Tuesday 28 January 2020

Khan's party shakes up Pakistan election

Rob Crilly Islamabad

A last-minute surge of support for Imran Khan's upstart political party has put Pakistan on a knife edge as the country prepares for today's historic election.

The former cricketer's emotional final appeal from his hospital bed – where he is recovering from a fall that fractured his spine – to a crowd of 25,000 in Islamabad on Thursday night has shaken the camp of the front-runner Nawaz Sharif, who is campaigning for a third term as prime minister.

Privately, Mr Sharif's supporters admit that his prospect of outright victory has slipped away, and that a coalition looms.

Mr Khan went into the election with no seats in Pakistan's 342-strong parliament. For him to stand even a faint chance of leading the largest group of MPs after today's vote is a remarkable transformation.

Tariq Azim, a former minister who is one of Mr Sharif's key lieutenants in his PML-N party, insisted that Mr Khan was still too far behind. "We are confident of victory, but how big that will be is still to be seen," he said.

Electrified

However Mr Khan's campaign has electrified what might have been a predictable affair, fought between two established parties.

The race has been marred throughout by violence, including from Islamist groups which object in principle to Pakistan's democracy. The Pakistan Taliban threatened to attack polling stations today and security officers were being deployed last night to ensure voter safety.

There have been no polls for the past two months, making prediction of the result even more uncertain.

In the meantime, doctors have taken away Mr Khan's phone and banned visitors other than family to make sure he recovers. On Tuesday he fell 15ft from a forklift truck raising him to make a speech.

His Movement for Justice campaign has been bolstered by the arrival of dozens of British Pakistanis. They have talked enthusiastically about learning from the way Barack Obama used new media to leapfrog to the White House in 2008.

Journalist Cyril Almeida said Mr Khan would most likely struggle against the PML-N's sophisticated election machine but that nothing was certain. "It was always on a knife edge so any surge by any one party can throw everything off," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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