LAHORE - In NA-120, a new wave of religious right wing candidates has a single purpose: to divide the vote bank come the by- election on September 17.

Even the outer walls of mosques are full of banners pasted haplessly on top of one another, and the campaigns have steadily entered into the premises of shrines.

These religious candidates have primarily targeted underdeveloped and slum areas while the focus of the bigger parties has been mostly developed areas. Recently, the ECP has denied registering the political party of Hafiz Saeed’s JUD, the Milli Muslim League, but its candidate Sheikh Muhammad Yaqoob who is allowed to run as an independent, is still endorsed on the party’s official twitter page.

He has also made some unusual advances towards sectarian harmony by engaging with a marginalised but sizeable Shia community in NA-120.

Additionally both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a group which is considered hard-liner among Sunni Barelvi Muslims in the area, have fielded their candidates for the by-election.

“Nikal kar khankahun sey ada kar rasm-i-shabbiri,” recites TLP supporter Maulana Ghulam Dastagir. The verse from Iqbal loosely translates to “Leave your tombs, and revive the rites of Hussain (as).”

Among the bigger, mainstream parties, it is only PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz who seems to have understood the importance of cashing in on the religious vote, and the danger of losing out on a seemingly fragmented but crucial vote bank. Of late, she has made frequent visits to religious places like churches and shrines, including a church on Lawrence Road and the shrine of Hazrat Bibi Pak Daman.

“No party member has visited us nor do we support anyone except those who ensure the sanctity of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him),” says Allama Raza-i-Mustafa – a known cleric in Bilal Gunj who adds, “Those who have been ousted by the courts are enjoying power,” referring to the ruling PML-N.

Mustafa is the administrator of one of the main seminaries in the area and has a good deal of influence among locals. “We only support those who support Islam and Sharia,” he says.

Mostly, religious groups are harbouring frustration towards the PML-N because of the Supreme Court decision on Mumtaz Qadri’s execution — the security guard who took the life of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Alongside this, the bar on religious seminaries and charities from collecting donations has added to their grievances against the ruling party.

In this case, many Sunni voters have voiced support for PTI over PML-N despite the offence caused by PTI candidate Dr Yasmin Rashid not having paid her respects to the shrine of Hazrat Data Gunj Baksh, the de facto spiritual centre of NA-120.

It is reasonable to assume that local religious groups enjoy some degree of power by the sheer number of their banners and campaign posters present. Almost everywhere there is a Kalsoom Nawaz banner, it is accompanied by a poster of Sheikh Yaqoob.

In Bilal Ganj, Masoom Gunj, Malik Park and the areas of Bund Road, not a single PTI poster is visible.

“We established PTI’s office a few days ago,” says Ashar Khan, son of Mubashar Khan, a resident of Street 7, Bilal Gunj, though it is yet to be inaugurated.

Muhammad Shakeel, a PTI worker in Sardar Chappal Chowk, says, “No one dares to touch the banners and posters of Jamatud Dawa,” referring to the MML, which seems to be running the most organised campaign compared to every other party, with offices in all union councils of the constituency.

As of now, despite the PML-N still expecting a clear win in NA-120, the PML-N and PTI vote banks seem to have been shaken by smart campaigns focused on optics and door-to-door campaigning by right wing religious parties and the final vote counts will reflect this effort.