Lions, tigers and tight security as Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) builds on Punjab base

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Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, not to be accused with the breakaway PML-Q, had to wait until 2013 to profit from disillusion with the PPP and take over Pakistan’s government. But they were on the ascendant in the 2008 poll, especially in their power base of Punjab, the province that dominates the country in many ways. But they were worried about election fraud, as well any Pakistani politician may, since almost all of them have an intimate acquaintance with the phenomenon. A report I wrote up after a PML-N rally in 2008.

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Shahbaz Sharif (C in scarf) waits to address the Sheikhupura rally Photo: Tony Cross

Sheikhupura 16.02.2008

Sheikhupura is not far from the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad, which Nawaz Sharif reportedly feels is one of the three great achievements of his time as Prime Minister.

The other two are the “green tractors” scheme – cheap loans for farmers to buy tractors – and the yellow cab scheme – more cheap loans, this time for prospective taxi-drivers.

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Sheikhupura welcomes Shahbaz Photo: Tony Cross

The nation’s cabbies still remember this last measure and the chairman of the Pakistan Yellow Cab Federation, Najam-us-Saqib, along with several other taxi-drivers, accompanies the caravan that drives from Lahore to Sheikhapura for an election rally which will star, Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz.

Shahbaz is president of the Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League N, and a former Chief Minister of Punjab province, which is the PML-N’s heartland and has 54% of the seats in the National Assembly. He wants his old job back.

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“No fear” – Police guard the platform Photo: Tony Cross

Security at the rally is as tight as at the PPP meeting in Faisalabad two days ago. The PML-N leaders are protected by the party’s own stewards, the Punjab police (wearing jackets bearing the slogan “No Fear” on the back) and the national police, all armed. As at the PPP rally, the podium is surrounded by an empty space fenced off from the audience, although the crowd shows no sign of evil intent towards Shahbaz or his comrades.

jeunes pour le PMLN, miting fév 08 à Sheikhapura, Pendjab
Tiger, lion … any big cat will do to show your support for PML-N, sometimes they even bring the real thing on the back of a truck Photo: Tony Cross

Quite the contrary. Young men wear lion T-shirts to recall the party’s symbol, which is actually a tiger but any big cat seems to do so long as it’s sufficiently rugged. Older men brandish placards welcoming Shahbaz to their town and a small group of women, most of whom wear cover, file in to take specially designated seats. A portly gentleman in a flowing robe, orange turban and wooden necklace shouts slogans and goes into ecstasies when leaflets are dropped from above.

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“Do you have such zeal?” supporters show their enthusiasm for the PML-N Photo: Tony Cross

An enthusiastic local journalist asks how this compares to election rallies in Europe. “Do you have such zeal?”

The PML-N takes the firmest line on one of the key questions in the election campaign – Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry and 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office after the president declared a state of emergency.

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Women enter the reserved section of the PML-N rally Photo: Tony Cross

Nawaz Sharif has promised that they will be reinstated, although the party programme is a little vaguer, promising only “a coherent strategy” to get them their jobs back. The PPP’s programme makes no commitment at all on the question.

Last night, on the way back to Lahore from Gujrat, student Wasim Bhatt was among villagers letting off fireworks to welcome the PML-N candidate for their areas. He cited his belief that the party is “struggling for our judiciary” as the main reason why he supported it.

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A relatively restrained part of the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

At the rally, party member and housewife, Rafiyal, has the cost of living on her mind.

“Skyrocketing prices are disturbing now. At the time that Nawaz Sharif was prime minister I bought attar flower at only six rupees per kilo. Now it’s 40 rupees per kilo.”

When he speaks, Shahbaz Sharif seems to have difficulty complying with security needs. Hands flailing and jabbing in various directions, he seems desperate to escape from behind the bullet-proof glass that protects the rostrum. He must be one of those Pakistani politicians who, I’m told, are unhappy about the distance from their supporters imposed by the fear of bombs and assassination.

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Drummers give their hands a rest Photo: Tony Cross

The party seems seriously worried that fraud will rob them of seats. Shahbaz promises polling officials that the party will make their lives a misery if they give in to pressure to cheat.

Later PML-N press attaché, Khawaja Aamer Raza, says they have already uncovered several cases of trickery by the PML-Q, which split from the PML-N and supports Musharraf.

“PML-Q candidates have been supported by government funds and government machinery,” he claims. “And the establishment and the police and the other agencies, they are supporting openly and they are asking for the votes for the PML-Q.”

But he hopes that the “ratio of hatred” against Musharraf and his allies will save the day, by making it impossible to rig the vote sufficiently to give them victory.

For an audio report of the PML-N’s election campaign click here. and for my reports for RFI on the 2008 election click here.

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