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PTI faces its first challenge

ISLAMABAD: The stage is set f or crucial by-elections on 35 national and provincial assembly seats on Sunday (today) with the main contest expected between the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as both the parties are claiming public support on the basis of `56-day performance` of the PTI government.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has completed the arrangements for holding by-elections on 11 National Assembly seats and 24 seats of the provincial assemblies.

Most of the seats were vacated by those elected on more than one seat in the July 25 general elections, including Prime Minister Imran Khan who won in all the five NA constituencies he had contested.

The final list of candidates issued by the ECP shows a total of 370 candidates are in the run 120 for 11 NA seats (eight in Punjab, and one each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,Sindh and Islamabad) and 250 for 24 provincial assembly seats (11 in Punjab, nine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two each in Sindh and Balochistan).

Though tough contest is expected between the PTI and PML-N on a number of seats, the political and election experts are focusing on four seats vacated by PrimeMinister Khan, who has retained his Mianwali seat af ter the general elections.

The PML-Ninits election campaign highlighted the government`s decision to increase the prices of gas and its decision to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package on what the party called tough conditions. The PML-N also alleged that its president and Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif had been detained by the National Accountability Bureau only to keep him away from the masses during the election campaign.

On the other hand, thePTI claims that the tough decisions and corrective measureswhichithadtaken to improve the economy `ruined by the two previous governments` will bear fruit within months.

In what appears to be a face-saving move, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which performed badly in the July 25 general elections, particularly in Punjab, has decided to support the PML-N candidates in the province, except for in Rahimyar Khan and Faisalabad. The PPP is also supporting the PML-N`s candidate in Islamabad.

However, there are reports that not all the PPP candidates have formally announced withdrawal of their candidature in favour of the PML-N candidates despite an agreement between the top leaders of the two parties.

As many as 1,727 polling stations out of the 7,489 set up for by-polls across the country have been categorised as `highly sensitive`.

According to the ECP, 848 out of 5,193 polling stations in Punjab, 544 of 1,555 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 201 of 544 in Sindh and 134 of 197 in Balochistan have been classified as `highly sensitive`.

Overseas Pakistanis For the first time in the country`s history, overseas Pakistanis will cast their votes through i-voting. The ECP launched the Overseas Voting System on Sept 1 for the by-elections. Of 790,000 Pakistanis living abroad, of which 631,909 were eligible for i-voting, only 7,419 people registered to vote.

Punjab This province in general and Lahore in particular are set to witness exciting electoral battles. The by-polls in Punjab have acquired great significance due to minor difference in the number of seats won by the PML-N and the PTI-led coalition in the general elections.

Eighty candidates are contesting eight NA seats from Punjab. There are contests on NA-124 and NA-131 in Lahore, NA-60 and NA-63 in Rawalpindi, NA-65 in Chakwal, NA-69 in Gujrat, NA-103 in Faisalabad and NA-56 in Attock. There will be contest on 11 Punjab Assembly seats two in Lahore (PP-164 and 165), one in Faisalabad (PP-103), Toba Tek Singh (PP-118), Attock (PP-3), Jhelum (PP-27), Sahiwal (PP-201), Multan (PP-222), Muzaffargarh (PP-272), Rahimyar Khan (PP264) and D.G. Khan (PP-292).

Former prime minister Shahid Khagan Abbasi, who had lost the July 25 elections on two seats, this time is contesting the election from party stronghold of NA-124 Lahore. This seat was vacated by Opposition Leader in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz.

Former railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique, who had lost the previous election to PTI chief Imran Khan with a narrow margin of 600 votes in NA-131 Lahore, is again in the run, this time facing Humayun Akhtar Khan of the PTI. A tough contest is expected in this Lahore constituency.The National Assembly seats of Gujrat (NA-69) and Chakwal (NA-65), which were vacated by Punjab Assembly Speaker Pervaiz Elahi, are being contested by PML-Q and PTI joint candidates Moonis Elahi, the son of Mr Elahi, and Salik Hussain, the son of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.

In Rawalpindi`s NA-60, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid`s nephew Rashid Shafique is contesting on the PTI`s election symbol of `cricket bat`.

He is facing Sajjad Khan of the PML-N.

The ECP had postponed the election in this constituency at the eleventh hour in July after the conviction of then PML-N candidate Hanif Abbasi in the ephedrine case.

Malik Khurram Ali Khan of the PTI and Malik Sohail Khan of the PML-N will be in an electoral contest in NA-55 (Attock)where PTI`sretiredMaj Tahir Sadiq had won in the general elections.

Little-known Ali Nawaz Awan of the PTI and Waqar Ahmad of the PML-N will run for NA-53 (Islamabad). Imran Khan had defeated Shahid Khagan Abbasi in the general elections from this constituency.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa In this province, 59 candidates including seven for one National Assembly seat (NA-35) and 52 for nine provincial assembly seats are in the run.

For the provincial assembly constituencies, the by-elections will be held in PK-3 Swat, PK-7 Swat, PK-44 Swabi, PK-53 Mardan, PK-61 Nowshera, PK-64 Nowshera, PK-78 Peshawar, and PK-97 and PK-99 D.I. Khan.

The National Assembly seat from Bannu (NA-35) was vacated by PTI chief Khan, who had defeated former KP chief minister Akram Khan Durrani in the July polls.

This time, the MMA has fielded Zahid Durrani, the son of Akram Durrani, to face PTI`s Naseem Ali Shah, the son of former MNA Maulana Naseeb Ali Shah.

In PK-78 and PK-99, the July 25 elecdons had been postponed due to thekilling of candidates Haroon Ahmad Bilour of the ANP and Ikramullah Khan Gandapur of the PTI, respectively, in suicide bombings.

In PK-78 Peshawar, late Haroon Bilour`s widow Samar Haroon Bilour is the ANP`s candidate and she is facing PTI`s Mohammad Irfan.

Late Ikramullah Gandapur`s son is the PTI`s candidate for PK-99 D.I.

Khan seat. PK-44 Swabi fell vacant af ter Asad Qaiser retained his National Assembly seat. Asad Qaiser`s brother Agibullah Khan has now been awarded the PTI ticket.

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, vacated two provincial assembly seats in Nowshera (PK-61 and PK-64) which are being contested by his son Mohammad Ibrahim Khattak and brother Liaquat Khan.

Sindh The PTI has fielded Alamgir Khan as its candidate from NA-243 (Karachi) where Mr Khan had won in the general elections. Amir Waliud Din of the Muttahida Qaumi MovementPakistan, Hakim Ali of the PPP and Sharafat Ali of the PML-N are among 22 contestants in the constituency.

The two provincial assembly seats where polling would be held are PS-30 Khairpur and PS-87 Malir-I.

Balochistan By-elections will be held on two provincial assembly seats in Balochistan PB-35 Mastung and PB-40 Khuzdar.

The general elections were postponed in Mastung following the suicide attack on an election rally of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) candidate Nawabzada Siraj Raisani on July 12 in which more than 150 people, including Mr Raisani, had been killed.

The PB-40 Khuzdar seat became vacant when Balochistan National Party (BNP) chief Akhtar Mengal opted to retain his NA seat.

Saleem Shahid in Quetta also contributed to this report