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Manoeuvres and rallies as Pakistan's election campaign heats up

It's set to be a tight race, and nothing - not even assassination - is beyond the realms of possibility.

Supporters wave flags at Imran Khan's rally in Lahore on 23 March. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Pakistan has finally set an election date. If all goes according to plan – which is far from certain in a country which has never before seen a democratic transition from one elected government to another – the polls will take place on 11 May.

And the political parties are not wasting any time. This Saturday, Imran Khan held a “jalsa”, or rally, aimed at demonstrating that he can still summon the numbers. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party emerged as a serious contender after a huge rally in Lahore in 2011, but the hype has since died down.

This weekend’s rally took place at the same spot, the Minar-e-Pakistan monument in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state. The mood was jubilant; people sang and danced as they waited for Khan to appear. As always as Khan’s rallies, the crowd was predominantly made up of young people. Despite the rain that pelted the city, at least 100,000 people crammed into the park surrounding the monument to hear Khan. As the heavens opened and thunder clapped in the background, the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of “tsunami”, the word often used by Khan to describe his supporters.

His main support is from the middle classes, but despite his “power to the people” message, many elites have also taken up Khan’s cause. (“What if he actually empowers the masses? Then we’re screwed,” one wealthy young man who plans to vote PTI said, ironically.) Most of his supporters are first-time voters, disillusioned and desperate for change in a country wracked by an increasing terrorist threat, crippling energy shortages, and a flailing economy.

At the rally, Khan reiterated his promises to end corruption and tyranny, and to always remain truthful. Although critics point out that these pledges are somewhat vague, the crowd lapped it up. Khan said that the PTI manifesto would be released soon. As the downpour intensified, the excited crowd was eventually forced to run for cover, with placards being turned into makeshift umbrellas, and supporters wrapping themselves in their green and red PTI flags to keep the rain off. The nearby Ravi Road came to a standstill as people swarmed out among cars, seeking cover.

Speaking to people in Lahore afterwards, the mood was one of hope. The desire for change is real and desperate, and people want to do something about it. I spoke to several people who had registered to vote for the first time so they can vote for Khan. The important thing is that he represents a change, even if his policies are somewhat thin at the moment. “It can’t be worse than what we’ve got,” one woman told me.

The enthusiasm may be there, but it seems unlikely that this will translate into the seats required to make Khan prime minister. Amongst large swathes of the population, apathy about the political process remains. Currently leading in the polls is the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), headed up by Nawaz Sharif, whose party ramped up infrastructure projects in Lahore after Khan’s initial showing of support in 2011. If Sharif wins, it will hardly be a change from the status quo: he has already been prime minister twice, and if he wins, will be the first person to hold the office three times.

The next day, there was another, somewhat less jubilant event, as former military leader Pervez Musharraf returned from self-exile after more than four years. Musharraf, a now retired general who grabbed power in a military coup in 1999, has been living in London and Dubai since leaving Pakistan. He landed in the southern coastal city of Karachi on Sunday, to a crowd of around 1,500 – small by Pakistan’s standards. He will lead his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, in elections.

His plan to hold a rally at the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was stymied after the Taliban threatened to assassinate him and officials in Karachi refused to grant permission. “Where has the Pakistan I left five years ago gone?” asked Musharraf, when he finally did manage to make his speech. "My heart cries tears of blood when I see the state of the country today. I have come back for you. I want to restore the Pakistan I left."

Although his reception was significantly less enthused than Khan’s on Saturday – or indeed, than Benazir Bhutto’s euphoric return from exile in 2007 – Musharraf does retain some support. “Look at what’s happened to the country in the last five years,” Saima, a TV producer, told me last week. “At least we know that Musharraf was financially honest – he wasn’t corrupt – and he kept things running.”

His support base is committed, but it is small. I spoke to a group of his supporters on Friday, and even they conceded that Musharraf is unlikely to get a significant number of seats. Analysts say he has vastly over-estimated the level of support, and may even struggle to win one for himself. His best hope is striking a deal with another party.

With just under two months left to go, the cynics are anticipating another high profile assassination – perhaps even Khan, Musharraf, or Sharif – which would cause an election delay. In the bloody world of Pakistani politics, it is not outside the realm of possibility. But until that happens, we can expect many more big public rallies as the campaign, set to be a tight race, heats up.