In Pakistan’s Gujrat, two Chaudhrys in bare-knuckle election fight after family feud
GUJRAT: In Pakistan, bitter electoral contests between blood relatives, fellow tribesmen and traditional rivals are the hallmark of any election.
But this election season, all eyes are on a bare-knuckle battle between two stalwarts of the powerful and hard-nosed Chaudhry clan, an influential political family from Punjab province, the country’s most populous, which has split in its support for two of the main contenders of Pakistani politics: three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif and former cricketing hero and now jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Politics in the Gujrat district, located between the famous Jhelum and Chenab rivers, an area that once formed part of the Paurava kingdom of King Porus, has revolved around the cousin duo of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi for the last four decades.
Both are now leading opposing campaigns for the National Assembly constituency, NA-64, in Gujrat, once the fort of the united Chaudhry clan, with many independent observers seeing the contest as a test of support for the embattled ex-PM Khan against the all-powerful military, the ultimate wielder of power in Pakistani politics.
Suhail Warraich, a prominent political analyst and journalist who has covered Punjab politics for almost three decades, said the Feb. 8 elections in NA-64 would be a “do-or-die” case for the two Chaudhry family groups.
“Currently, the politics of Punjab is based on a pro-PTI and anti-PTI vote bank,” Warraich told Arab News, referring to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of ex-PM Khan.
“The current election is a do-or-die scenario for both factions as each is determined to secure victory and garner the support of the Chaudhry family’s traditional voters. The outcome will significantly enhance the winner’s influence and presence in this constituency.”
The Chaudhry cousins were initially part of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz but split from the party over political differences after the 1997 general elections.
The family, led by Hussain, openly supported the 1999 military coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf against the then Sharif government. In 2002, Hussain and Elahi launched their own party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, which later became an integral part of the Musharraf government and appointed its own prime minister, Shaukat Aziz.
Over the next two decades, the PML-Q, widely seen as a key political operative for Musharraf and a “king’s party” in Pakistani politics, often helped make or break governments in the South Asian country with its limited, yet decisive number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies.
But the decades-long partnership between the two Chaudhrys ended in 2022, when Elahi decided to back Khan in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in which he was ousted from the prime minister’s office. Hussain, on the other hand, chose to side with Khan’s opponents, including Sharif’s PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto political dynasty, whose alliance formed the government at the center after Khan was removed.
The tussle between the two Chaudhrys reached its crescendo in July 2022 when Hussain attempted to block Elahi from becoming the chief minister of Punjab by asking the PML-Q provincial lawmakers not to vote for his cousin in the CM’s election.
After this, Elahi formally bid farewell to the PML-Q and joined Khan’s PTI party as its president. Although the two Chaudhrys have not spoken against each other publicly since, their sons often trade barbs online and at public meetings.
Elahi has been in jail since June 2023 on a raft of charges, and his American-educated son Moonis Elahi, living in exile since Dec. 2023, has been disqualified from contesting elections. In their absence, the PTI is backing Elahi’s wife, Qaisra, and her sister, Sumaira, who stepped into electoral politics on behalf of the father-son duo.
Qaisra is contesting the elections as a PTI-backed independent candidate from NA-64 against her nephew and Hussain’s son, Salik, who is contesting as a PML-Q candidate and enjoys the support of the PML-N. Sumaira, who is also backed by Khan’s PTI, is vying for the provincial assembly seat, PP-34, in Gujrat.
“Mentally, we both sisters were not ready to become (members of a provincial or national assembly). This journey unfolded because Moonis (Elahi) is out of the country, and Pervez (Elahi) Sahib is in jail,” Sumaira told Arab News in an interview in Gujrat.
“From the beginning, our position has been that our involvement in these elections is solely because of them and these seats belong to them. And after winning, these seats will be for them.”
But with Elahi in jail and Moonis in exile, what has been the impact on their vote bank?
“There is no impact on the vote bank. The vote bank, in fact, has increased,” Sumaira said.
“Initially, we didn’t have this many votes before (joining) PTI. We had our own voters, Pervaiz had his own, Moonis had his own voters. But after (Elahi) joined PTI, our votes have increased.”
Sumaira believes Elahi parting ways with Hussain and standing staunchly by Khan has earned him the respect of PTI supporters.
“PTI supporters are backing us the way they are doing for Imran Khan because they see how Pervaiz Elahi is firmly supporting Imran Khan. Thus, they are supporting us,” Sumaira added.
“On the ground, the way people are supporting us now, we didn’t have it before.”
Khan himself was convicted on graft charges and jailed last August. This month, he received three additional jail terms of 10, 14 and seven years each in three different cases. He is also disqualified from running for public office for 10 years.
In Gujrat, the current election fight between the Chaudhrys has included charges of armed intimidation while the threat of violence and the suspicion of rigging hang thick in the air. In past elections, the united Chaudhrys have often been accused of using private family militia and the Punjab police to intimidate voters and opponents.
Like many other PTI-backed candidates, Sumaira also complained of what she described as “coercive actions” by the state machinery to stop her family from electioneering in Gujrat.
“In Gujarat city, you won’t see our gatherings or meetings,” she said. “We can’t hold a corner meeting because if anyone plans to host our meeting, they start intimidating him.”
When asked who was behind the harassment campaign, she blamed the caretaker Punjab government.
“People often bring the (military) establishment into the discourse, but I doubt their involvement at this lower level,” Sumaira said. She also blamed her opponent and nephew Salik, the son of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, for the “mess” her part of the family was facing.
Speaking to Arab News, Salik denied involvement in any mistreatment of his aunts and blamed the Chaudhry family split on the “egoistic behavior” of some of its members, particularly Elahi’s son Moonis.
“Moonis Elahi’s primary concern is what will happen to his political career if Salik Hussain wins the election here in Gujrat,” Salik said.
In an interview with a local TV channel, Salik said he had never had a problem with his cousin Moonis being the heir to the political throne, but “if he wanted to be the bigger one in the family, then he should have acted like the bigger one.”
He told senior journalist Jugnu Mohson: “There is no fundamental issue between the two families, it’s a problem of egos.
“Tolerance with one another could patch up the two families,” he added.
However, when asked by Arab News if there was a chance the family could reunite after elections, Salik told Arab News it was unlikely as electoral politics was not the “bone of contention” between the two groups but the fact that Elahi and Moonis always “wanted to make decisions” and wanted others to obey them without question.
“My opposition isn’t driven by personal gain,” Salik insisted, saying Elahi would regret his decision to back Khan.
“What have they gained from this entire political game? A leader like Imran Khan, and they are not even in his good books.”
Warraich, the analyst, agreed that it was unlikely the two groups would reunite after the Feb. 8 elections.
“Since Pervaiz Elahi has served time in jail and faced challenging times,” he said, “it is likely that instead of striking a deal with Shujaat Hussain after the elections, he would prefer to continue aligning with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.”