union Council Chairman’s seat on PML-N’s ticket during the upcoming local government elections.

Mehr Abdul Sattar is a campaigner of the farmers’ rights. He is also general-secretary of Anjuman Mazaraeen which is demanding ownership of military lands in Okara. Mehr Sattar has full support of his clan and farmers of around 40 towns and villages while he has strong support in villages from 3/4L to 25/4 L. He is likely to win considerable support from other towns – from 26/4L to 40/4L.

No one can underestimate the PML-N candidate whose father bagged over 100,000 votes from the same constituency only two years ago. Villages from 1/4 L to 40/4 L are dominated by Arain voters who have backed PML-N candidates in the past. However, Mehr Abdul Sattar may undercut Chaudhry’s base this time around.

Ali Arif Chaudhry also has full support of the Punjab and federal governments and special grants have been announced by the Punjab and federal governments for this constituency. Moreover, vote bank of the Rajput clan may also be divided as Rao Sikandar’s wife, Shafiqa Sikandar Iqbal, is campaigning for the PML-N candidate.

Punjab Irrigation Minister Mian Yawar Zaman is campaigning for Chaudhry. However, the PML-N MNA from Okara, Nadeem Abbas Rabera is conspicuously missing from the campaign and has not been seen in the election process till date despite being very close to Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

PTI candidate Ashraf Sohna is running door-to-door campaign with the help of PTI’s diehard workers and elders of the Rajput clan. However, his weakness is that he has ignored the rural areas and he has no secure pocket in the entire PP-191 from where PTI’s Masud Shafqat had won.

Former PML-Q Punjab minister Gulzar Sibtain is effectively running Sohna’s campaign.

Former PPP information minister and MNA from Renala Khurd Sumsam Bokhari is another major player for Sohna and is running the campaign in a systematic manner.

Rao Hassan, the son of Rao Sikandar, is also campaigning for Ashraf Sohna.

Imran Khan’s successful public rally has proved vital for Sohna who was lagging behind before Khan’s arrival in the city. With the PTI’s massive rally, Sohna’s campaign is picking up momentum and if the trend continues, Sohna might stun his opponents in Sunday’s by-poll.

President Anjuman Tajiran Okara, Salim Sadiq who is also supporting PTI told Pakistan Today that the PTI candidate would win the election.

“The PML-N is reluctant to hold a public meeting. They are restricted to corner meetings and door-to-door campaign. This shows that they have a bad public image and they don’t want to be exposed by holding a jalsa in Okara,” he said.

He said that the PML-N candidate was involved in spreading rumors that Imran Khan would not visit Okara for security reasons. “However, Imran Khan defied all security threats and addressed the jalsa here which has bolstered Ashraf Sohna’s campaign,” he added.