Rampant sectarian violence, “blowback” or “blow out” in Afghanistan as the international intervention winds down, a dismally insufficient education system, endemic corruption, high illiteracy and maternal mortality rates, chaos in the commercial capital, Karachi, as well as a deeply disruptive social change across the nation are some of the other myriad issues. It has not helped that a variety of militant groups continue to operate, some against the State, some with uneasy relationships with the security establishment, others simply independent of the State.
This then is the country that the winner of the election will inherit.
Sharif”s road to power began in National Assembly 120. The constituency lies in the heart of old Lahore and is a mix of tough run-down neighbourhoods with tenement housing crowds and narrow lanes and the broad open streets in the centre of the city, all recently repainted and relaid. Above the principal arteries runs the concrete flyovers of the Metrobus, a system of bus highways that operate like regular trains with tickets bought at counters and platforms and which Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother and the chief minister of Punjab Province, Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populous, had built over nine months in time for the poll.
I am in NA-120 with Maryam Sharif, Nawaz’s 39-year-old daughter who is campaigning in the constituency on behalf of her father. Ahead of our relatively modest convoy are some policemen and lots of men dancing. There is a real white tiger on top of a van. People wave and throw rose petals. They are mainly party workers but the enthusiasm for Sharif’s daughter appears unfeigned. “It is beautiful to feel the love they have for my father,” she says.
Nawaz Sharif first won in NA-120 in a party-less election organised in 1985 by the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, then eight years into his reign. The PPP boycotted those polls. Sharif’s family had suffered heavily under former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s populist and disastrous programme of nationalisation when many of its steel and sugar mills were purchased by the State at knockdown prices. It had become a favourite of the military dictator and had seen its fortune not just restored but significantly enhanced since he took power. Encouraged by the military establishment, the move into politics was therefore a given for one of the country’s biggest industrial families.
The alliance between the socially conservative commercial-minded Sharifs and the military endured. Benazir Bhutto and her PPP, with their more secular, pro-western, pro-poor image and their power base in Sindh, were seen as a threat by many in the army long after Zia had gone. In 1990, the military helped Sharif win power for the first time in the election held after Benazir Bhutto’s first administration was dismissed. Sharif held power until 1993 when he too was dismissed. He won power back from the PPP in 1996, though without the same support from the security establishment this time, and lost it, famously, when General Pervez Musharraf ousted him in a coup in October 1999 in the aftermath of a proxy war with India in Kargil in Jammu & Kashmir.
I lived in Islamabad through the late 1990s and can remember the relief when Sharif was ousted, indeed sent to a cell in Attock Fort with much of his entourage and family members. His last years were characterised by what appeared to be a desire to eliminate all potential sources of opposition, by fair means or foul, and a continued campaign to continue Zia’s project to Islamicise Pakistan. The coup came after Sharif rashly tried to remove two army chiefs in quick succession. This, coupled with a catastrophic management of the economy and fears of imposing a vision of a conservative Islam, appears to have sparked the military intervention.
Now, Sharif and his supporters want the late 1990s remembered rather differently. They talk of the famous motorway, which links Lahore to Islamabad (and now Peshawar) and of the successful, if hugely costly nuclear tests, of 1998. In Sargodha, Sharif talks of the road first of all. If he had stayed in power — he reminds the audience that he only had two short spells — Sargodha would have had its motorway too. He does not mention the nascent peace process started with then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Development, infrastructure, economy, respect, religion. This is very much Sharif’s message. An associate told me of how he had heard Shahbaz Sharif boast that the newly laid roads around the new Lahore airport terminal looked like Dubai. And indeed the Sharifs are turned much more towards the Gulf than any of their major rivals. They spent their seven-year exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and they still go there every year for umrah.
But the clash with the army in 1999 appears to have led to something of an epiphany. No one now pretends that Sharif is backed by the military. That charge is reserved for Imran Khan (who laughs at it). Indeed, many of Sharif’s statements, and his decision not to attempt to bring down the PPP government over the past five years appear to stem from a new sense of democratic purpose. This is apparent perfectly reconcilable to — and perhaps essential for — his vision of a Dubai-like Pakistan and is in no way, at least in his mind, incompatible with a conservative Islamic, nationalist identity.
Sharif is pro-India, always has been, say his daughter and people in senior party ranks. After all, he is a Punjabi trader and can see the benefits of, if not peace, then at least, commerce. The last election in 2008 came too soon for him as Sharif arrived in Pakistan only days before campaigning began. When I interviewed him then, he was hesitant, unclear and had little grasp of what concerned voters. This has changed. His speech in Sargodha summed up his current message, “The outgoing government has failed; I have experience and will succeed in making Pakistan a great, developed, Muslim nation.” Beyond building motorways, how this is going to happen is not spelled out. Kashmir, in contrast to the 1990s, has barely been mentioned in this current campaign by any protagonist.
There are other reasons for Sharif’s current status as frontrunner. In the past decade, Pakistan has changed in ways that benefit the PML(N) and pose problems for the PPP. At the swanky new headquarters in Model Town, a wealthy suburb of Lahore, PML(N) partymen work on extensive surveys of potential voters. The result is a focus on the lower middle class and upper working class in small towns.
In the past 15 or so years, Pakistan’s economy has grown and there are more of such people now. Urbanisation has drawn many from rural areas, boosting that petty bourgeoisie. A growing religious conservatism across the country, a process ongoing since the 1970s if not earlier, has also helped. This demographic may not see themselves reflected in the pale and slightly podgy middle-aged Sharif, but he and his language and aspirations — to call it a vision would be going too far — match theirs. They too want a Pakistan that looks like Dubai, just with nuclear weapons, less foreigners and a population of 200 million. Campaign workers at the Model Town headquarters follow Twitter and Facebook and the English language media, but are much more interested in the Urdu media and reaching their core constituency.
Why, one wonders, are they so worried about Imran Khan?
In Café Aylanto, a restaurant in Gulberg, where a mother with a toddler is trailed by an ayah carrying bags and an Australian T-bone steak costs 2,395 Pakistani Rupees ( 1,100 India Rupees), Ayesha, 26, Narmeen, 24, and Mian Hamadd, 27, are arguing. All three are from wealthy families, with college degrees either from the UK or from British institutions in Pakistan, with jobs in multinational companies. Ayesha and Narmeen are trying to convince Hamadd that he should join them in voting for Imran Khan’s PTI.