Build-Up To Pakistani Election Marked By Violence, Drama

Robert Siegel speaks with Pakistani academic Adil Najam from Lahore about the mood in Pakistan on the eve of what many consider historic elections on Saturday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. This Saturday, Pakistanis head to the polls. The vote will mark the first transition between two democratically elected governments in the country's history. In the past, Pakistan's leaders have been overthrown, imprisoned or assassinated. The build-up to this election has been marked by a tremendous amount of violence and drama.

Just today, one candidate, the son of a former prime minister, was kidnapped.

HOST: The major candidates are a parade of famous names - former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; the ruling party led by the Bhutto family; and the cricket star turned politician, Imran Khan, who's in the hospital after accidentally falling off a stage. Adil Najam is vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He told us today that the race has been surprising because of the absence of debate over American drones or the U.S. military presence in the region.

ADIL NAJAM: That is partly because the violence and the war in many ways has now reached the major cities and it's become really and truly a local issue rather than an issue of international politics.

HOST: So what are the key issues in this race?

NAJAM: For many, I think, the issue is of change and a change from run-of-the-mill politicians to a newer, younger breed. So much so that even the standard traditional politicians have wrapped themselves up in the flag of change.

HOST: Well, in that context, let's talk about Imran Khan. And we should say first that in cricket-playing nations, Imran Khan is an immensely famous character. How has he seemed to have captured the imagination of the country, even if he's not seen as a likely winner in the election?

NAJAM: You know, he may or may not win, but in all respects, this has been an election defined by Imran Khan, irrespective of how he does in the election. And what I mean by that is the tactics and the strategy of the campaigns and how they are run are really defined not only by Imran Khan, but for Imran Khan by a new generation of voters who are much younger, who are much more technologically savvy, really because of this man.

HOST: Well, if Imran Khan is a very interesting but not a front-running candidate in this election, who is the frontrunner in the race?

NAJAM: Until about two days ago, I think most analysts would have said Nawaz Sharif. But I think what happened two days ago, which is the injury that Imran Khan had as he fell from a stage, that has created a huge, immense wave of not just sympathy but respect for Imran Khan, and that has galvanized further his campaign.

One thing is clear though. No matter who wins this election, the next government is likely to be a coalition government. That means giving and taking, and that means another round of messy politics to figure out who's going to be governing this country.

HOST: Now, for all the seriousness of the Pakistani parliamentary election campaign, there have been some bizarre moments. I want you to tell us about the episode of the white tiger.

NAJAM: There have been lots of bizarre moments, none probably more bizarre than the tiger. The electoral symbol of the Nawaz Sharif party is a tiger and they have been taking to their rallies live tigers. And that is a great crowd puller. One of these, a white tiger who wasn't supposed to be in Pakistan's climate, unfortunately died during one of those rallies.

And that has become kind of big news, not only because it is bizarre, but because some people see it as a bad omen for the Nawaz Sharif party.

HOST: Mr. Najam, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

NAJAM: Thank you.

HOST: That's Adil Najam, who is the vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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