A hot and humid day in Lahore has not deterred political workers from campaigning ahead of the Pakistan general election in the capital city of Punjab province. Gigantic banners of the two major political parties — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) — are both visible all around the city. Experts predict a close fight between the two on 25 July, when Pakistan holds its general election.
The PML-N posters show a defiant Sharif and an expressive lion, the party's election symbol. The Sharif brothers have been ruling Punjab for a decade, but Imran Khan, currently a frontrunner for the prime minister's post, also has a presence in Lahore.
What's missing from the province is the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), once headed by the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto and now by her son Bilawal.
Elections here are already chaotic, and also violent. The country witnessed deadly attacks in Balochistan and Khuber Pakthunkwa provinces in the past few months. But Punjab has remained safe, and campaigning in this electorally significant province is also more vibrant compared to the rest of the country.
Demand for change
Muhammad Iqbal waits with a CV in his hand for a taxi in Gulberg town, which to take him to the interview centre. But it's the elections that he's concerned about, not the upcoming job interview. In 2013, Iqbal voted for PML-N, but this time is likely to vote for PTI.
"I would not make the same mistake again of voting for PML-N. Although they have launched some mega development projects, the youth need jobs. Khan has promised us jobs," Iqbal said.
People in Lahore aren't concerned about the tug-of-war between Sharif and the military establishment. Sohail, a youth with a Master's degree in Public Relations, is still jobless. That's his only concern at the moment. "I don't really care about the PML-N and the establishment. I graduated a few years ago and yet I am jobless. I blame Sharif for not doing anything to create jobs," Sohail complains.
Crackdown on Sharif's party
But Pakistan faces other crises as well, which civil society activists consider as important as unemployment and inflation. IA Rahman, former secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says Pakistan is at a crossroads, with the military meddling in civilian affairs more than ever before. "Whoever challenges the military gets punished. That's what happened with Sharif. Sharif was (former military dictator) General Zia-ul-Haq's protege, but at the moment, he is facing the establishment's wrath," Rahman said.
Rahman said allegations of pre-poll rigging have already tarnished the image of the 25 July election. "Voting freely doesn't automatically guarantee fair elections. What happens before the polls is also equally crucial. A crackdown on PML-N workers to influence the election results is part of rigging," Rahman said.
Senator Mushahid Hussain, a senior PML-N official and chairman of the official media committee of PML-N, said the party wasn't provided a level playing field ahead of the elections. "Our workers have been booked in false terrorism cases. A level playing field is essential for democracy," he said.
On 21 July, a Sharif aide, Hanif Abbasi, was sentenced to life imprisonment on narcotic charges. Lahore-based journalist Xari Jalil, however, is confident of PML-N's chances. "The PML-N is being pushed against the wall by the establishment. But the truth is that the PML-N is a reality and can’t be ignored. The PTI will take seats in provincial and PML-N in national assemblies," she says.
Muhammad Arif, a chef by profession but a die-hard supporter of Sharif, said that no matter what the establishment does against Sharif and his party, the people would vote for the former Premier. "He is the only hope for Pakistan," he said.
Support for Islamist parties
Zeeshan Haider, a chartered accountant, said he would not vote for anyone. "I find no party worthy of my vote because none of them would introduce Sharia law in the country. Pakistani Constitution's is un-Islamic. I want Islamic law to be imposed in my country. It will guarantee the rights of all citizens of Pakistan without discriminating them on the basis of religion, caste and creed," he said.
Journalist Jalil is wary of the mainstreaming of banned Islamist parties. "These parties are there to take away the PML-N votes. The establishment does not want to see Sharif's part form the new government," she said.
The election results promise a few surprises. Imran could secure a victory, and it is equally possible that no party would gain control of Parliament. But one thing is sure — Pakistan is not heading toward stability.
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2018 18:48 PM