LAHORE: In Sanda, men gather outside biryani stalls at 11 am, hair slick with oil and grey chests dusted with prickly heat powder. A sleepy butcher hacks at chicken necks near the huge facade of a white tiled mosque and a dozen hair salons peeling with Johnny Depp posters. There are no trees, no green belts. But wily plants have shot up from the potholes leading to main Krishan Nagar Road, where the bazaars are closed on a Saturday morning except for a plastic shop selling pink water-coolers.

This is NA-120, a core power base for the Pakistan Muslim League and one of Pakistan’s most critical election battlegrounds. It is the former Lahore constituency of Nawaz Sharif, the now deposed prime minister whose disqualification on July 28 has led to a vacant seat in the lower house of Parliament. That seat is now vied with strongly by Punjab’s growing opposition party, the PTI, ahead of a by-election on September 17 which will be one of the most telling litmus tests of what lies ahead for politics in Pakistan.

“I haven’t decided who to vote for yet,” says Rana Abdul Rasheed, 75, who runs a junk shop in Sanda and says he’s too old for party alliances. “I voted for N-League last time, but I’m still undecided. If Shehbaz runs, maybe I’ll vote for him.”

By the looks of it, the younger Sharif will not be contesting for NA-120, and there are rumours that the candidacy might go instead to Nawaz’s daughter Maryam. PTI’s candidate Dr Yasmin Rasheed had fought for the slot in the 2013 elections and surprised skeptics by winning a record number of votes in that constituency against Nawaz. Even then, she was roughly 40,000 votes short.

Neon banners plastered with Nawaz Sharif’s face hang over the narrow alleyways around and off the main streets. Some of them refer to the recent Supreme Court judgement; freshly painted punchlines, all ending with “humara leader aiman-daar nikla” (Our leader turned out to be the honest one).

Still, many argue the PML-N stronghold is beginning to show cracks, and from preliminary interviews, it seems the undecided voters will base a good portion of their choice on who exactly the PML-N candidate turns out to be.

As he flips through hundreds of pages in his small paper shop in Urdu Bazaar, Arshad Siddique, 37, says, “I don’t know who will win but I can tell you what everyone around here is saying. If Shehbaz runs himself, they’ll win. But if Maryam or Begum Kulsoom or you or I contest, they’ll lose.”

The sentiment varies across the constituency.

Elsewhere in NA-120, around the packed commercial streets of Bilal Ganj, 57 year old Mumtaz Ahmad has set up shop selling batteries and soda from a near-death corner refrigerator.

“Nobody cares who runs from the PML-N,” he says, and waves us away. “In this place, everyone is an N-League supporter. It is the Muslim League, it is a party for people like us. For decent Muslims.”

A family strolling down Sardar Chappal Chowk says the same. “We don’t like Imran Khan’s guftagoo, the way he talks isn’t right,” says Fatima Shakir, 43. “We’ve always voted for N-League, for the decent man’s party, and we always will.”

Just off one of the few double roads in the constituency and sharing a wall with a PML-N women’s wing office, Mohammad Riaz, 48, sells cuttings of lace and fabric.

“Not much has changed here,” he says, in between stuffing a bag full of silver lace. “The sewage, the streetlights, nothing really. How will they fix anything for me anyway? They’ve got enough problems of their own.”

Outside mechanic shops, behind the beloved shrine of Data Sahib, men sit out in hoards smoking in the afternoon heat, their bodies golden against black heaps of motorcycle engines. A back alley is strung with car horns and side-view mirrors and there is not a single woman in sight.

“Why would I vote for anybody but PML-N?” laughs Mohammad Ayub, 35, a car mechanic. “All this disqualification stuff, it’s the will of God. Everyone has to face hardships in life. So what? It doesn’t change who gets our vote.”

Closer to the Lower Mall, the road starts to widen up. There is even a small public park near a hospital, from where the iconic single spire of the saint’s shrine rises above this part of the city.

In a small fabric shop, Fakhira Khalid, 40, says she will vote for PTI this time. “We want to try them out,” she says. “Me and my whole family. We used to vote for Nawaz but there’s been a change around this place. We weren’t like this, but now we want to try something new.”

Ahead of Nawaz’s arrival in Lahore, old campaign posters tangled up in the electricity wires over the constituency will be getting a full makeover. For the next few weeks, the narrow streets of NA-120 with its tight brick homes, its tea stalls and makeshift businesses will become the epicentre of political excitement. And the victory Nawaz will want for his party, more than all else.