Lahore, Pakistan: When I stepped out on a cool Thursday morning to cover Pakistan’s 12th general election, there was an air of inevitability about the whole exercise.
Most respectable analysts had already expressed predictions that the ground was set for the return of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power.
Even if it was plain as daylight that the path had been paved by Pakistan’s military establishment that had once helped Sharif’s political rival Imran Khan rise to power at Sharif’s expense. Even if that same establishment had not once, but twice, been Sharif’s tormentor — first when he was removed as PM in a 1999 coup by Pervez Musharraf, and then when he was forced out of office in 2017 and subsequently sentenced in corruption cases.
The tables appeared to have turned, with relations between Khan and the military souring, and the cases against Sharif being dropped.
More than 24 hours after I started visiting polling stations and talking to voters, one thing has become clear to me: The outcome of this election is anything but clear. Whatever the eventual results, this election has been closer than analysts had predicted on poll eve.
The early results bear that out. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has been denied the use of its election symbol, the cricket bat. The charismatic Khan, former cricket captain and philanthropist, was sentenced on multiple counts days before the election. He has been in jail since last August.
Still, as of 11:30am local time (06:30 GMT) on Thursday, the PTI was running neck and neck with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), even though candidates from Khan’s party were forced to contest as independents. Candidates affiliated with Khan’s PTI had won nine seats, while the PMLN had won 10, with the third major contender, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had won six.
After what I saw and heard on Wednesday, I’m not entirely surprised.
It all started with my phone. Despite all advance warnings by the government and a hunch I had, it was still a bit of a shock when I found out that mobile internet connectivity was switched off. Security concerns were the official reason, but clearly, those in power were concerned that the script they had planned needed tech interventions.
My first stop was at Lahore’s upscale locality of Model Town, also the area where Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, himself a former prime minister, was expected to vote.
With 15 minutes to go before the polling started at 8am (03:00 GMT), two small queues were forming, one each for female and male voters.
Saadia, a 29-year-old doctor was the first in line on the female side. Wearing a face mask, she told me that despite suffering from a bout of flu, it was very important for her to come out and vote.
“It is our national duty and a responsibility,” she said in a determined manner. “If we don’t do our bit, we won’t have a right to complain.”
The group of women behind also seemed enthusiastic and eager to vote, but as one of them had just started to express her support for Khan and the PTI, a male member of her family intervened.
“We don’t want to talk to any media. We don’t trust who you are,” he told me brusquely, and instructed the women of his family to avoid talking as well.
This was the first inkling about the kind of day I was about to witness.
As I traversed diverse constituencies and polling stations, nearly two dozen, a stark reality emerged: A muted roar replaced the usual election day fervour.
The PTI faithful, though seemingly fewer, were vocal. Young families, men and women, even a frail 72-year-old in a wheelchair, rallied behind Khan.
“If the PMLN will come, we know how they can ruin the economy and everything else. But Khan is clear-eyed. He has done wonders for us in the world, and increased our respect by his speeches,” a bespectacled 19-year-old Ahmed Malik told me.
Another group of young men was playing cricket behind the iconic Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, near a polling station. When I asked one of them, Zafar, if he had voted he nodded in negative.
“We had a match in the morning, but once we finish, we will all go together,” he said, pointing towards the rest of his teammates. “We have to vote for skipper [in reference to Khan, who was captain of the Pakistan cricket team],” he added.
Their conviction painted a stark contrast to the PMLN’s quiet confidence, bordering on complacency.
Two days before the polling, on the last day of campaigning, I did not meet a single PMLN party person canvassing for votes in Lahore’s older neighbourhoods. One of the party officials who did speak to me confided that the party had “completed” its campaign and was confident that people would come out to vote for it.
This almost sounded like hubris.
However, on February 8, the numbers shared by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) officials at some polling stations, particularly in the middle-class and working-class neighbourhoods, showed a voter turnout which ranged between 20 and 30 percent.
Officials belonging to the special branch for investigations deployed at the polling stations told Al Jazeera it appeared that the removal of the cricket bat symbol for the ballot papers and the crackdown on Khan might have convinced PTI supporters to not come out.
When I asked about how that might reflect in the results, one of them said: “We will see when it comes that. Our responsibility was to ensure a smooth, free and fair election.” All said without a hint of irony.
Across Lahore’s different localities, I noticed that PMLN supporters, while coming out to vote, appeared to lack the organised voting push that parties keen to come to power usually rely on.
Rana Abdul Qudoos, a 41-year-old businessman, said that for him and his family, the inspiration for Nawaz Sharif and his party went much beyond the party promises.
“He has done tremendous work for the business community, no doubt. But for us, it is also the fact that he is our neighbour, and God has asked us to do well by our neighbour,” he told Al Jazeera.
On the other hand, I also found in the queues both determined PTI supporters who cast their vote as a sign of protest against the treatment meted out to their leaders, and politically agnostic voters who had decided to back Khan’s party in solidarity.
“I voted PTI in the centre as a protest against the constant interference by the establishment, not because I like or align with PTI,” said a 33-year-old male voter in Lahore’s upscale locality, requesting anonymity. “I don’t think they will form the next government but I hope they realise the importance of staying inside the parliament to be an effective opposition.”
Most other areas in Lahore I visited had a low turnout. But as the clock ticked closer to 5pm, the designated closing time for voting, I stopped by at another polling station in Lahore’s upper-class locality, where some commotion was ongoing.
It was, as I found out, a rush of mostly women who were arriving to cast their votes before time ran out.
The constituency, NA-122, was won by Imran Khan himself in the 2018 election and is considered one where the leader had a large following and support.
Among those in the queue was Ramsha Sikander, a 22-year-old student who was there to cast her first-ever vote.
Sikander said that she got late since was tending to her grandmother who was unwell, but she always wanted to come and cast her ballot.
“I see Khan and the PTI as the only hope for bringing some change in our country. Their promises, their drive, and of course, the charisma of Imran Khan. My entire family is a PTI voter,” she told me.
However, Sikander was rather cynical about the future of the country in case the results showed a winner other than Khan.
“I do not have any expectations of other leaders we are left with. I have no hope in the country if they end up winning,” she said.
But for Azka Shahzad, a 27-year-old dentist, it was this “emotional, rabid” support for the PTI which was one of the key reasons she deviated away from the party.
“I was such a big PTI fan in 2018. I even canvassed for them in elections. But now looking back, I consider that vote a mistake,” she told me.
So much so, that she almost considered skipping the exercise this year altogether. Shahzad, in fact, arrived at the polling station merely 20 minutes before the time ended.
“I spent my morning contemplating if I really should come, and even if I do, who should I vote for even,” she said.
Agreeing that PTI had been the target of state-led suppression, the dentist said while she unconditionally condemns what has gone on with the party, she is irked by what she called the “righteousness” of its supporters.
“Look, there were other parties in the past who went through as much, if not more, and this is their turn now,” Shahzad said, as she walked out of the polling station. “I just hope they learn some humility and introspection to do better in future.”