Resurgent Khan closes on Sharif

By Omar Waraich, Andrew Buncombe

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters during an election rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Photo / AP
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters during an election rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Photo / AP

The van driver slurping tea at a stall on the edge of Lahore's old city had no doubts as to whom he would vote for on Saturday.

"Last time, in 2008, I voted for the Pakistan People's Party [PPP], but they have not even showed up to ask for our vote," said Zulfikar, pouring his tea. "This time I will be voting for Nawaz Sharif because I think Nawaz Sharif is a great man."

As Pakistan goes to the polls in an historic election, it is former Prime Minister Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) who are considered the front-runners.

Just six weeks ago they were the clear favourites. But even here, in his stronghold of Punjab, where his brother is the powerful provincial chief minister, it seems clear Sharif will not have an entirely clear run; Imran Khan, the spirited, anti-incumbency candidate, is leading a ferocious late challenge.

Still, their supporters insist that the Sharifs have delivered for the people.

Development, jobs and infrastructure are cited as the brothers' main achievements of recent years. A metro-bus system that helps transport 120,000 people every day costs just 20 rupees (24c) per trip. "A journey that used to take more than two hours, now just takes 25 minutes," said Asim Nazir, owner of a shop selling academic books in the city's so-called Urdu Bazaar.

Another supporter drew a distinction between a clinic established by Khan and the public hospitals that he had visited in the city. "I like Imran Khan, but a poor man cannot go to his hospital," said Hamza Sharif, who works as a laundry man. "Nawaz Sharif has hospitals that are free."

A popular measure introduced over the past two years was the handing out of laptops to promising students and solar panels for their homes.

The province of Punjab, which returns 148 members to the 272-strong national Parliament, is key. To return to office, Sharif must gain at least 100 seats and then look for coalition allies. "The reality is that the Muslim League is under pressure because of the inroads made by Imran Khan in Punjab," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, of Lahore's University of Management Sciences.

The most important issues are clear: ending the electricity and energy shortages that result in power cuts of 18 hours a day, nailing down inflation, and tackling corruption.

- Independent

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