Funding a fleet of vehicles has given Nawaz Sharif the advantage over the ruling PPP For some, the 17 miles of road and flyovers built for the exclusive use of a fleet of red buses that zoom above the gridlocked streets of Lahore is a shocking extravagance.
In a country where only 35 per cent of children are in secondary school and poverty is a reality for many, it is easy to think of other ways to spend GBP220m.
But for Nawaz Sharif, the frontrunner in the battle to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, the country’s first mass transit project is worth every penny -- if it staves off competition from the country’s wily president and a famous ex-cricket star.
Despite the chorus of doubters, the opening last month of the Metro Bus in the capital of Punjab, which is controlled by Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was a massive hit.
Passengers damaged buses as they fought for the chance to fly across the congested city in air-conditioned comfort for a heavily subsidised 15p a ride.
“People were just craving something like this,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a senior PML-N leader working on a general election campaign that kicked off with the dissolution of parliament on Saturday night (16MAR).
“It has become the symbol of a new Pakistan. People are experiencing a new way of life that is much closer to developed countries, and that gives them a good feeling.” Enthusiasm for grand projects comes after a calamitous five years for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Asif Ali Zardari -- a surprise president who was swept to power on a tide of sympathy in 2008 after the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto.
Apart from being the first government in Pakistan’s history to fulfil a full term, the PPP has little to brag about. Continuously buffeted by terrorist violence, corruption allegations and crippling energy shortages, the PPP has been unable to deliver real economic growth, let alone the motorways and infrastructure that Sharif touts.
But while the PPP’s vote is likely to be wiped out in much of urban Pakistan, Mr. Zardari still has some cards to play as his party’s prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf goes to the polls.
Mr. Zardari -- whose term as president expires in September -- is a ruthlessly pragmatic politician with a track record of doing whatever is necessary to keep his party in power.
The PPP is thought to have deep reserves of electoral strength in parts of rural Punjab and Sindh where its “feudal” landlord allies maintain a tight control on votes.
Through the president’s political heir apparent, Oxford graduate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 24, the PPP maintains a connection to the Bhutto name, harking back both to Benazir and Bilawal’s grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The party has also lavished more than $1bn in welfare handouts on 5.2 million people through its scheme branded the “Benazir income support programme”.
“People at the grassroots know what we have done for them, they don’t believe what the media is saying,” said Taj Haider, general secretary of the PPP in Sindh. “Living standards in the poorest areas have gone up and people are getting better prices for their crops.” Cynics say the Metro Bus is less about tackling urban congestion and more the dramatic political rise of Imran Khan, the country’s beloved former cricket captain, who emerged as a major threat to the PML-N in late 2011 by holding an enormous rally for his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), on Sharif’s home turf.
Some 100,000 people took part in the Lahore “jalsa”, creating speculation that what Khan calls a political tsunami would sweep Pakistani politics and break the corrupt, dynastic rule of the two established parties.
Perversely, Mr. Khan could actually be the best chance the deeply unpopular PPP has for clinging on to power, if his appeal to urban young people simply succeeds in cutting into the PML-N vote bank in the towns and cities of Punjab.
After the Khan rally, PML-N panicked. It feared its cruise to power on the back of the PPP’s many failures was in jeopardy and so went into overdrive. The party used its control of the government of Punjab, home to 60% of Pakistanis, to push through as many eye-catching schemes as it could -- nearly all of which have been criticised for wasting money.
Free laptops were given to students, a “youth festival” was held where thousands of young people set world records for the formation of giant flags and, most significant of all, the Metro Bus was built in 11 months.
At the party’s manifesto launch in Lahore last Friday, Mr. Sharif promised to turn Pakistan into an “Asian tiger”, with new infrastructure and a government with “zero tolerance for corruption”.
“Our political philosophy revolves around economic progress,” the two-time former prime minister said. “If a country is economically strong, it is able to solve all the problems, whether law and order or political extremism.” The period of hyperactivity appears to have paid off, with the PML-N now the favourite to win the largest number of seats after Pakistanis go to the polls in the first half of May, even if an outright majority is probably beyond it. The party enjoys a substantial lead in the latest opinion polls.
Most analysts believe Mr. Khan will be lucky to get 20 of the 342 seats in parliament. “He peaked too early and gave the PML-N time to rejuvenate its base,” said Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist. “People go to his rallies because he is a rock star in Pakistan. He doesn’t have the party machine to actually turn out the voters and bring them to the polling booth on election day.” Mr. Sharif’s desire for improved diplomatic and trade relations with India and a reduced role of the army in national life has won over some liberal-minded Pakistanis who were once suspicious of the religious leanings of a man who tried to introduce Sharia law in the late 90s before a military coup sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The PML-N is smarting from accusations that it has struck cynical electoral deals with sectarian terrorists based in the Punjab. The bombing of apartment blocks in Karachi on 3 March that killed 48 has been widely linked to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Punjab based Sunni extremist group.
The LeJ’s leaders in Punjab have been left largely untouched by Sharif’s provincial government. Even if a reported “seat adjustment” deal has not been struck, Sharif is “supremely aware that he is fishing for votes in the same waters” as the LeJ, said one diplomat.
© Guardian News & Media 2013