A woman casts a ballot in the election for the National Assembly seat vacated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. EPA-EFE/RAHAT DAR (Rahat Dar/EPA-EFE)

Voters in the longtime stronghold of Pakistan’s ruling party signaled they were looking for change Sunday, when the main opposition candidate did unexpectedly well although losing the race to fill the parliamentary seat of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. 

Sharif was ousted by the country’s Supreme Court in July after a legal battle over charges that he and his family had hidden their wealth in overseas real estate. His wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, hospitalized in London with lymphoma, won the race in absentia as the candidate from his Pakistan Muslim League-N party. 

But after a day marred by vote-rigging charges and physical clashes at polling stations, opposition candidate Yasmin Rashid, a medical doctor from the liberal Pakistan Movement for Justice, made a surprisingly strong showing, Returns showed the candidates running neck and neck all evening, but by 10 p.m., with all 220 polling stations counted, Nawaz had pulled ahead to defeat Rashid by about 13,000 votes. The final unofficial tally was 59,413 to 46,145.

Still, many analysts said, the relatively close margin was in itself an astounding and historic upset. National Assembly Precinct 120 is a bellwether district whose voters have been among the Muslim League’s most reliable supporters for a generation. Sharif has been elected prime minister three times. 

With national elections due next year, the surprisingly strong showing for the Movement for Justice could put its leader, Imran Khan — a former cricket champion and the Sharif’s leading nemesis — in a position to challenge them for political dominance in Punjab province, and thus nationwide.

“It seems Kulsoom Nawaz is going to be the Hillary Clinton of NA-120,” Ayaz Amir, a veteran commentator, told a TV news channel two hours before the final tally. “Everyone in the U.S. said it would be her victory, and they all proved wrong.”

A narrow victory for the Muslim League, he predicted, would be seen as a virtual defeat: “This is their stronghold.”

On Saturday, Khan, 64, issued an emotional call to arms and drew thousands of followers to a rally more than 100 miles from Lahore, where he dubbed the election an “epic battle” between “the powerful and the weak.” Khan was barred by electoral law from campaigning in the district.  

“All of Pakistan is watching you,” Khan told the voters in Lahore, saying the court ruling against Sharif had given Pakistanis hope for changing a system of elite corruption and wealth that has left tens of millions languishing in poverty. “Will you stand with your judiciary or with the biggest thieves of this country?”

Meanwhile, Sharif, his wife and many of his close aides were nearly silent as they waited out the election thousands of miles away in London. Pakistan’s current prime minister and foreign minister were also there, en route to a United Nations meeting in New York. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told journalists in London the polling-day complaints would be reviewed by the election commission. Then he added mildly, “However, we will win.” 

Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, 43, has been the chief campaigner in the race, which has served as a test of her political prospects. She has spoken at dozens of outdoor rallies, accompanied by booming music and showered by truckloads of rose petals, each time asking voters to vindicate her father’s name, remember his hard work for the nation and choose “the lion,” which is the family and party symbol.

She has also become the de facto family defender in the continuing legal battles faced by Sharif and his children,  who were accused by Khan and his allies in court of hiding financial assets overseas. Now, on top of the high court ouster of Sharif, an “accountability” court has called on him and his children to appear on charges of corruption next week. 

In an interview on GEO television news Saturday, Nawaz dismissed the new court action as a vendetta, saying, “We were not given the opportunity of a fair trial” and  “the whole world was astonished over the verdict.” She said the people of Pakistan “know everything, and they have supported us throughout.”
     Polls suggested consistently that the pro-Sharif vote would prevail despite the momentum for change aroused by Khan’s movement and the Sharifs’ legal woes. They noted that despite downtrodden conditions and poverty in many areas of Lahore, loyalty still runs strong for the family that has dominated the region for years, especially for Sharif. 

“I went to [the electoral district] and I saw dirty streets, filthy lanes and polluted water. However, amazingly, most voters still said they will vote for Nawaz Sharif, who was elected many times from this area,” Iftikhar Ahmad, a veteran political analyst, said in a TV interview Sunday afternoon. “The psyche is very strange when people with so many troubles still want to vote for the same people.”

But on Sunday, that psyche seemed to have changed, denying the Sharifs the massive victory they had hoped for. Rashid, 67, who went door to door throughout the district and inched through hot, crowded markets asking for votes, drew a warm and sometimes enthusiastic welcome despite her low-key, almost self-effacing campaign style.

Khan, on the other hand, has been relentlessly hammering at the Sharifs for years, saying they are the epitome of Pakistan’s corrupt political system and calling for a new democratic era in which justice prevails and ordinary people have access to power. That message, with its appeal to young and poor Pakistanis alike, may have just taken its first major electoral leap.