Lahore - In a hotly contested and closely watched bye-election Begum Kalsoom Nawaz won the national assembly seat lost by her husband but by a narrow margin, leaving the ruling party vulnerable in the general elections.

According to unofficial results for the polls in bellwether constituency of NA-120 (Lahore), Kalsoom secured 61,254 votes – 30,412 less than her husband had obtained (91,683 votes) in 2013 elections.

Runners-up Dr Yasmin Rashid of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf bagged 47,066 votes – 5,255 less than she had secured in 2013 elections while contesting against Nawaz Sharif at that time.

Contrary to the expectation, the turnout remained quite low. Though a low turnout is a hallmark of all by-elections, it was not an ordinary contest by any means. Also, all parties ran a vigorous campaign for a month to woo the voters.

The election results however came as a great solace to the shattered PML-N after the ouster of Nawaz as prime minister and subsequent filing of NAB references against members of the Sharif family.

The ex-PM was disqualified as member of the parliament by the Supreme Court in July after a legal battle over charges that he and his family had hidden their wealth overseas.

His wife Kalsoom is currently hospitalised in London with lymphoma and she won Sunday’s electoral race in absentia, with her daughter Maryam Nawaz running a vigorous campaign to bring the party and the family a direly needed victory.

Despite the defeat, the main opposition candidate Dr Yasmin Rashid did unexpectedly well. A medical doctor and teacher by profession, she ran a hectic day-and-night campaign which she continued even on Eid days.

The two parties had made it a fight between those who stood with the Supreme Court decision of disqualifying Nawaz and the ones who did not accept that decision. But both failed to clearly establish their respective stance as they saw considerable reduction in their vote bank in the constituency: the PML-N by 30,412 and the PTI by 5,255 votes.

Many analysts however said the relatively close margin was in itself an astounding and historic upset as the voters in the longtime PML-N stronghold signaled they were looking for change.

The PML-N has seen its vote bank in the constituency shrink since 2008. In the general elections of 2008, its candidate Bilal Yasin defeated his main rival, Jehangir Badr of the PPP, by a wide margin of 41,566 votes. In 2013, Nawaz Sharif secured victory over Dr Yasmin by a margin of 39,229 votes. Now, the margin of victory has been further reduced to 14,188 votes - leaving the PML-N vulnerable in the next general elections due after nine months.

The surprisingly strong showing for the PTI could put its leader Imran Khan – a former cricket champion and the Sharifs’ leading nemesis – in a position to challenge them for political dominance in Punjab Province, and thus nationwide.

“It seems Kalsoom Nawaz is going to be the Hillary Clinton of NA-120,” Ayaz Amir, a veteran commentator, told a TV news channel two hours before the final tally. A narrow victory for the Muslim League, he predicted, would be seen as a virtual defeat. “This is their stronghold,” he said.

In a video leaked to a news channel, Maryam Nawaz seemed quite upset over the polls result. She reportedly told her team it was time for sole-searching for the party. However, she adopted an altogether different tone in her victory speech, terming the results a great victory against those who conspired against her father.

The NA-120 contest was being seen as a test of Maryam’s political prospects also. The 43-year-old daughter and heir-apparent of Nawaz Sharif spoke at dozens of outdoor rallies, accompanied by booming music and showered by truckloads of rose petals. Each time she asked voters to vindicate her father’s name, remember his hard work for the nation and choose “the lion” [party symbol].

She has also become a de-facto family defender in the continuing legal battles which continue even after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster. An accountability court has called on the ex-PM and his children to appear on charges of corruption next week.

Interestingly, the PPP candidate, Faisal Mir was nowhere near to the runner up in the contest which saw another third power emerging in the constituency.

Yaqoob Sheikh, backed by Milli Muslim League – a political face of the banned JwD of Hafiz Saeed - secured third position by securing 4,500 votes leaving behind Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, the PPP and Jamaat-e-Islami candidates who secured fourth, fifth and sixth position respectively.

Faisal Mir could not even improve on the tally of his party’s candidate, Zubair Kardar who got 2,605 votes in 2013 elections. Mir’s vote count ended at 2,520 votes.

Mir attributed his defeat to excessive use of funds by his rival candidates on the electioneering.

“Independent candidate Shiekh Yaqoob has spent even more money than the PTI and PML-N candidates”, he said, adding that despite huge investment the two major parties saw their vote bank eroded.

In her brief interaction with the media last night, Dr Yasmin Rashid ascribed her defeat to presence of 29,000 unverified votes in the voters’ list. She said she would announce PTI’s future strategy ‘tomorrow’ (today) after getting complete results from the Election Commission.

“I have already made it clear that the issue of unverified voters would be raised regardless of the election results,” she said.

Yasmin thanked her voters especially the women for what she called coming out in such a large number to support an opposition party. She also thanked the media for bravely covering the election campaign of the PTI.

“Contesting by election against the ruling party candidate is an uphill task. But the victory margin has decreased considerably despite use of government machinery and all the sources and resources,” she said.

“Ministers, advisers, city mayor, councillors and Patwaris were busy in the constituency.  Quorum remained the major issue at Punjab Assembly as ministers and MPAs were deputed for election campaign”, she alleged.

Her campaign incharge, Ijaz Chaudhry said that it was a pity that the rulers were complaining about rigging in the election.

“PML-N is in power both in Islamabad and Lahore. Instead of complaining, the rulers should step down,” he said, adding that the PTI would launch a campaign for stopping of official announcement of the election results till a court verdict on the unverified votes is out.

MML spokesperson Nadeem Awan expressed satisfaction over the outcome of election results.

“Our party’s age is less than 30 days and we contested against 30 years old parties. It was our first experience and we will continue our efforts to create awareness among the people regarding Pakistan Ideology,” he told The Nation.

Agencies add: For the first time in the country, some 100 biometric voting machines were used on trial basis at 39 polling stations in this election.

There are total 321,786 registered voters in the constituency, including 179,642 male and 142,144 female. The Election Commission had established 220 polling stations - 103 for male, 98 for female and 19 combined - with total 573 polling booths (312 for male and 261 for female).

The polling remained peaceful throughout the day as no major complaint was lodged by any party. Police were remained fully alert for a quick response, reaching a place within five minutes of receiving any complaint.

At least 8,000 policemen including six SPs, 18 DSPs, 46 SHOs, remained on-guard to ensure peaceful voting process and implement the ECP’s code of conduct.

No one was allowed to move with armed private guards during the election, whereas zero tolerance policy was adopted in displaying or carrying of arms, and jubilant firing.