WEB DESK: Selection of the venue and the timing by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the launch of his government’s controversial ‘Kissan Package’ has given the opposition a new cause for complaint.
Notably, the Rs 341 billion package comprising attractive cash grants, subsidies, easy availability of agricultural loans to small farmers and two percent reduction in mark-up rate for rice and cotton growers was announced on September 15, just days before the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) issued the schedule for local government elections in Punjab and Sindh.
Crying foul, the PTI and other opposition parties had approached the ECP, saying it would influence the outcome of the polls, and succeeded in getting the implementation suspended for being violative of the election code of conduct until the completion of the LG polls process. However, the federal government went into appeal, and got relief from the Islamabad High Court on the basis of its argument that the package was announced before the ECP issued the code of conduct.
It is not without significance that the Prime Minister chose Lodhran, where the government is facing a tough by-election challenge from PTI’s Jahangir Tareen, to hold the first cheque distribution ceremony. In fact, the event coincided with the ECP announcement of date for NA-154 Lodhran-1 by-election, which is to be held on December 23. NA- 154 happens to be one of the four constituencies where the PTI had been alleging the ruling PML-N candidates won through fraud in the May 2013 general elections.
In the ensuing dispute, an election tribunal had annulled the result ordering fresh polls. While in Lodhran, the Prime Minister not only claimed credit for what he described as an unprecedented financial support to the farmers and reducing the price of diesel and electricity rates for farmers so as to lower the production cost of agricultural commodities, he announced development projects worth Rs 2.5 billion for the district, establishment of an agriculture university, and two flyovers.
Afterwards, he arrived in Sialkot to preside over a similar cheque distribution function. If in Lodhran the ruling party confronts an important election, Sialkot is even more important from this particular perspective. For, one of the PM’s close lieutenants, the Minister for Defence as well as Water and Power, Khwaja Asif, who secured his National Assembly seat from Sialkot, faces an identical challenge from the PTI.
For the last two-and-a-half years he is holding the seat on the basis of a stay order. If and when the stay is vacated he will have to go into fresh election against a PTI candidate.
The PTI, still smarting from its narrow defeat in NA-125 Lahore, is not willing to give up what it calls fight for free and fair elections. Addressing a news conference the same day the Prime Minister was giving away cheques to farmers in the two cities involving a serious electoral controversy, Imran Khan accused the PML-N of having yet again rigged the polls in Lahore with the ‘technical assistance’ of Nadra.
At this point, he may not want to make an issue out of the timing of the relief package’s launch for fear of alienating the voters, but is quite likely to take it up after the Lodhran by-election and the remaining two phases of LG polls. Irrespective of what the PTI might or might not do, it does not look right for the government to be distributing cheques and other material benefits to people so close to a by-election.