While local and international media have been focusing on the tug-of-war between former PM Sharif and Pakistan's military, extremist parties are gaining strength in Punjab province. Shamil Shams reports from Lahore.
The moment you step out of Lahore airport you are greeted by hundreds of gigantic banners with smiling portraits of Imran Khan, a former cricket player and candidate for prime minister in the Pakistani general election on Wednesday.
Khan's election symbol, a cricket bat, is also omnipresent in Lahore, capital of Punjab province in eastern Pakistan. You can clearly tell that Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party is going to give Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party a tough time in its political stronghold.
Unlike in the West, election posters and banners are hugely important in Pakistan. They tell you which party has more funds and a greater presence in cities. For instance, it is difficult to find election banners for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of late premier Benazir Bhutto. The PPP is all but finished in Pakistan's most populous and electorally significant Punjab province. The main electoral battle here is between the PTI and the PML-N.
The mood in Lahore is, however, not festive, not even in the PTI camp. There is a sense of worry in the city, which is known for its scrumptious food, Mughal-era buildings, and former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif's mass transit projects.
The election campaign has already become quite controversial and violent. A number of contestants have been killed in terrorist attacks and an "Islamic-State" (IS)-claimed suicide bombing in Mastung, Baluchistan, earlier this month, turned out to be one of the biggest militant assaults in Pakistan's history.
With Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam behind bars, and a number of PML-N candidates disqualified by the courts on corruption charges, the mood in Lahore is quite somber. Also, people fear the worst is yet to come; that the July 25 vote will not resolve Pakistan's impending crises.
"I am apprehensive that Wednesday's vote can improve anything. It will get worse," said I A Rahman, former director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"The worst kind of pre-poll rigging is happening. Also, people think that elections are only about voting. Actually, the run up to an election determines its fairness. We see that a certain party is being favored by the establishment," Rahman told DW.
But the "establishment," which is another way to describe the politically powerful military in Pakistan, has repeatedly denied interfering in elections or indirectly backing Khan's party. Military's supporters also say the fragile security situation in Pakistan and the increasing strength of terrorist groups like IS in the region, demands that Pakistan has a strong army that can deal with these threats. They also say the military often has to clean the "mess" created by politicians' "bad governance."
A divided province
Lahore, which has voted the Sharifs to power several times since the mid-1980s, is now a divided city. The middle-class, especially those who work in private sector and have jobs in local and multinational companies, support Khan and want to get rid of "corrupt politicians" – the traditional ruling elite they consider an impediment to their progress. To them, Sharif and Zardari are the embodiment of financial corruption and abuse of power.
The "salaried class" also has a soft spot for former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1999 to 2007. Pakistan's economy temporarily flourished during that period, mainly due to post 9/11 foreign funding. Many people, hence, say they "miss the Musharraf era," as the last 10 years in Pakistan has seen economic decline.
Punjab's economy, however, is a mix of rural agrarian and urban service-based sectors. While Khan has more support in big cities, Sharif definitely rules the rural hinterland and small towns. Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz, who as chief minister of the province introduced massive development schemes for the benefit of the people, is a popular politician in Punjab – but not so with PTI's young supporters.
"Shahbaz only built roads. There are no jobs, the inflation is uncontrollable and there is no sense of direction," Faisal, who is a lawyer by profession, told DW, adding that he would vote for the PTI on July 25.
Sohail, another young PTI supporter, said he voted for Sharif in the 2013 general election, but this time he wants "change."
"If Khan comes to power and does not deliver, I will stop supporting him," Sohail told DW.
One thing that is noticeable during conversations with PTI activists, is they have little interest in the tug-of-war between Sharif and the military, geopolitics, or Pakistan's ties with India and Afghanistan.
"The state of Pakistan is facing severe crises, yet none of the major political parties are addressing these issues and telling people how they want to resolve them," Rahman said.
The military-Sharif 'rift'
However, former PM Nawaz Sharif's supporters seem to have a relatively better awareness of the larger political situation.
"Imran Khan is backed by the military. He is not cut out to be a prime minister. He doesn't even have a personality or the calm demeanor required to be a PM," Arif, a chef based in Lahore's old city, told DW.
"Sharif was brave enough to return to Pakistan, knowing that he would be incarcerated," Arif continued.
Arif added he believes the generals and Sharif can have a "patch up" sometime soon.
"But Khan won't be prime minister, mark my words," he stressed.
Xari Jalil, a Lahore-based journalist, is of the view that the vote on July 25 will lead to a divided parliament, with no party gaining an absolute majority.
Rahman believes only a strong government can put Pakistan on the right track.
The specter of Islamism
While Pakistan's two major political parties are vying for power, hardline religious parties are gaining strength. A number of religious parties, including some banned outfits, are contesting elections despite international concerns about their participation. The groups are cashing in on political divisions and the power struggle between the PML-N and the military
"I am going to vote for Khadim Hussain Rizvi," Abdul Nasir, a rickshaw driver, told DW. Rizvi heads the Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), which gained prominence last year after hundreds of its activists paralyzed Islamabad over the PML-N government's alleged involvement in changing a "finality of prophet” oath.
"Pakistan is an Islamic country and it should have an Islamic government," Nasir continued. "Rizvi will deal with all these corrupt politicians, who are Western agents."
But the rickshaw driver's views are not devoid of political understanding and he has his own reasons for supporting TLYRA.
"What has this development in Punjab given to us?" Nasir said, referring to Shahbaz Sharif's urban development programs. "They have only benefitted a certain class of people, those who already have money."
Nasir said that his work as a rickshaw driver has suffered due to "callous" government contacts to private transport companies. "I can't earn enough to make both ends meet," he said.
While most local and international analyses of the 2018 Pakistani election are focused on Sharif's "defiance" of the military, ordinary people's day-to-day problems are largely missing from these previews.
The common people don't have much faith in this "democratic exercise," as the ruling elite has not delivered them much in the past seven decades. And this may be leading to a frightening trend of voters increasingly looking toward Islamist parties for relief.