LAHORE, May 9: Hours before a hard-fought election campaign comes to an uncertain end, the man who could become Pakistan’s first thrice-elected prime minister is defiantly upbeat about the PML-N’s prospects on May 11 and downplaying the PTI’s late surge.
“In elections, it happens sometimes,” Sharif says of the large crowds Imran Khan has drawn in the PML-N strongholds of north and central Punjab. “When Mohtarma (Benazir Bhutto) was out in the field, she used to draw large crowds always. In 1997 too, when we won two-thirds, Mohtarma had big rallies.”
Warming to his theme, Sharif continues in an interview with Dawn, “How can you say the voter is unhappy with us. I’ve done many rallies and it’s been super-charged, highly charged. People are very receptive.”
“The campaign has gone very well by the grace of God. It’s better than in 2008, the response has been better in terms of voters,” Sharif argues, claiming the relative strength of the PML-N has grown from its surprise second-place finish in the Feb 2008 elections.
Fielding candidates in all provinces and having struck alliances with nationalists in Sindh and Balochistan, the PML-N has consciously tried to give its 2013 campaign a national hue and shed its Punjab-centric reputation. Sharif himself frequently slips in references to “national” problems, speaks of challenges “the country” faces and repeatedly specifically mentions Karachi, Sindh and Balochistan in his comments.
In terms of campaigning too, Sharif has tried to match the frantic pace of Imran Khan and zipped from one rally to the next on the back of a formidable and slick PML-N campaign machinery.
When it comes to numbers and predictions, the PML-N president remains cagey, refusing to be drawn into speculation about his party’s prospects on Saturday.
“Whichever party wins, it needs to have a very clear majority for it to have the necessary policies to deal with the serious challenges the country faces, for the state to have a strong writ,” Sharif says.
“A fractured mandate, a split mandate would be worse than the last five years.”
Could the PML-N be the party to win a clear mandate from the electorate, installing Sharif as the next prime minister?
“I hope so, a clear majority,” Sharif says of the PML-N’s prospects, adding, “It’s not about me or an individual becoming prime minister. What’s important is that we get out of this mess the country is in.”
With the likelihood of any party winning an overall majority seemingly low, which parties could the PML-N form a coalition with, and are there any parties Sharif rules out as a potential ally?
“I don’t know which party we will be forming a coalition with,” Sharif says in an implicit nod to the likelihood of a coalition government in the next parliament. “I can’t say how will the prime minister be elected or who he will be. Once the mandate is clear, then will be the time to think about it.”
With coalition maths more unpredictable than ever, Sharif, like many in his party leadership, shows hints of irritation that it’s his party that has been relentlessly attacked from all sides — the PPP, PML-Q and PTI acting in concert as far as the PML-N is concerned.
“So many wrong perceptions about us have been created. The PPP has been at it. Rehman Malik sahib’s false allegations have now surfaced,” Sharif says.
On the potential for a clash between the army-led security establishment and Sharif as a third-term prime minister, Sharif begins with a stock answer: “If every institution remains within its constitutional limits, there can be no problem. I don’t have a problem with anybody or with any institution.”
But given the reality of the army’s decisive role in setting national-security policy and handling key relationships with foreign powers — India, Afghanistan and the US — Sharif does venture to answer how civilian input can be expanded:
“The defence committee (of the cabinet) must be strengthened. It must have a proper secretariat. Security-related issues must be debated in the DCC before going to the cabinet for approval.”
On improving relations with India, Sharif says, “It will remain our priority. We will pick up the threads where we left off in 1999 before Musharraf derailed it. The process of resolving all outstanding issues with India will be restarted from the Lahore Declaration.”
The PML-N is perceived as soft on the Taliban and inclined to embrace right-wing parties like the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) in Punjab — how will Sharif deal with extremism if returned to power?
“What Rana Sanaullah did (courting ASWJ support) was resented by the party. He did it in his personal capacity. We were angry about it,” Sharif says of the most notorious link between a senior PML-N leader and the ASWJ.
“It is not our policy. It won’t be. Name a single person that we have made a seat adjustment with,” Sharif says, his otherwise calm voice rising a decibel or two.
Privately, members of the PML-N leadership remain confident of their party’s chances on Saturday while simultaneously excoriating the PTI for outmanoeuvring the PML-N in the last two weeks of the campaign.
“We will be the largest party but it’s the margin that is difficult to predict,” an architect of the PML-N’s campaign said.
In a hint of the damage the PTI may have caused to the PML-N in recent days, a PML-N campaign manager lashed out at the media and the PTI’s advertising war chest.
“We just don’t have the money to compete,” the media manger lamented, a slightly dubious claim given the PML-N’s deep pockets. “The PTI will have spent more than Rs2bn on ads by the end of it.
But the channels just aren’t giving us a chance. We release money for five ads and they air only one.”
The Society for Alternative Media and Research, which is tracking political advertisements between 7pm and 11pm on eight major TV news channels, in its report for the week April 25-30 stated: “PTI stands (as) the top political advertiser with highest frequency and airtime in the mainstream private electronic media,” giving the PTI a 39 per cent share of advertisement air time to the PML-N’s 22 per cent. In terms of frequency of advertisements, according to Samar, the PTI had a 32 per cent share to the PML-N’s 26 per cent.
The PML-N also remains wary of the sympathy vote that Imran Khan’s fall on Tuesday may generate. A campaign manager said half in jest, “After Imran fell and then today the Gilani boy was kidnapped, someone turned to Shahbaz
(Sharif) in a meeting and gestured as if to say, ‘Well, what about us? Maybe we need something’.” Underlining the closeness of the contest and the importance of the last hours of the campaign, another campaign manager said, “We suggested to Mian sahib (Nawaz Sharif) that the day of not campaigning should end around 7pm (on Wednesday), which is roughly 24 hours since Imran had his accident. That would at least have given us a few more hours to campaign without violating Mian sahib’s pledge.
“But Mian sahib said, ‘It’s a matter of my integrity and reputation. We won’t campaign until Thursday’,” the manager said wistfully.