Millions of Pakistanis have voted in a historic election Saturday after a bloody campaign that saw over 100 secular party activists and candidates killed across the country in suicide bombings and targeted killings carried out by the Pakistan Taliban.
The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party, which led a coalition over the last five years, is expected to do poorly while the its rival the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif is expected to make significant gains.
“Thank God this campaign is over – largely peaceful in Punjab, but very bloody in other provinces of Pakistan which is very painful thing to observe and it is very concerning. We are all very concerned about it,” said Shahbaz Sharif, a senior party leader and younger brother to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is poised to become prime minister for a third time. Both brothers were ousted in a coup in 1999, imprisoned and then exiled. Shahbaz Sharif most recently served as chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province.
Mr. Sharif spoke to The Globe and Mail at his home in Lahore on election day – his voice hoarse and barely audible after a hectic election campaign finish as the Sharif brothers, mainstays of Pakistan’s political scene for over 30 years, tried to stave off a surge by former cricket-superstar-turned-politician Imran Khan. His aides said this was an election like no other and that there was a “fear of the unknown” – a reference to a new political player and game-changer in Pakistan politics who could still yield an election day surprise.
The Sharifs have dominated Punjab politics, and the national campaign has focused on how many of the 148 seats Punjab holds in the 272-seat national assembly could be peeled away by Mr. Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf Party (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice. With over a third of Pakistan’s 80 million registered voters under the age of 30, Mr. Khan is expected to benefit from the millions of new first-time voters in what is being called Pakistan’s first youth election.
“Calculus or arithmetic tells you that the unknown factor – that means additionality of new voters is certainly visible – but we have no doubts that the youth of this country doesn’t belong to one party. In fact, it belongs to PML-N in a very large fashion. So there’s no worry at all on that account as far as we’re concerned,” said Mr. Sharif.
This week witnessed more campaign trail shootings and bombings – and a bizarre incident in which Mr. Khan tumbled from a makeshift lift at a rally on Tuesday night in Lahore.
The cricket legend, who has galvanized support under the slogan Naya Pakistan , or New Pakistan, fell 15 feet and was dazed and bloodied as he was carried by supporters to an awaiting car. Mr. Khan is recovering in a hospital and was not able to attend rallies because of three broken vertebra.
Mr. Sharif went to the Lahore hospital on Tuesday night to see Mr. Khan personally.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t meet me. I met his relatives and friends over there outside the [intensive care unit]. I conveyed Mian Nawaz Sharif’s best wishes and my payers, our prayers for his well being and Godspeed and that [God’s] umbrella on his family and on his party remains in tact forever and that he’s able to come back to the arena sooner rather than later,” said Mr. Sharif.
Mr. Sharif, who is expected to return as Punjab’s chief minister, effectively the province’s premier, said he was troubled by the election season violence.
“The way innocent people were killed during election campaign, the way individuals were hit, the way certain parties were deterred and frightened. This is extremely, extremely disturbing issue and regardless of the results of the vote today whosoever is brought in to power by the people of Pakistan has to address this issue in all earnestness and at the first available opportunity,” said Mr. Sharif.
The Pakistan Muslim League has been spared by the attacks during the election season.
The Pakistan Taliban is carrying out an insurgency in the country’s tribal areas and terrorist attacks across the country. The previous government was unable to thwart those attacks.
Along with tackling the “menace” of terrorism, Mr. Sharif said it would be his brother’s priority, if elected as prime minister, to deal with massive electricity outages.
“Power outages is something that has crippled our economy and it has destroyed Pakistan’s foundation of country which was moving forward in the field of agriculture, industry and trade and exports and economic activity – and this has to be resolved on war footing,” he said.
Mr. Sharif recalled the campaign trial and said he was touched and moved by the crowds – often poor farmers taking a break from the wheat harvesting season and young people looking for jobs.
“I could see from their faces that were pinning hopes on Mian Nawaz Sharif and PML-N,” recalled Mr. Sharif. “I can assure you that if given an opportunity, [Nawaz Sharif], my children, our party, will not let them down, we will live up to their hopes and expectations,” he added.
Shahbaz Sharif’s younger son, Hamzah Sharif, is contesting a national assembly seat from Lahore.