Elections strike fever pitch in Pakistan

Campaigning has been muted in much of Pakistan after violence, but in the Punjab election season is in full swing.

    Elections strike fever pitch in Pakistan
    Maryam Nawaz is showered in rose petals as she encourages voters in Lahore [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Lahore, Pakistan - Pakistan is heading to the polls in less than a week's time, but electioneering in much of the country has been muted by high levels of violence.

    The run-up to the polls is being described as one of the bloodiest in recent memory, with recent attacks rocking Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces. On Sunday, four people were killed and another 12 injured in attacks on election candidates across the nation. On Monday, at least 15 lives were lost in an attack on a campaign rally in the Kurram tribal area.

    The spectre of killings has hung over the sprawling southern metropolis of Karachi, too, as traders and transporters observed a shutdown on Sunday to mourn three people killed in an attack on a political party office in Sindh the previous day.

    Campaigning has been markedly subdued in these areas, with political leaders reluctant to risk their own lives and those of their supporters.

    Particularly feeling the pinch have been the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the country's three main secular parties, who have been issued explicit threats by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed anti-state group.

    Punjab, the country's political heartland, however, feels like it is a world away from that violent reality. The streets of urban and rural areas alike are alive with the sights and sounds of frenzied campaigning, as competing political parties - except the ruling PPP - make a final push towards the May 11 poll.

    Even as the PPP feels the heat - the party is absent from the campaign trail in light of the TTP threats - many of its rivals are holding massive rallies in the province, which is home to 148 of the 272 national assembly seats up for grabs in this election.

    On Sunday, Maryam Nawaz, daughter of PML-N leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, drove through a large crowd of ecstatic supporters in the Mall Road area.

    "I have never seen this kind of passion, like the kind you have shown today," she exclaimed. Her car was festooned with rose petals as it made its way through the historic quarter of the city, periodically stopping so that Nawaz could exhort supporters to show up to polling booths and cast their vote for her party.

    Nawaz fans created a sea of hands as she implored
    them to vote [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    "Raise your hands and promise me that you will vote," she implored the crowd, who duly created a sea of upraised limbs.

    Satisfied, she continued: "And, as you have promised me, I will promise you: the PML-N will remove the darkness from your homes."

    The assembled crowd sang and danced around the motorcade, showering it with rose petals and periodically breaking out into chants of "Sher, sher" [The Urdu word for both "lion" and "tiger", the latter of which is the PML-N's election symbol].

    "I feel good coming out to this rally," said Syed Ali Gilani, a 28-year-old car salesman and PML-N supporter. "I'm not feeling any danger at all."

    Syed Javed Gilani, 35, another attendee, said that while the other provinces were seeing a muted campaign, the people of Punjab "are feeling no sense of danger". That is why, supporters said, leaders such as Nawaz were able to so freely mix with the people.

    Nawaz, who is not running in the elections herself, was called in to help bolster the campaign of Ayaz Sadiq, a PML-N candidate for the NA-122 seat in parliament.

    "I have never seen this kind of enthusiasm at an election before," Sadiq told Al Jazeera. "In Punjab, everyone is allowed to campaign [without threats]." He readily conceded that the rest of the country had not been as fortunate.

    "I don't have a guard with me, or a gunman, or even a weapon," he added.

    Sadiq will need all the help he can get, as his opponent for NA-122 is none other than Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician whose PTI is the wildcard in this year's election.

    Khan has been campaigning tirelessly for several weeks, often addressing multiple rallies of thousands in several cities in a single day, as he crisscrosses the country in a bid to get out the vote for his campaign platform of bringing "change" to Pakistan's political system.

    Just a few hours after Sadiq's rally ended in old Lahore, Khan made an entrance to a rally of at least 5,000 supporters at a park in the Nishtar Colony area. "Here comes the lion hunter," boomed the announcer, referring to the election symbol for Nawaz Sharif's party.

    Imran Khan has attracted thousands of followers to a
    series of mass rallies
    [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Khan's speech to the assembled crowd, who, like the attendees at the PML-N rally, were mostly male, trod well-worn ground, promising justice for all, and to change the basis of Pakistan's political system, which is heavily influenced by patronage and kinship networks.

    "I am not just a lion hunter," he said. "But I come before you as a hunter of every unjust person who has ever exploited a poor person."

    "Justice," he said to raucous cheers from the crowd, "means all are equal before the law. We will establish supremacy of law in Pakistan."

    While analysts say it is difficult to predict quite how much success Khan is likely to have at the polls, what is certain is that his message of bringing change and new faces to Pakistan's political system has resonated with voters.

    "I have come here to this rally to see change," said 35-year-old Shakeel Mumtazi, an electrician who came 20km to see Khan speak. "It is very difficult to do, but if those who want to do it are there, we can do it. It's do or die now in Pakistan."

    Muhammad Aslam agreed. "We need new leaders, because conditions are terrible - but we have confidence in the PTI to be able to change things," the 40-year-old told Al Jazeera. "I feel some sense of danger, but tell me, if we don't come out, how will change come to Pakistan?"

    As the event drew to a close, loudspeakers continued to play PTI anthems, even as thousands streamed out after Khan's departure. He himself was off to speak at two more campaign events in the evening.

    In Punjab, then, at least, Pakistan's election season is alive and kicking.

    Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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