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Pakistan's Campaign Season Is In Full Swing


People in Pakistan will go to the polls next month to select a new parliament, and election fever is already building. The country faces chronic energy shortages, deepening economic problems and the specter of violence, as entrenched militants threaten to disrupt the vote. NPR's Julie McCarthy brings us this report from a very active campaign trail in Pakistan.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: With nearly 50,000 Pakistanis killed in militant attacks the last dozen years, security grips the public mind. But as the country heads to the polls, former ambassador to Washington Maleeha Lodhi predicts turmoil of another kind will seize the voters.

MALEEHA LODHI: It's going to be the economy, the economy and the economy.

MCCARTHY: An energy crisis has crippled Pakistan's economy. Generators roared to life to make up the shortfall for those who can afford them.


MCCARTHY: But power outages are shutting factories that are shedding jobs. With no fuel, housewives can't cook. Homes are not lit. Gasoline and compressed natural gas for car engines is so dear, commuters queue in lines that can snake for a mile. Prices are rising, along with public disgust.

Said Mushtaq Hussain, tell me: How long do you usually wait in line to get gas?

SAID MUSHTAQ HUSSAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Two or three hours. Hussain will do what politicians fear most.

HUSSAIN: (Through translator) Whom should I vote? Whom should I vote? It does not benefit us at all. I'll just sit at home and rest.


MCCARTHY: But taxi driver Mohammad Rafiq says he'll vote to throw the rascals out. Struggling to raise a family on $150 a month, Rafiq blames political corruption for Pakistan's declining state that the U.N. says has slipped in human welfare the past two years.

MOHAMMAD RAFIQ: Everyone is corrupt.

MCCARTHY: And your sense is that it's time for a change.

RAFIQ: Yes, completely changed. The set up should be changed. But this setup like this, remains for another five to 10 years, then the 70 percent population won't be able to live.

MCCARTHY: Corruption allegations, terrorism and rampant crime have all damaged the fortunes of the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the slain Benazir Bhutto. Yet it managed what no other elected government has: completing a full term. And resilient support among the rural poor could pull them through again. But the PPP's chief rival, pro-business opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, is now the frontrunner in public opinion surveys.

His Pakistan Muslim League is tipped to win the largest number of seats, even if an outright majority is beyond reach.


MCCARTHY: A two-time prime minister, Sharif told tens of thousands who recently packed a stadium: I'm not fond of power. I only want to see my people prosper. Power outages have turned our lives into hell, he commiserated. Sharif's stronghold is the richest province, the Punjab, home to 60 percent of Pakistanis. For many, his mania for building motorways in an infrastructure-starved country commends him to be prime minister, a position he held in the 1990s until he was ousted in a coup by ex-army chief Pervez Musharraf, who's back vying for a seat in parliament himself.

Corpulent and folksy, Sharif reminds voters that his government was in power when Pakistan first tested what Pakistanis proudly call the Islamic bomb.


MCCARTHY: We carried out a nuclear detonation in Pakistan, he says. God willing, this time, we will carry an economic blast. You know what I did for this country. We brought change everywhere, he declares. Casting himself as Pakistan's first and only economic modernizer is a smart strategy, says Maleeha Lodhi.

LODHI: If you argue, as I do, that the economy is going to be the determinant of the coming election, and Mr. Sharif is able to position himself as the only credible leader who knows how to manage the economy and perhaps is able to get Pakistan out of the crisis that it's in, then he stands the best chance.

MCCARTHY: Most analysts predict that Imran Khan's PTI, or Movement for Justice, will be lucky to get 25 of the 342 seats in parliament. But the cricket-star-turned-politician remains a wild card if the race shapes up to be a break with the past.


MCCARTHY: In Swat Valley this past week, like before the week before, he drew enthusiastic crowds who chant unswerving support. It's difficult to distinguish between his celebrity status as a sports icon and his political popularity. The party symbol is a cricket bat. But Swat resident, 28-year-old engineer Baber Khan, says no one else is able to improve education, regularize the tax system or minimize corruption.

BABER KHAN: Most of the politicians, they only care for power. They don't care for anything else. Imran is not like that. Imran believes in the good will for the people of Pakistan. The youth of Pakistan look at who will bring merit, not on, like, personal relationships or on money.


MCCARTHY: As Khan addresses a young crowd, a new report shows that Pakistan's youth are deeply disillusioned. The British council surveyed over 5,000 young people and found that more prefer Islamic law or military rule over democracy. Three-quarters worry about too much Western influence. Khan's rhetoric about Pakistan not being a hired gun for the U.S. would appeal, and he's confident the country's huge pool of young voters will side with him.

: The youth have got politicized. Forty million voters will vote for the first time in this election, out of 85 million. Now, this is the deciding factor, which is why I say I've got a good feeling, because the young have decided for a change.

MCCARTHY: Columnist Cyril Almeida says Imran Khan's personal popularity is not likely to translate into votes for the lesser-known candidates of his party. Almeida says politics in Pakistan is still about patronage and personally distributing spoils. Traditional, well-established parties like the Bhutto clan's PPP, as unpopular as it is, still has an advantage, he says, because it doles out favors for its long time constituency.

CYRIL ALMEIDA: Someone who's poor, less-educated, rural and heavily dependent on his representative to see him through life by getting him and his family jobs or state subsidies, that system, that predominant system in Pakistan makes it very difficult for new entrants to break through.

MCCARTHY: However, with deep dissatisfaction stirring, author Ayesha Siddiqa sniffs change in the air.

AYESHA SIDDIQA: But the smell in the air, it's of a careful change. It's not of a dramatic change.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.