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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.