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Voting concludes in key Pakistan by-election

Former Pakistani prime minister's wife Kulsoom running for office of vacated seat in poll seen as political barometer.


Voting has concluded in a hotly contested by-election seen as a key test for ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif's ruling PML-N party in its political heartland of Lahore.

Long lines of voters were seen at many of the NA-120 electoral constituency's 220 polling stations in the eastern city, capital of Punjab province, on Sunday. Results are expected to be announced later in the day.

Sharif's wife Kulsoom, 66, is contesting the seat vacated by him after his dismissal by the country's Supreme Court in July over an omission in his parliamentary wealth declarations.

Her campaign has been spearheaded by Maryam Nawaz, the couple's daughter and Nawaz' political heir apparent, in her first real foray into electoral politics. Kulsoom herself is undergoing treatment in the United Kingdom for her recently diagnosed lymphoma

Nawaz Sharif and three of his children, including Maryam, are currently facing a corruption investigation and trial by the country's anti-corruption watchdog, on the orders of the Supreme Court.

Standing against Kulsoom is the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's Yasmin Rashid, a middle-class professional doctor who has mainly campaigned on the Imran Khan-led party's anti-corruption platform.

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The constituency, home to almost half a million of Lahore's 11 million residents, is deep in the heart of the old city, and is considered a Sharif stronghold. His party has not lost the seat since it began contesting elections in 1985.

"It's very difficult for them to take this from us," said Sohail Butt, 48, a PML-N voter in the Mozang area of the city. "In our area, work only gets done if you go through [the PML-N's] workers."

Arif Khan, 32, a voter from the working class Bilal Ganj neighbourhood, said he voted for Sharif's party because of its overhaul of the road, sewerage, and water network in his area.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) voters, meanwhile, appeared to be motivated to vote more on national issues, rather than connection to their party's local networks.

"I see this is as the first main test for Nawaz Sharif [after his dismissal]," said Zeeshan Khan, 22, a student at Punjab University. "This is a way for the people to show whether they still stand with the PML-N after the verdict."

Others echoed that sentiment.

"Our country is on fire, we are all on fire, that is why I am here to vote," said Asifa Aamir, 47, who said she was concerned with corruption as her primary issue in this by-election.

"Work does get done on the local level in the constituency [by the PML-N]," conceded Zeeshan Tariq, 28, a trader from the Mozang area. "But I vote based on the national issues."

Nearby, a few PML-N workers rode by on motorcycles, raising the party's slogan, referencing their electoral symbol of a lion: "Look who's come, it's the lion, it's the lion!"

Workers at a PTI electoral camp office responded good-naturedly with cries of "Thieves! Thieves!"

Not all exchanges on Sunday were as friendly, however, with minor scuffles reported between PML-N and PTI activists off the city's main Mall road.

Extremist 'mainstreaming'

Also contesting Sunday's by-election are two new right-wing religious entrants to electoral politics in Pakistan, the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan and the Milli Muslim League (MML).

Posters for the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, spread across the constituency, have prominently featured images of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer over his criticism of Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws in 2011.

The MML, meanwhile, is the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) armed group, long blamed for suicide and other attacks on targets in neighbouring India and the disputed region of Kashmir.

The MML shares much of its personnel with the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a humanitarian relief organisation that the UN and US both designate as a front for LeT, and which faces international anti-terrorist sanctions.

Election banners for MML's candidate, Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh, prominently featured images of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the JuD chief and founder of LeT. Saeed remains under house arrest, although under no formal charges, by Pakistani authorities under an anti-terrorism law.

Saeed is subject to a US bounty of $10m and has been named by both the US and UN as a "terrorist". Sheikh, the MML candidate, was also named as by the US as a "specially designated global terrorist" in 2012, for his alleged role in leading fundraising and operations for LeT. 

Neither party is expected to win but could bring in new first-time voters. Analysts say MML is an attempt by Pakistan's powerful intelligence services to bring certain armed groups into the political mainstream to challenge the PML-N's dominance.

"If you give them money, they actually do good work," says Muhammad Naseer, a first-time voter from the Islampura neighbourhood, who voted for the MML. "They are honest. I have donated to JuD and I can see their work."

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