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.
Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz, who served as Punjab chief minister till March, has also tried to group Khan with the disliked PPP. Khan has criticized Shahbaz’s pet project, the $300 million Lahore Metro Bus service, arguing that the money could have been spent on energy projects in the province, whose residents and industries have been hit hard by gas shortages. And so at a rally in Lahore, Shahbaz asked rhetorically whether instead of a bus service for the masses, he should have gotten a plane for Zardari or a helicopter for Khan, or a bulletproof car for the PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani (who was removed from the office of the prime minister by the Supreme Court).
These highly personalized attacks are in large part because north-central Punjab, home to the largest chunk of National Assembly seats, is essentially a two-way contest between the PML-N and PTI. And despite the animosity and mutual recriminations, both parties are similar in significant ways. The PML-N and PTI are urban, pro-business, center-right parties that see themselves as working to realize the Islami falahi riyasat (Islamic welfare state) they say was “dreamed” by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, and the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. Both parties emphasize internal reform as a means toward full sovereignty and self-reliance. The election manifestos of the PML-N and PTI have called for increasing education spending to 4-5% of GDP, reforming state-owned enterprises, and expanding the tax base — paving the way for an eventual drop in tax rates.
In the end, voters in north-central Punjab (and in other hotly contested regions) might have to make a choice between change and experience. To Khan, the system is designed to make “the rich richer and the poor poorer” and needs whole-scale reform. Pakistan, Khan says, is where “the big robber becomes president and the petty thief is in jail.” Directly-elected local governments, which he sees as the foundational strength of Western democracies, and new, especially young, faces will clean up Pakistan. The ex-cricketer says the old parties have been tried and tested — and they’ve failed. At a rally in the Sialkot district last week, Khan asked Nawaz, “You’ve governed Punjab five times over the past twenty five years. What are you going to do the sixth time?”
Nawaz contends that his party never really been given an opportunity to succeed. Previous stints at national power were abbreviated by military intervention. For its part, the PML-N is proud of its achievements made while running Punjab over the past five years as well as previous tenures as the national and provincial level. The Sharifs take credit for expanding Pakistan’s national highway network, building high-quality public schools, and giving plots to landless peasants in Sindh. Criticized as a “friendly opposition” to the PPP, the PML-N attempts to distance itself from the miserable national state of affairs. A PML-N television advertisement begins by lamenting that Pakistan has become a “corruption factory” in the past five years under the PPP. Suddenly, the narrator’s voice assumes a more positive tone and proceeds to go through the achievements of Punjab under the PML-N, “where government funds are considered a public trust.”
The PML-N promises to bring Punjab-style governance nationwide, if it is allowed to form the next federal government. An impassioned Shahbaz tells voters in an ad that Pakistan’s energy crisis is resolvable and the PML-N, which completed the metro bus system “in record time,” is the party that can do it. Even in its election theme song, the party pledges to rescue Pakistan from “darkness” — a metaphor for Pakistan’s many grave challenges and a direct reference to its daily electricity blackouts.
Beset by a torrent of plagues, including a failing economy and terrorism, Pakistanis are looking for light at the end of the tunnel. On the campaign trail, Khan has frequently told his audience that “sometimes God gives a nation an opportunity to change its destiny.” On May 11, we’ll see whether that opportunity has presented itself and whether Pakistanis will have seized it.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.