RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Can a cricket bat tame a lion?
That question lies at the core of a parliamentary contest unfolding here in National Assembly District 56, one urban political tableau in a landscape where the future leadership of Pakistan hangs in the balance. The instantly recognizable political party symbols — the king of beasts and the curved wooden bat — adorn lampposts, trees and storefronts in Rawalpindi and beyond, harbingers of next month’s historic national elections.
The man behind the bat is Imran Khan, a cricket hero turned populist politician and Western media darling. The lion — or sometimes a tiger, depending on who made the sign — represents Nawaz Sharif, a two-time prime minister who many pundits predict will regain the job after 14 years, thanks to his formidable political machine.
The election, which will bring the first handoff of power between two elected governments in Pakistan’s 65-year history, seems to be narrowing to Sharif vs. Khan, analysts say. The Pakistan People’s Party is trailing after a five-year rule that many Pakistanis say crippled the economy, stoked poverty, failed to solve energy shortages and left the country less secure.
The voting is scheduled to be held May 11 amid rising Islamist attacks on politicians. Washington is closely following the race because Pakistan, its fickle ally, is vital to brokering peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan; it also has close ties to Iran and China, not to mention a nuclear arsenal.
No matter who wins, none of the parties are expected to dramatically alter their country’s relationship with the United States, Pakistan’s most devoted military and financial patron since President Harry S. Truman’s first term.
Beset by near-constant political instability, Pakistan has experienced three military coups since its founding — including the one in 1999 that ousted Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N led the parliamentary opposition during the just-concluded term of the People’s Party-led government. The army continues to wield great influence behind the scenes but evinces no interest in running the government and has pledged to protect pollgoers.
Khan, who heads his own party — Movement for Justice, which has never held more than one parliamentary seat, his own — is pushing a time-honored reformist line that a new broom sweeps clean. Among four seats Khan is running for — something parliamentary election rules allow — is NA-56, where he is vying against a Sharif loyalist named Hanif Abbasi, a pharmaceuticals businessman who held it for five years in the last parliament.
“Long live our lion! Long live our lion!” Abbasi, 48, roared from the stage at a rally here Friday evening. Hundreds of sweaty men then grabbed free juice boxes and began a march that blocked traffic on a new three-lane highway that Abbasi used his party clout to build — part of a traffic improvement scheme in Rawalpindi, where commercial corridors are frequently clogged.
Abbasi is running a ground game reminiscent of those seen in U.S. races in which incumbents promise to continue to reward constituents with publicly funded projects. While in office, Abbasi said, he delivered to his district cardiology and urology hospitals, high schools and roads. Now he is promising more health-care facilities, cricket stadiums and even a hockey field with artificial turf.
Although Khan has gained some popularity in NA-56, he cannot boast of any similar sweeteners. His message is macro: It’s time, he says, to toss out the “status quo” parties and elites who have enriched themselves through a corrupt system that shuts out the common man.
“Eighty to 90 percent of Pakistanis feel the country is moving in the wrong direction,” said Asad Umar, Khan’s national campaign manager, citing recent polls. “Having a nicer road or a sewage system does not compensate for not having a job, for a lack of security, for a lack of justice. It doesn’t get your child in school.”
Despite a relentless campaign for prime minister that has spanned two years, Khan is still considered a long shot whose party may garner only 30 to 40 seats. Many analysts insist he will drain votes from Sharif’s slate and thus boost the People’s Party’s chances of reelection.
Umar called that prediction “errantly nonsensical.” Many Khan supporters, he said, are newly registered young people or other political first-timers, or those who have given up voting out of disgust with the traditional parties.
Rawalpindi is in the nation’s most populous province, Punjab, whose voters are considered key to deciding the election. In 2008 elections, PML-N candidates in Rawalpindi won six of seven slots in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
The prime minister is nominally more powerful than the president. But because of President Asif Ali Zardari’s hold over the People’s Party — the nation’s largest — he has exercised greater influence on domestic policy. (Foreign policy is forged with the military’s close supervision.)
The Pakistan People’s Party is not a factor in the 56 district. Its banners are sparse. Led by Zardari and his largely untested son, 24-year-old Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the secular party seems to be floundering without a charismatic figure to take charge before election day.
The party scaled back a kickoff rally this month after threats from the Pakistani Taliban, which has vowed to kill secular politicians. Last week, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of a candidate from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, an ethnic party based in Karachi that was partnered with the People’s Party until recently. The al-Qaeda-allied militants also have killed and injured several leaders of another coalition partner, the U.S.-supporting Awami National Party, a predominant player in northwestern Pakistan.
The Taliban has seemingly exempted Khan and Sharif, both of whom support peace talks with the Pakistani insurgents attempting to topple the government and install Islamic rule.
In Rawalpindi, a traditional Sharif stronghold, Khan admirers were easily found on one commercial street that was draped with banners for Sharif’s party. On the sidewalk, two noisy generators supplied power; electricity outages total eight hours a day and will soon increase as temperatures spike well above 90.
“Everyone will tell you that we all want Imran Khan,’’ said Muhammad Yaqub, 35, who owns a clothing shop. He gestured toward small storefronts lining the street, which was alive with sunglasses vendors and ice cream hawkers.
But not everyone. Down the street, a bit earlier, arrived a small car with a large toy tiger strapped to its roof.
The four men inside were joyously blasting PML-N anthems from the rear speakers.
“I don’t work for the party,” said one of them, Hamad Saleem, a 34-year-old restaurateur who resides in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. He said he came back to support Sharif, who had spent years in exile in the Arab kingdom.
“I just love it,” Saleem said excitedly. “We do it for us.”
A wizened fruit vendor took in the scene and convulsed with laughter when asked whether he would be voting.
“I don’t like politicians,” said 70-year-old Amin Jan. “They are all donkeys with different carts.”