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.


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.

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

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.