Posters loom large in dour Pakistani poll campaign

LAHORE – Security fears may have kept Pakistani politicians off the streets, but their faces can be seen every way one turns in the city of Lahore.

With days to go before the February 18 poll for new national and provincial assemblies there doesn’t appear to be any room left for more posters in a city regarded as the nerve centre of Pakistani politics.

They peer down from giant posters plastered on buildings and billboards and from banners hanging on lamp posts in the capital of Punjab, the province where half of Pakistan’s 160 million people live and from where half of the parliament will be elected.

Yet printers in the narrow streets of small workshops say business is way down compared with past campaigns, even as their presses pump out a blizzard of posters as parties make a final push to sway a public that opinion polls show is tired of President Pervez Musharraf and the politicians who surround him.

“Every printer has been waiting for five years but this is the worst election we’ve had,” Abdul Aziz said above the clatter of a printing press as he sat in his shop, its floor strewn with strips of waste paper.

Competition for votes is fierce but campaigning has been subdued and somber since opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27.

Aziz said election business dried up when Bhutto was killed and for a while it seemed the elections might be called off.

SIZE MATTERS

Orders picked up after the Election Commission postponed the vote from January 8 and set the new date, but lingering suspicion the polls might still be put off meant demand was nothing like before the last vote in 2002, an election widely regarded as rigged to favor parties backing Musharraf.

“Last time we couldn’t go home because we were so busy but this time we’ve been waiting for orders,” said Aziz in his shop off a small street where horse-drawn carts squeezed past auto-rickshaws and motorbikes.

Printers said the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim league (PML) was spending the most, about twice as much as its main challengers, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Everyone is ignoring Election Commission rules that limit the size of posters.

“No party listens to the rules. They have their own rules,” said Aziz.

Most of the posters are in Islamic green, the party colors of both Sharif’s party and the PML, made up largely of politicians who broke away from Sharif after Musharraf overthrew him in a 1999 coup.

PPP posters carry the party colors of red, black and green and all seem to feature pictures of Bhutto and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown as prime minister in a 1977 coup and hanged by a military dictator two years later.

As well as pictures of candidates and their constituency numbers all posters bear party symbols that will appear on ballot papers to help an electorate whose reading skills aren’t great.

The PML symbol is a bicycle, the Bhutto party’s is an arrow while Sharif’s is a tiger that for some reason at times appears as a lion.

While the politicians put faith in poster power some Pakistanis think it’s all a waste of time.

“It’s useless, they don’t have any impact on voters,” said textile engineer Faisal Nazir as he stood on a street corner below a huge poster of an earnest-looking candidate. “They should stop this and just use the print and electronic media.”

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