Pakistan’s long election season, which has effectively spanned almost two years, will conclude less than a week from now. On May 11, over fifteen thousand candidates from dozens of political parties will contest close to 850 directly-elected national and provincial assembly seats. Between 35 and 40 million Pakistani voters are expected to take part in the polls.
These candidates and political parties have been holding jalson (large rallies) and corner meetings (small gatherings), cultivating ties with local influentials, spending millions of dollars on television and newspaper advertisements, developing catchy campaign songs, and issuing manifestos.
Over time, Pakistan’s single-member district system has deepened the intensity of retail politics and all that comes with it — including patronage, courting micro-constituencies, and promising deliverables like clean water, gas irrigation, and schools. Still, collectively, there is a macro-level election conversation that is taking place in the country. And in many ways, the terms of that conversation have been set by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI).
After a decade and a half of slumber, PTI reemerged in mid-2011, exploiting the country’s youth bulge and despondency with the established political parties. Two years later, despite some stumbles for PTI, the specter of Khan continues to haunt these parties, whose campaign discourse is replete with direct and indirect references to the ex-cricket star and his party.
Khan’s PTI has called for an inqilaab (revolution) to build a “new Pakistan” — a theme reflected in not one, but two of its campaign songs. Its recent television advertisements feature youth, women, and working class party officials who proclaim, “I’m a part of the change that will build a new Pakistan.”
According to Team Khan, the country’s major parties — especially its largest two, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — have colluded to loot and plunder Pakistan through muk mukka (underhand dealing) or befooling the public with their game of noora kushti (shadow boxing).
In a PTI campaign song, famous Qawwali artist Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, sings:
“Challo, Challo, Imran Kay Saath! Chor, Lotaray Jayenge! Achey Sachey Aengae!”
(Let’s Go! Let’s Go With Imran! The crooks, the looters will go! The good, the truthful will come!)
The PML-N, which ran the Punjab province for the past five years, has tried to hit back at insinuations that it has collaborated with the PPP, which led the most recent federal coalition. It has attempted to turn the tables on PTI, claiming that Khan rarely criticizes the PPP (whose de-facto leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, is widely viewed as corrupt) and wittingly aides the PPP in its bid to deny the PML-N national power.
At a rally in the southern Punjab city of Layyah, the PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, in a rhyming salvo, stated that the khilari (athlete) — i.e. Khan — and Zardari are on the same team. Nawaz painted Khan as an inexperienced spoiler and warned that a vote for PTI is the equivalent of a vote for Zardari’s PPP and a continuation of the hated status quo.