Fauzia Talat was buying clothes for her children in a market in the centre of Rawalpindi. She was not sure of which of the two outfits she held up to buy, but she was certain about the problems facing Pakistan as she prepared to cast her vote today.
“There are many challenges,” said the 35-year-old teacher, who added that both she and her husband were currently out of work. “Electricity shortages, water shortages, the economy, domestic problems. Also terrorism – it is the common man who suffers most from terrorism.
As Pakistan goes to the polls today, voters and political analysts agree on the key issues. Not everyone may list them in the same order but, in a series of interviews with voters, the same topics were repeatedly brought up.
Voters describe, with despair, how they have to endure power cuts of up to 18 hours a day. Pakistan’s failure to pay independent power producers and invest to raise its own capacity has blighted its economy, shaving up to 5 per cent of GDP growth. Up to a third of electricity is lost through line losses and theft. Earlier this year, the government ordered an inquiry.
The lack of cooling, especially in the searing summer, makes power a priority and voters are lining up to punish those who failed to provide it. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that just left office will face the brunt of this. Former premier Nawaz Sharif has made restoring electricity the central plank of his election platform this time, with the catchphrase “Shining Pakistan”. But his party has been hit by fierce PPP adverts attacking contradictory promises. “In winter there is no gas, in summer there is no electricity,” said Anwar Butt, 52, a trader in Rawalpindi’s Moti Bazar. “Without these things our lives are almost paralysed.”
Such is popular anger that the next government could secure itself two straight terms if it can restore electricity or reduce outages.
Pakistan Taliban and terrorism
“Terrorism is the biggest problem facing our country, but not necessarily here in Rawalpindi,” said 61-year-old Jameel Anwar, who runs a vehicle rental business and who said he will be voting for Imran Khan.
Analysts say Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP has received little credit for pushing for unpopular military operations against militants inside Pakistan. At least 3,000 soldiers have died and hundreds more were maimed in successive operations. Yet militant violence remains a scourge. More than 120 have been killed in violence linked to the current election campaign, and the Taliban has threatened fresh attacks during today.
Both Imran Khan and Mr Sharif have said if they are elected they will seek to talk to the Taliban and end US drone strikes on suspected militants.
“The biggest challenge for the next government will be to frame a comprehensive policy to tackle militancy and control the appalling spiral of violence,” said Farzana Shaikh, of the independent policy unit Chatham House, in London.
She added: “This is as much a political issue as a law and order problem – in other words, no attempt to negotiate politically with militant groups will amount to much without a concerted effort to strengthen law enforcement and the justice system to protect the lives of ordinary citizens.”
Many voters will be driven to the polls by a fear of a bleak economic future. Mr Sharif’s appeal is centred on his business success, and as someone who might able to revive Pakistan’s stuttering economy. His rival Imran Khan has assembled an economic team that he says will carry out structural reforms that Pakistan badly needs: collecting tax, creating jobs, and investing in skills and education.
Both Mr Sharif and Mr Khan would also like to improve trade with India. During President Zardari’s administration, steps were taken to boost ties within the region but were met with stiff resistance. The next government may benefit from a broader consensus to smooth cross-border commerce.
The next government will also likely try and cull the bloated public sector. Mr Zardari’s government had over-staffed poor performing state monopolies with political loyalists. Mr Sharif’s is keen on privatisation and may cull jobs there before selling large chunks off to wealthy Gulf investors.
President Zardari has repeatedly been accused of corruption, to the extent that despite his repeated insistence that he is innocent he has earned the nickname of Mr Ten Per Cent. His PPP government sacrificed a prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to stop the Supreme Court asking the Swiss authorities to reopen inquiries against him. When Mr Gilani was ousted, his replacement was a man also facing corruption allegations. Imran Khan has seized on the anger over corruption and vowed to get rid of it within 90 days of taking power. His manifesto include a series of measures designed to improve accountability and he says his government would reinvestigate past scandals.
Nawaz Sharif’s manifesto also supports the establishment of an independent body to deal solely with corruption. Yet it is difficult to see how an entrenched culture of patronage can be magically swept away so easily.
“From the highest leaders to the lowest leaders, they are all corrupt,” claimed Ayaz Khattak, a shopkeeper in Bara Koh, a village between Islamabad and Murree. “If the government approves 100,000 rupees for the village, then the villagers will see none of it. There is not justice in Pakistan.”
US and Afghanistan
The next Pakistani government will have to manage the transition in Afghanistan as US troops withdraw next year, while at the same time, trying to distance itself from Washington. After relations between the two fractious allies have dropped to an all-time low, both Mr Sharif and Mr Khan have said they’d like to pull Pakistan out of “America’s war” if they come to power.
Neither Mr Sharif nor Mr Khan would like to sever relations. Both men realise that Pakistan will need to work with the US in the future but they are reluctant to pursue a close relationship against the backdrop of heightened anti-American sentiment. Pakistan would like to play an instrumental role in negotiating a postwar settlement in Afghanistan, securing its interests there while diminishing Indian influence.
The recently departed government of President Zardari was seen as too reliant on Washington’s support and its largesse. A big theme of the recent campaign has been the emphasis on Pakistan needing a foreign policy of its own and kicking its habitual craving for foreign aid. Both Mr Khan and Mr Sharif are also likely to press for an end to the controversial CIA drone strikes in the tribal areas.
Three-way race: The party leaders
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz
He has twice served as Prime Minister, though he failed to complete a full term. When he was last premier he fell to a coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabhaz, Chief Minister of Punjab, are supportive of industry and commerce and have the support of traders. If elected, Mr Sharif would be likely to improve relations with India, where he is considered reasonably favourably. While his administrations were marred by corruption allegations, he also oversaw several “mega” construction projects.
Movement for Justice
The cricket legend has seen his fortunes wax and wane. In recent weeks, his “tsunami” has gathered force again on the back of thousands of young supporters who have demanded a new politics for the nation. Imran Khan says he will try to end US drone strikes and negotiate with the Taliban. He benefits from his reputation both as the country’s most celebrated cricketer and someone considered corruption-free. Running as an outsider he has attracted the anti-incumbency vote. But it is unclear whether Mr Khan can translate huge support into votes for his candidates.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
Pakistan People’s Party
The son and heir of President Asif Ali Zardari and the murdered former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he is chairman of the governing PPP, but too young to stand for parliament until September. Asif Ali Zardari, whose term as President ends in September, is unpopular, The party is condemned for failing to generate jobs, provide adequate electricity or gas supplies or do enough to tackle militancy. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has kept a low profile, but his face now adorns campaign posters.