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Previewing Pakistan's Election


It is a question asked so often around the world - is an election truly fair? That question will be asked yet again when people in Pakistan vote next week. NPR's Diaa Hadid explains why.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: There's a dusty field in the town of Narowal, near the border with India, where a political party's holding an election rally. The party's green and red flags snap in the wind. Men stand on chairs, straining to see the person they want for prime minister, Imran Khan.


IMRAN KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He was once a charismatic sports star. Now he wants to lead Pakistan. He urges his followers, throw out the old corrupt politicians, criminals.


KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: It resonates with Khaled Majid, a retired government official.

KHALED MAJID: Imran Khan - the only personality in this country now. He can shape the country.


HADID: As the rally ends, police escort Khan's convoy. But critics allege that Khan is getting more than just police protection. Many accuse him of being helped along by Pakistan's most powerful institution.

RAZA RUMI: The department of agriculture, the aliens, angels.

HADID: That's Raza Rumi. He's the editor in chief of a Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Times. He's listing slang words for the army. And he says...

RUMI: To be honest, everybody knows that the PTI has been receiving a lot of support from the military establishment.

HADID: PTI is the party that Khan leads. Critics make that claim because in the runup to elections, there's been a series of crackdowns targeting Khan's rivals. They say the chief target is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party. Sharif amassed a following by fixing roads and providing services but has being enmeshed in corruption scandals. Last year, the courts ousted him as prime minister and banned him from public office. Just weeks before the election, Sharif and his daughter were sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

RUMI: That whole process appeared to be selective because only one family was being targeted, and that was the Nawaz Sharif family.

HADID: They were in London when they were sentenced, and in a political gamble, Sharif and his daughter flew back to be arrested.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

HADID: Thousands of their followers demonstrated in support of Sharif. Authorities cut phone lines to prevent them from coordinating. Police threw up roadblocks, beat people up.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

HADID: The military denies interfering with the elections. As for Imran Khan, I asked him at a press conference if he thought the military was helping his campaign. He said, it's corruption that brought down his rival - simple.


KHAN: How would a Western government react? Would they not put someone like that behind bars?

HADID: Away from the political drama, residents said they'd vote on bread-and-butter issues. Roshan Abbas is a rickshaw driver. He supports Sharif's party.

ROSHAN ABBAS: (Through interpreter) They have improved streetlights, sanitation and roads.

HADID: But down the road, Mohammed Ishtiyaq, a wedding singer, says Sharif's people ignored his impoverished neighborhood.

MOHAMMED ISHTIYAQ: (Through interpreter) The roads are broken. Sewage system is in shambles.

HADID: The polls point to a close race, but some analysts worry that if Khan wins, many Pakistanis will see his victory as tainted.

RUMI: There will be complaints of the legitimacy of electoral process.

HADID: Rumi says this is something that Americans can relate to - a government whose legitimacy is questioned because of allegations of interference. But Pakistan is a fragile democracy. This is only the second-ever peaceful handover of power, so these elections, meant to be a victory for Pakistan's democratic process, might just undermine it. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Narowal.


Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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