At a bustling polling station in the Lahore district where Imran Khan is seeking a parliament seat, the attitudes of Pakistani voters reflected the intensity of the contest between the former cricket star and former two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Khan had ignited a passionate following among the country’s youth as he campaigned for a “New Pakistan” and hoped to re-draw the electoral map. Nearly 40 million new young voters were added to the rolls this election.
First-time voter Bilal Ahmed, 22, sports a T-shirt that reads, “Love, Respect, Support for Imran Khan,” whose PTI party symbol on the ballot was a cricket bat.
“Imran Khan is saying that we will stand as a nation, whereas the other parties are still considering [taking] loans,” he says. “We don’t need loans. We want to stand by ourselves, we will support ourselves, we will rise as one nation. … We don’t need loans; we need jobs. We need industry in our country. We don’t want to be begging around the world. We don’t want that. We want to be one nation that stands by itself.”
Ahmed’s mother, Adeeba Kauser, 48, voted with him. Women overflowed at this polling station and were animated talking about the social ills of the country, an indication that political awareness is gaining strength among Pakistani women. Kauser said she also voted for Khan “because Pakistan needs change.”
“We want an overhauling of the system. The prevailing system is not acceptable to us,” she said.
“There are so many issues that the [outgoing] government did not pay attention to, for example, the economy and law and order.”
But there were plenty of Sharif supporters who said they wanted tested leadership, not new faces.
Hina Shazadi, 23, cast her ballot for Sharif, who is affectionately known to supporters as the “Lion” (even though his Pakistan Muslim League-N party’s symbol is a tiger). Shazadi says he and his brother, Shabaz Sharif, who served as Punjab chief minister, improved basic everyday services.
“I voted for Nawaz Sharif because he has practically done a lot of things for us,” she says. “His brother has also done a lot of things for us. Prior to his arrival in Punjab, efficient emergency rooms did not exist at all, but he provided a lot of facilities to the hospitals. Emergency rooms were more effective, and he extended a lot of help to those who could not afford. … In the same way [he] has extended a lot in the field of transportation. We no longer have to pay for private buses.”
Raheel Butt, a 38-year-old business administrator, says Sharif is a “must” for Pakistan, capable of attracting more business to the country’s failing economy.
“Many of the industries in Pakistan which are closed now want to sell these industries,” he says. “But they have told me if Sharif comes to power, we will not sell these industries.”
Mohammad Nadeem, a 38-year-old dentist, says he is prepared to leave the country if Khan does not make a substantial showing. He calls Sharif’s infrastructure projects, like the much touted motorway between Lahore and Islamabad, “monument-building.”
“We need the character building of the nation, not only the road building. So I think [Khan] is the only leader who has something in his bag to show us,” he says. “He’s not involved in business interests. … All others have business interests, so they are protecting their businesses actually, not ruling. … They don’t have any vision. I feel if Imran is there, hopefully we will accelerate. … People are very optimistic.”
He says he feels had by the traditional parties, including Sharif’s PML-N.
“I had been optimistic for the last 15 years and I was a fool actually. I wasted 15 precious years of my life waiting for things to get better. They are not better at all. They have gotten worse,” he says. “Why would I vote for them?”