The Pakistan Muslim League faction helmed by Nawaz Sharif is widely perceived to be the front-runner in Saturday’s elections, which will herald the first democratic transition of power in a country with a history of military regimes. But political observers feel Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) could upset pre-poll predictions if there is high voter turnout.
In the country’s sporadic encounters with democracy, the highest (63%) polling was recorded in the first ever general election in 1970-71. The average turnout in recent years has been around 40%.
Imran’s challenge to Sharif draws strength from the 3-4 crore first-time voters he hopes to galvanise behind his vision of a ‘New Pakistan’ with equity for all. “The pundits might find themselves off the mark if this hugely motivated section of the electorate flocks to the polling stations on May 11,” remarked an Islamabad-based journalist.
He said if the elections were a wedding party, the charismatic Imran was its undisputed bridegroom.
“Regardless of the poll outcome, the cricketer-turned-politician has restored to the polity the fizz and sensation reminiscent of the doughty Benazir Bhutto.”
Formidable as ever, Sharif is the PTI's roadblock in the Punjab province that has maximum seats in the national sssembly. His PML(N) is a well-oiled machine rearing for the pan-Pakistan presence denied to it by Benazir's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) for long years.
Headed now by her son Bilawal, the PPP faces strong anti-incumbency amidst terrorist threats to its top leadership. It might hold ground in its mainstay of rural Sindh. But in Punjab, the party is confined to the southern parts adjoining Sindh where former premier Yusuf Raza Gilani's son was on Thursday kidnapped by terrorists. The battle is between Sharif and Imran in the northern and central regions of the province.
Its leaders either remaining indoors or off-shore, the PPP's was a campaign in absentia. The airwaves and the visuals were dominated by the PML(N) and PTI. The Islamabad rally Imran addressed from his hospital bed in Lahore was a testimony to his growing appeal.
The crowds in the federal capital were larger than those drawn by flash-in-the-pan Islamic preacher Maulana Tahiul Qadri in his much-hyped siege of Islamabad some months ago. Injured in a fall from a forklift at an earlier rally, the PTI mascot made a strong emotional pitch for realising the Pakistan envisioned by Jinnah, exhorting his supporters to ballot out the status quoists. "He has captured the imagination of the youth. Acting as his agents, they're seeking their parents' support for him the way they'd squabble for fashionable sneakers," said Sattar Khan, a journalist who divides his time between Lahore and Islamabad.
In the initial stages of the campaign, the PTI was expected to divide the anti-incumbency vote to the PPP's benefit. But the scenario has since changed. The young, first-timers who have rallied around his slogan for change could bring in their wake a larger chunk of the floating, undecided vote. Besides Punjab, Imran's expected to make a mark in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) where the Taliban threat has painted the late Sarhadi Gandhi's Awami National Party in a corner.
A key contest in Peshawar is between Imran and the ANP's Ghulam Ahmad Bilhour whom even Benazir couldn't defeat in the only election she lost in her lifetime.
"That shows my uncle's confidence," said the PTI chief's niece, Mariyam Khan Niazi. "I'm not a political person. But I can feel tangibly the support he has among people of my age group."
The other three seats where Imran's a candidate are in Lahore, Rawalpindi and his hometown of Mianwali in Punjab. Let's see whether the PTI can, as promised by the champion cricketer, thrash the PML(N)'s lion with its willow.