Pakistan’s general election on July 25 is poised to be a transformative moment for the nuclear-armed country, as it continues to deal with the fallout of the arrest and conviction of former leader Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, reported CNN.
Tensions are running high amid deadly terrorist attacks, arrests media censorship and accusations of interference by the military.
As campaigning enters the final stretch, charismatic populist and former cricket star Imran Khan and the deposed leader’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, have emerged as the two frontrunners.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son of former leader Benazir Bhutto, is also attracting widespread support, seeking to reestablish his family’s party as a viable political force.
Polls suggest the race is too close to call and could result in coalition negotiations which leave Bhutto’s smaller party with the balance of power.
So just who are the men vying to become Pakistan’s next prime minister?
Politicians the world over would kill for the name recognition that Imran Khan has.
Arguably one of the best cricket all-rounders in the history of the game — skilled at both batting and bowling — he dominated the crease throughout the 1980s, culminating in helping a struggling Pakistan national side to the World Cup title in 1992.
In a nation obsessed with the sport, the 65-year-old has cleverly engineered his legendary status to transition into a career in politics.
He’s the leader of the center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and has adopted a hardline, religious persona to appeal to a wide base of voters, according to Mosharaf Zaidi, a newspaper columnist and political analyst.
While PTI has seen some success at the provincial level, analysts said Khan remains a policy lightweight. Journalist and author
Zahid Hussain said the former cricketer has “never had a serious political philosophy.”
Khan has been a figure — though not a force — in Pakistani politics since the late 1990s, but Zaidi said his populism has “never been quite so effective or successful as today,” owing in a surge in support from Pakistan’s “angry (and) disenchanted” middle classes.
“He’s one of the drivers of restrictions of the press, he publicly feuds and attacks newspapers and journalists. He doesn’t stand for freedom unless that press freedom entails praising Imran Khan,” Zaidi added.
The PTI has been able to capitalize on Sharif’s downfall, and Khan has campaigned hard on anti-corruption issues.
This issue has “become the most effective tool in his political arsenal,” Zaidi said. “It goes beyond a rhetorical instrument.”
However, while Khan is seen to be clean, some of his associates and political allies “are accused of the same scams and corruption that he accuses his rivals of,” Zaidi added.
Khan’s biggest rival in next week’s election is Shehbaz Sharif, long the crown prince of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and once considered the natural successor to the leadership.
Despite his brother Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and jailing, the family still garners considerable support.
In fact, that case may have advanced Shehbaz’s political standing.
Nawaz had previously shifted favour to his daughter, Maryam Sharif. However, she was also caught up in the corruption scandal and now sits alongside her father in prison, reopening the path for Shehbaz.
Shehbaz’s credentials and successes as an administrator could serve him well, according to Zaidi, the journalist.
“Punjab’s overall infrastructure and development is superior to other provinces, and this is partly due to his governance,” he said.
Nawaz and Maryam’s dramatic return to Pakistan from London, where they were caring for Nawaz’ terminally ill wife Kulsoom Nawaz, to face conviction “will shore up a degree of empathy among the electorate,” Zaidi predicted.
“It’s certainly demonstrated that (the Sharif family) is not going away without a fight,” he said.
While Shehbaz remained separate from the corruption scandal which ensnared his brother and niece, there’s still a taint by association, said Zaidi.
“He doesn’t seem to be in the exact same box as Nawaz but he’s certainly not immune from accusations of corruption,” he said.
“If he were to emerge as a national leader he would be hounded by those accusations. The people who were going to vote on the basis of corruption aren’t going to vote for a Sharif anyway.”
All this has led to an erosion of support, even in Punjab, a former PML-N heartland into which the “PTI has made stunning inroads,” Zaidi said.
The son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — the first woman to lead a Muslim nation, who was assassinated in 2007 — and former President Asif Ali Zardari — the only elected Pakistani president ever to have completed a full term in office — 29-year-old Bilawal is unlikely to cause an upset in the two-horse race between the PML-N and the PTI.
He comes from PPP stock that is reasonably pragmatic, multilateralist and internationalist, said Zaidi, and the Bhutto name still has a lot of currency, particularly in the family’s heartland in southern Sindh province.
Success in this month’s vote could see him revive the fortunes of the PPP, which suffered during his father’s tenure, though the elder Zardari remains a co-leader of the party.
While it’s unlikely the PPP could win an outright majority, a strong showing by the party could leave Bilawal in the position of kingmaker for future coalition negotiations.
In the event of a hung parliament, his father is likely to push for a partnership with either of the opposition parties, though Bilawal may be less keen to be a junior partner.