With early results in, could Pakistan’s elections be a surprise? | elections
Lahore, Pakistan: When I went out on a cold Thursday morning to cover Pakistan’s 12th general election, there was an air of inevitability about the whole process.
Most respected analysts have already expressed their expectations that the ground is set for the return of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power.
Even if it is clear as daylight that the path has been paved by the Pakistani military establishment that once helped Sharif’s political rival Imran Khan rise to power at Sharif’s expense. Even if it was that same institution that tortured Sharif, not once, but twice – first when he was removed as prime minister in a 1999 coup by Pervez Musharraf, and then when he was forced from office in 2017 and subsequently sentenced in cases… corruption.
It seems that things have turned around, with relations between Khan and the army strained, and the cases against Sharif dropped.
More than 24 hours after I started visiting polling places and speaking with voters, one thing has become clear to me: The outcome of this election is far from clear. Whatever the final results, these elections were closer than analysts expected on the eve of the vote.
the Early results Bear it. Khan The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been banned from using its election symbol Cricket bat game. Khan was a charismatic former cricket captain and philanthropist He was convicted on multiple charges Days before the elections. He has been in prison since last August.
However, as of 11:30 am local time (06:30 GMT) on Friday, the PTI was competing closely with the PML-N, although candidates from Khan’s party had to compete as independents. Candidates belonging to the PTI won nine seats, while the PML-N won 10 seats, while the third main rival, the Pakistan Peoples Party, won six seats.
After what I saw and heard Thursday, I’m not entirely surprised.
It all started with my phone. Despite all the advance warnings from the government and my intuition, I was still shocked when I discovered that mobile internet access had been shut down. Security concerns were the official reason, but those in power were clearly concerned that the script they had planned would need technical interventions.
My first stop was in Lahore’s upscale Model Town area, which is also the area where Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, himself a former prime minister, is expected to cast his vote.
Fifteen minutes before voting began at 8 a.m. (03:00 GMT), there was a small queue forming, one for each of female and male voters.
Saadia, a 29-year-old doctor, was first in line among the females. Wearing a face mask, she told me that even though she had a bout with the flu, it was very important for her to get out and vote.
She said in a firm manner: “This is our national duty and responsibility.” “If we do not do our duty, we will not have the right to file a complaint.”
The group of women behind them also seemed excited and eager to vote, but when one of them just started expressing her support for Khan and the PTI movement, one of her family members intervened.
“We don’t want to talk to any media. He told me brusquely: ‘We don’t trust your identity,’” he told the women of his family to avoid talking as well.
This was my first inkling of the kind of day I was about to have.
As I walked around various precincts and polling stations, nearly two dozen, a stark reality emerged: A muted roar had replaced the usual Election Day enthusiasm.
PTI supporters, although fewer in number, were vocal. Young families, men and women, and even a frail 72-year-old man in a wheelchair, crowded behind Khan.
“If the PIF comes, we know how they can do it Destroying the economy And everything else. But Khan has clear eyes. He did wonders for us in the world, and increased our respect with his speeches.”
Another group of young men was playing cricket behind the famous Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, near the polling station. When I asked one of them, Zafar, if he had voted, he nodded no.
“We have a game in the morning, but as soon as we finish, we’ll all go together,” he said, pointing towards the rest of his teammates. “We have to vote for the captain (referring to Khan, who was the captain of the Pakistani cricket team),” he added.
Their conviction has drawn a stark contrast to the PML-N’s quiet confidence, bordering on complacency.
Two days before the polls, on the last day of the election campaign, I did not meet any PML-N member canvassing in the old neighborhoods of Lahore. One party official who spoke to me confided to me that the party had “completed” its campaign and was confident that people would come out to vote for it.
This almost seemed like arrogance.
However, on February 8, figures announced by Election Commission of Pakistan officials at some polling stations, especially in middle-class and working-class neighbourhoods, showed voter turnout at between 20 and 30 percent.
Officials belonging to the Special Investigation Branch deployed at polling stations told Al Jazeera that it appears that the removal of the cricket bat symbol from the ballot papers and the crackdown on Khan may have convinced PTI supporters not to turn out.
When I asked how this might be reflected in the results, one said: “We’ll see when it comes down to it. Our responsibility was to ensure a smooth, free and fair election.” He said it all without a hint of sarcasm.
In various areas of Lahore, I noticed that the PML-N supporters, as they went out to vote, seemed to lack the organized voting push that parties eager to gain power usually rely on.
Rana Abdul Quddus, a 41-year-old businessman, said the inspiration of Nawaz Sharif and his party for him and his family went far beyond the party’s promises.
He has done a tremendous job for the business community, no doubt. But for us, it is also the fact that he is our neighbor, and God has asked us to do good to our neighbor.”
On the other hand, I also found in the queues determined PTI supporters who cast their votes as a sign of protest against the treatment meted out to their leaders, and politically agnostic voters who decided to support Khan’s party in solidarity with him.
“I voted for the PTI at the Center as a protest against the constant interference by the establishment, not because I like or support the PTI,” said a 33-year-old voter in an upscale Lahore district, who asked to remain anonymous. ““I don’t think they will form the next government, but I hope they realize the importance of staying in parliament to be an effective opposition.”
Participation in most other areas of Lahore that I visited was low. But as 5 p.m., the scheduled closing time for voting, approached, I stopped at another polling station in an upper-caste area of Lahore, where there was some disturbance going on.
It was, as I discovered, a rush of mostly women who arrived to cast their votes before time ran out.
Imran Khan himself won the NA-122 constituency in the 2018 elections, which is considered one of the constituencies where the leader has a large following and support.
Among those in line was Ramsha Sikander, a 22-year-old student who was there to cast her first-ever vote.
Sikandar said she was late because she was taking care of her grandmother, who was sick, but she always wanted to come and vote.
“I see Khan and the PTI movement as the only hope to bring some change in our country. Their promises, their motivations and of course Imran Khan’s charisma. My entire family are PTI voters,” she told me.
However, Sikander was somewhat skeptical about the country’s future in case the results show a winner other than Khan.
“I have no expectations from the other leaders we stayed with. I have no hope for the country if they end up winning,” she said.
But for Azka Shahzad, a 27-year-old dentist, this “passionate and rabid” support for the PTI was one of the main reasons she drifted away from the party.
“I was a big fan of PTI in 2018. I even voted for them in the elections. But now looking back, I see that vote was a mistake.
So much so that she almost considered skipping exercise this year altogether. In fact, Shahzad arrived at the polling station just 20 minutes before the end of time.
“I spent my morning thinking about whether I should really attend, and even if I did, who I should even vote for,” she said.
Agreeing that the PTI had been the target of state-led repression, the dentist said that while she unconditionally condemned what happened with the party, she was disturbed by what she called the “integrity” of its supporters.
“Look, there were other parties in the past that went through as much, if not more, and this is their turn now,” Shahzad said as she left the polling station. “I just hope they learn some humility and introspection to do better in the future.”
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