Pakistan’s ruling party has clinched a win in an unusually close race in a normally unassailable stronghold – an indication of damage to the reputation of Nawaz Sharif, the ex-prime minister recently ousted on corruption charges.
The local byelection on Sunday in Lahore for a parliamentary seat vacated by Sharif when he was disqualified in July pitted Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, against 43 contenders, and saw a surge of radical Islamist candidates.
The runner-up, Yasmeen Rashid, a 66-year-old gynaecologist, represented the party of opposition leader and former cricketer Imran Khan.
Few people had expected Rashid to upset Nawaz. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has swept every election in the 321,786-voter constituency since Sharif first won the seat in 1985.
Yet on Sunday, the party’s nearly 40,000-vote majority from 2013 shrank to about 14,000, in a potential sign that the corruption scandal unleashed by the 2016 Panama Papers leak may have dented Sharif’s local standing.
Preliminary results showed a 35% turnout – down from 52% in 2013 – and gave Nawaz nearly 60,000 votes against Rashid total of nearly 46,000.
Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst, said the result revealed reluctance among independent voters and those on the fence to turn out for the beleaguered Sharif.
“PML-N has not been able to convince voters that Sharif is innocent or a victim of a conspiracy, or that the court has done injustice to him,” Rizvi said.
The supreme court disqualified Sharif for “dishonesty” for failing to disclose a salary from a Dubai-based company he chaired.
Despite the party’s win, Rizwi said: “Now it is difficult to call Lahore a preserve of PML-N. Corruption charges have undermined Sharif and his party. For the time being, his fate is sealed and tied to corruption cases against him.”
However, for Imran Khan, the failure to beat Sharif at his lowest was not the leap towards prime ministership that he had hoped for.
Before the election, Safia Bibi Begum, a former PML-N supporter in her late 40s, told the Guardian she might vote for PTI instead. “The Panama Papers changed my mind about Nawaz. That is why I consider voting for Imran Khan,” she said.
The election was marred by complaints of the military banning observers from accessing polling stations.
Abdul Rashid, of the Free and Fair Election Network, said the army ousted observers from 20 polling stations during vote counting. At 11 stations, observers were barred from entering at all, he said.
The Guardian also spoke to more than a dozen journalists who were denied entry.
Lahore’s streets were buzzing with campaign rallies, but the winner was absent. Kulsoom Nawaz is undergoing hospital treatment in London, with her husband by her side.
For weeks, her daughter, Maryam Nawaz, canvassed on her behalf by pounding the pavement in defence of her father’s legacy. The victory, amid intense political pressure, could set her – widely seen as her father’s heir-apparent – on the path to party leadership.
Maryam said in her victory speech that voters had rejected “the conspiracy against democracy”. She claimed that dozens of PML-N campaign workers had gone missing in recent days.
“A systematic hate campaign was launched against us,” said Khawaja Saad Rafiq, a senior party leader, claiming that some PML-N supporters had been barred from voting.
Meanwhile, Rashid said she would challenge the result in court and complained that 29,000 additional voters had been registered without her party having access to the lists.
Maryam herself is under investigation by an anti-corruption watchdog for her alleged involvement in purchasing luxury apartments in London with offshore wealth.
Radical Islamists gained ground in the election, especially the Milli Muslim League, which came in third place. The newly formed party is a thinly disguised front for Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist with a US$10m bounty on his head who is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
With nearly 5,000 votes, MML gained twice as many as the leftwing Pakistan People’s party. Its participation could test the Pakistani military’s resolve in countering the participation of militant groups ahead of next year’s election.
Additional reporting by Waqar Gillani