It didn’t take long after Imran Khan’s fall– 4.5 metres from a makeshift platform on a forklift at a campaign rally – for his supporters to begin comparing him to a warrior unseated from his horse in battle. If there was a note of triumph in their voice as they said it, it’s not entirely surprising.
On Tuesday afternoon, Khan was the only halfway serious challenger to Nawaz Sharif’s bid to become prime minister for the third time when the nation goes to the polls on 11 May – but then came the fall, and a moment of unity for a nation that had been at one another’s throats in the runup to elections.
No one, regardless of party preferences, could want to lose a man who in his cricketing days was arguably more beloved than any other individual in Pakistan’s history. A short while after his fall Khan appeared on news channels from his hospital bed to say: “I have done whatever I could do for my country and I did it because Allah blessed me – but on the 11 May decide your destiny. It is time for you to take the responsibility to make a new Pakistan.”
If a few minutes earlier you could hear the sound of all of Pakistan holding its breath for news of his health, then you could also hear undecided voters deciding. Suddenly, the halfway serious challenger began to look as if he might just be a frontrunner.
Sharif’s situation wasn’t helped by a white tiger – the tiger is the election symbol of his party, the PML(N), and a caged white tiger was prominent at many of his rallies. The day after Khan’s fall, the news broke that Sharif’s white tiger had been taken ill at a rally and died. Around 18 hours later, the vet treating the tiger insisted it was alive and well. We are now at that point of election madness where people are demanding the tiger be produced and its stripes compared with pictures of the tiger at the rally.
All the rightful concern about Khan (and even the tiger) has highlighted the places where concern has been absent, or muted. That this election has become a two-horse race is in part due to the intervention of the Pakistani Taliban, who have been attacking the three parties they see as their enemies – the ruling Pakistan People’s party (PPP), the Awami National party (ANP), which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is the most powerful party in the commercial capital, Karachi.
The attacks have been so unrelenting that these parties have been almost incapable of campaigning – and are most often in the news because of the violence they face, most recently on Thursday, when the son of the former prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani of the PPP, was kidnapped at gunpoint and his guard killed. Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the worst-hit party, the ANP, described its election campaign as “picking up the dead, carrying their funerals and taking the wounded to hospitals”. The grim slogan Kafan ya watan (Our coffins or our country) is plastered across the ANP’s election posters. Yet it doesn’t seem to merit the same degree of sympathy, or credit for its courage, as the warrior felled from his forklift.
What will happen on 11 May? “It depends on voter turnout” is increasingly the expert opinion, with Khan seen as standing to gain if many of the millions of newly registered young voters go to the ballot box, and Sharif triumphing among older voters.
Though there’s still time for some final forklift or feline intervention. Regardless of which party gets the most seats, it’s almost certain to fall far short of the majority needed to form a government – which might just bring the now-languishing PPP back into play. If you thought UK coalition manoeuvring in 2010 was labyrinthine, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
First published in http://www.guardian.co.uk