LAHORE • In the campaign for a Pakistan by-election seen as a test of support for ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the most visible figure is not on the ballot: It is his daughter, Maryam, widely touted as his political heir apparent.
This past weekend, crowds mobbed Ms Maryam's car and threw rose petals as she criss- crossed the eastern city of Lahore campaigning for her mother, Mrs Kulsoom Nawaz, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party's candidate to contest the seat Mr Nawaz was forced to vacate by a Supreme Court ruling in July.
With Mrs Kulsoom in London for cancer surgery, accompanied by Mr Nawaz, 43-year-old Ms Maryam has led the campaign with fiery speeches denouncing her father's opponents and the Supreme Court.
Her influence within the PML-N has grown in recent years, with senior party figures crediting her with Mr Nawaz's move to embrace relatively more pro-women and liberal causes in a staunchly conservative nation of 208 million people.
"I am proud to be the torch-bearer of the ideology which PML-N has," Ms Maryam told Reuters at the weekend in Punjab's provincial capital, Lahore, her father's electoral power base. "I am (Nawaz's) reflection, I am his extension. I have grown up espousing his agenda, his ideology."
She has framed the election as a chance for voters to protest against the Supreme Court's verdict against her father and help the PML-N flex its electoral muscle.
The by-election is seen as a litmus test for the PML-N in the wake of Mr Nawaz's ouster, and an early indicator of voter sentiment ahead of a general election next year.
Opposition leader Imran Khan, eager to make inroads into the PML-N's political heartland in Punjab, has accused Ms Maryam of benefiting from alleged corruption swirling around her father, and cast the by-election as a plebiscite on corruption. "This election will decide where the people of Pakistan stand," the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party told crowds in Lahore last week.
The PML-N made Ms Maryam - a telegenic but inexperienced politician - the face of the campaign despite a Supreme Court-appointed panel accusing her of signing forged documents to obscure ownership of offshore companies used to buy upmarket London flats. She denies any wrongdoing, but the court has ordered a criminal investigation into her, Mr Nawaz and other family members.
Ms Maryam said her father's dismissal is a conspiracy, noting that his success in reinvigorating the economy and overall popularity had "sent alarm bells ringing" for those who do not want Pakistan to have a strong leader. She was coy when asked whether she had ambitions to be prime minister one day, saying she was not eyeing anything. But senior PML-N officials expect her to at least become a minister in the next Cabinet if the party holds on to power after the 2018 polls.