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The Globe and Mail

New hopes clash with old loyalties as Pakistan votes

Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) celebrate outside the party's election headquarters at the end of election day in Lahore May 11, 2013.


Staying at home on voting day was not an option for Imran Mahmood.

So he bought a plane ticket and flew on Friday from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, where he works in engineering and construction, to his home city of Lahore, arriving in time to vote Saturday in what the 50-year-old describes as the most important vote in his life.

"I still have to find someone who is travelling from overseas who is voting for anyone other than Imran Khan," said Mr. Mahmood, adding that he has friends travelling back to Pakistan just to vote for Mr. Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, from the U.S., Britain and other places in the Middle East.

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Mr. Khan, the former cricket superstar has energized long-time voters like Mr. Mahmood and mobilized a generation of young first-time voters who are set to propel Mr. Khan from a nominal presence in the national assembly in to a powerful opposition force – and possibly a member of a governing coalition.

Mr. Khan's party is a rising tide in Pakistani politics. But this week, in the closing stages of the campaign, he tumbled from a makeshift lift at a rally and fell 15 meters, fracturing thee vertebra. His supporters have rallied around their leader and believe his emotional hospital bed plea to Pakistan to change their destiny will win the party more support.

"What he has done is actually shaken the whole system," said Mr. Mahmood, who up until this election has been a loyal supporter of the Pakistan People's Party, which just completed a full five years in office, the first for any civilian government in Pakistan's history. "He has encouraged people and probably convinced people to vote instead of live in oblivion."

PTI's main rival is the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif – the politician who served twice as prime minister in the 1990s before being overthrown in 1999 in a military coup. He is poised to become prime minister a third time.

If the Khan supporter is motivated to fly thousands of kilometers in order to be a party of history, the Sharif supporter is bound by loyalty to a family that has been a mainstay of politics for more than 30 years with a reputation of building highways, airports and empowering business – a formula that they think can once again lift Pakistan out of its economic doldrums.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the old Lahore neighborhood of Gawalmandi, where the Sharif brothers – Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, who just finished a term as chief minister of Punjab – grew up.

"This is their house," said Mohammed Ismail, gesturing with his arm to the narrow streets and alleys of Gawalmandi. Mr. Ismail is wearing a white tunic and baggy trousers, while his three sons stand around him wearing bandanas with photographs of the Sharif brothers and a photo of a smiling Nawaz Sharif on their chests.

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The story that emerges in the lanes of Gawalmandi is of intense loyalty and feeling toward the Sharifs among a people who have long memories. "They have shown us a lot of love and kindness," Mr. Ismail says.

When his father passed away last June, Mr. Ismail recalled that Nawaz Sharif called him to pay condolences. Mr. Sharif's brother Shahbaz Sharif paid a visit, bringing along his son Hamza Sharif, who is standing as a national assembly candidate in this safe seat for the Sharifs.

A brief scan around the neighbourhood shows only a smattering of Imran Khan posters. But make no mistake there are Khan supporters in this Sharif stronghold.

A polling worker shies away from being too explicit about which candidate he supports.

"All I'll say is we need to give someone else a chance," he said. "By that you will know which politician I'm voting for."

Lawyer Amir Malik is an Imran Khan supporter and does not hide it – not even from his uncle who is standing next to him disapprovingly in the front a polling station. Both have just voted.

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"It's very hard for [Imran Khan] to win here. But my mind is satisfied," says Mr. Malik. For over 15 years Mr. Malik voted for the Pakistan People's Party – this time he voted PTI. "I used to think I was wasting my vote. Now I know it's for something good."

The scene in front of Government Islamia College – transformed in to a polling station – is festive. Young men ride motorcycles, sometimes four to a single bike, shouting sher, Urdu for lion, and waving green flags with the party symbol that supporters will stamp when they walk in to the polling booth: it looks more like a tiger than a lion. But sher is also what they call the Sharifs: the lions of Punjab.

"You better vote for sher," says a voter walking out of the polling station to another voter waiting to get in. "Because if you don't, you'll die of heat – and then you'll understand," he says in Punjabi. The other voter smiles and says nothing.

Massive electricity rationing – or "load shedding" – has left a vast majority of Pakistanis without electricity for 12 or more hours during stifling heat. It has hurt businesses, factories and families. The Sharifs promise to solve the electricity crisis within two years.

Sitting in the back seat of a borrowed car, Imran Mahmood gives directions to the driver as they try to find the right polling station. When they find it, Mr. Mahmood waits in line and points to another line of men. "The [Islamabad-Lahore] motorway is for those who have good cars," he says. The Sharifs proudly talk about the highway as example of other big infrastructure projects to come, if they are elected.

"How does a motorway help the guy on the street?" asks Mr. Mahmood.

He argues that the Sharifs' reputation as project developers is overblown. Their latest promises of more rapid bus transit systems, Pakistan's first bullet train between Karachi and Peshawar and more highways does not address the basic needs of most Pakistanis for education and health, says Mr. Mahmood.

As the married father of two get closer to the table where he receives his ballot from the polling station staff, he says he will offer a prayer as he stamps the cricket bat symbol on the ballot: "God, I'm doing my best to choose the right person. But please God do what is best for my country."

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