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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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