Lahore: Watching her campaign, one would think Maryam Nawaz was running for election.
In fact, she is canvassing for her parents, defending the legacy of her father, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s recently ousted prime minister, and fighting for the election of her mother, who has been picked to succeed him in parliament.
For weeks, Maryam, 43, has toured her father’s constituency in Lahore to secure his vacated seat, which will be contested in a byelection on Sunday.
Kulsoom Nawaz, Maryam’s mother, who is in hospital in London with cancer, accompanied by her husband, is expected to win.
Still, the vote is a bellwether of public sentiment before next year’s general election, and is Maryam’s first real foray into the political limelight. Widely seen as Sharif’s heir apparent, Maryam has been groomed as a future and relatively liberal leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and a possible contender for prime minister. Sunday’s vote is a trial by fire.
Eyeing an opening, opposition parties have descended on the Lahore constituency, carpeting streets in posters and flooding boulevards with supporters.
For some voters, the allegations of corruption, exposed in the 2016 Panama Papers leak, were enough to dismiss Nawaz Sharif.
“People’s opinion about Nawaz Sharif is changing. The Panama Papers are part of that,” said one protester, Nadeem, who used to vote for PML-N but has thrown his lot behind Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, the former cricket superstar.
The leaks “exposed how Nawaz’s family got its wealth”, Nadeem said, over music blasting from a stage awaiting the arrival of Khan at a late-night rally.
At about 1am on Friday in central Lahore, fireworks heralded the arrival of Khan, beaming and waving to supporters from a truck alongside his party’s candidate for the local election, Yasmeen Rashid. Khan led the charge against Sharif in the supreme court, and Sunday’s vote is a chance for him to cap his victory by unseating the former premier’s family in its stronghold.
Mehmoud Butt, another former PML-N supporter at the rally, said he believed all politicians were corrupt, but it was Sharif’s lack of political results that had made him jump ship to PTI.
“Political battles don’t matter to us. The economy, and unemployment, these issues are more important to people. We want to try Imran Khan for a change,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Maryam spoke to her own crowd. Using the muscle of her father’s power base as a launching pad, she called on party cadres to translate anger over his disqualification into votes.
“This is not just an election, but a war against progress,” she boomed. “Your sentiments are part of the war and struggle of my father for the progress of Pakistan.”
She spoke in front of a banner depicting the whole family, including Sharif’s brother Shahbaz and nephew Hamza. Her speech was punctuated by loud thumps of a pop song declaring: “Nawaz is our heartbeat”. In the front row, men in suits pumped their fists alongside men wearing toy tigers, Sharif’s mascot, for hats.
“Our enemy,” Maryam said of Imran Khan, “is a liar, a coward and conspirator.” She did not mention his alleged accomplices, but she did not have to. PML-N supporters view the disqualification of Sharif as a result of the supreme court and Khan doing the bidding of the powerful military, which has unseated him twice before.
Many supporters seemed unyielding. “Whoever PML-N puts forward, we will vote for their candidate,” said Mohammad Yousuf, a customer at a hardware store in the city centre.
Aslam Javed Gill, a security guard at a church, brushed off the corruption charges. “Everybody is corrupt,” he said. “Nawaz was not disqualified because of corruption.”
Meanwhile, allegations dog Maryam, who was mentioned in the Panama Papers in relation to the purchase of high-end property in London through offshore wealth. Both deny wrongdoing.
Kulsoom is not mentioned in the leaks, but is inexperienced, having never been elected to public office.
“The Panama Papers definitely have totally shredded their reputation,” said the PTI candidate, Rashid.
Politically, Sunday’s election will have limited ramifications. The vote will fill a single seat, and only until the end of the parliamentary year in May 2018. However, anything less than the usual comfortable PML-N victory will be seen by the opposition as proof of the Nawaz family’s fading political fortune.
“The Nawaz family’s legacy has been damaged,” said Butt. “And it should be.”
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