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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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”