Narowal and Lahore, Pakistan – Driving through the flooded rice paddies of the eastern Pakistani district of Narowal, the sunlight streaming in through the monsoon clouds, Ahsan Iqbal is in turns confident and concerned.
He steps off his bulletproof pick-up truck and is immediately surrounded by well-wishers showering him with rose petals and placing colourful garlands around his neck.
Armed bodyguards form a ring around him as he walks towards a large tent, where a couple of hundred people have been waiting all day to hear him speak.
Ahead of him, some children lead the way, happily chanting the slogan of Iqbal’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) political party, and dancing to the beat of a dhol.
“Look who’s come, it’s the lion, it’s the lion,” they sing, a reference to the party’s election symbol.
If massive political rallies, attended by tens of thousands and addressed by party chiefs, are the muscles that power electoral campaigning in Pakistan, then “corner meetings” such as this one, under a small tent in a rice field in the middle of nowhere, are its heart and soul.
Pakistan goes to the polls on Wednesday, and if the PML-N is to fight off the challenge from the opposition PTI, the contest will be decided in constituencies such as this one, in the heart of Punjab province, where 141 of the 272 national parliamentary seats that are up for grabs are located.
Iqbal begins his stump speech, one he has repeated dozens of times.
He lists the achievements of his party’s last five years in power, pointing out his opponent’s relative lack of experience, and drawing attention towards his work in the constituency.
“You now sleep in comfort under a fan,” he says, referring to reduced electricity blackouts, “but the leader who gave you this has no comfort in jail.”
Nawaz Sharif, the chief of the PML-N, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were jailed earlier this month after being convicted by an anti-corruption court.
His party says he received an unfair trial and alleges the country’s powerful military – which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its 70-year history – pressured the judiciary to convict him. Both institutions deny the charge.
“You have a debt to him, to release him from jail through the power of your vote,” Iqbal continues.
Nearby, a young man on a tractor looks on impassively.
‘Engineering’ and ‘aliens’
Away from the crowds, Iqbal strikes a different note.
This has been no ordinary campaign, with widespread allegations that the military has been “engineering” the electoral process, and encouraging PML-N supporters and candidates to switch loyalties.
Political news coverage has also been tightly controlled, with the country’s two largest news organisations seeing their distribution networks disrupted when they refused to follow the military’s editorial guidelines.
“Our hope is that we get a high turnout on voting day so that we have a margin of victory that is too large to manipulate,” Iqbal told Al Jazeera.
Countrywide, dozens of PML-N candidates switched parties to the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, weeks ahead of the polls.
In Narowal, two key PML-N candidates defected.
Abrar-ul-Haq, a pop star-turned-politician, is hoping to lead the PTI to victory in the Punjab district of Narowal [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
The party’s opponents dismiss allegations of rigging.
“Honestly, I’m still waiting for the aliens,” says Abrar-ul-Haq, the PTI’s candidate against Iqbal in Narowal, using a euphemism for the military popularised by PML-N chief Sharif.
“It has been much better than the last elections,” says ul-Haq, a pop star-turned-politician, about his experience on the campaign trail. “We’ve had huge rallies, boiling with enthusiasm, especially from the youth.”
In 2013, Haq lost the race in this constituency to Iqbal by a margin of more than 27 percent of the 154,637 votes polled.
This time, he is confident that he will win more support, having engaged more heavily with local kinship group leaders, who control thousands of votes in rural constituencies such as Narowal.
“Last time we only concentrated on big political rallies, but this time we have spoken to a lot of the [village and kinship leaders] as well, and many of them have switched their votes to us,” says Naeem Ahmed, an official with Haq’s campaign.
“In local politics, we cannot ignore those blocks of votes, those biraderis [kinship groups], that were with the PML-N last time, they are now with the PTI,” says Haq.
Iqbal, meanwhile, appears to be preaching a post-biraderi brand of politics, campaigning mainly on service delivery rather than engaging with influential locals.
The PML-N has led the government in Punjab for a decade, and socioeconomic indicators have shown improvement during their reign.
“I am going direct to the people,” he says, en route to another corner meeting. “Citizens are now empowered and informed, and they prefer candidates to come to them directly.”
Narowal may be a sleepy town on the edges of Pakistan’s mainstream, but there is a dangerous edge to the campaign here, one that is being replicated across the country.
In May, Iqbal was shot while at a campaign event, the bullet shattering his elbow and lodging in his stomach.
The attacker accused Iqbal of having committed blasphemy by supporting a minor change to an electoral oath pushed through parliament by the PML-N last year.
That shooting came after supporters of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party had blockaded the Pakistani capital for weeks over the issue, finally dispersing only after securing the resignation of a federal minister and legal immunity for damage caused during the rioting.
Haq, Iqbal’s opponent, has frequently repeated the blasphemy allegations at political rallies.
Elections banners for the PML-N and PTI parties fly across Lahore, as the two leading parties in the elections face off for control of the country [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan. At least 74 people have been murdered in connection with accusations of the crime since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
In Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, Jibran Nasir, an independent candidate, has faced a series of attacks by charged TLP members, also accusing him of blasphemy.
“[Haq’s] main argument is inciting hatred against me on religious grounds,” says Iqbal, gesturing towards a dozen armed guards in two police escort vehicles. “It does restrict you […] but at the same time, you also have to take a risk. Because politics, or public life, cannot be done from behind a curtain.”
Asked if he believes it is dangerous to accuse Iqbal of having committed blasphemy, Haq is nonchalant.
“As far as it being dangerous is concerned, well in Pakistan it is also dangerous to walk down the street,” says the PTI candidate.
The battle for the crown
The streets of Lahore are a couple of hours from Narowal, but the differences are stark.
Sharif may be in jail, but in Lahore, he is everywhere. Banners across the city repeat his rallying cry: “Give honour to the vote.”
In the narrow, congested lanes of Gulshan-e-Ravi, PTI candidate Yasmin Rashid is conducting her own corner meetings, despite the rain.
Her supporters blast the Sharif family and their alleged corruption, as she smiles and waves from underneath an umbrella.
Rashid is attempting to do what many believed, up until a few months ago, to be impossible: to win Lahore’s historic NA-125 seat, in the heart of the provincial capital, from the PML-N.
PTI candidate Yasmin Rashid addressees a corner meeting in the eastern city of Lahore
The incumbent party has never lost this seat, the jewel in its crown of dominance over Punjab province over the last three decades.
“Imran Khan has worked constantly for 22 years … he says that until there is justice in Pakistan, he will not stop,” she says, as the crowd calls out: “The PTI is coming, the PTI is coming.”
Rashid’s message focuses on the corruption convictions against the Sharifs, while she promises honest, efficient government.
“You can feel the pulse is different, and now the majority of them are convinced that Nawaz Sharif has been convicted correctly,” she tells
Rashid’s chances – and those of the PTI across this province – will hinge on how many PML-N voters she is able to convert.
“Ever since we were young, we have always voted for the PML-N,” says Muhammad Rizwan, 32, a participant at the PTI meeting. “But just look at the state of these streets.”
The PML-N “have changed nothing” and he will vote for the PTI, he says.
Others, however, are unmoved by the PTI’s promises to use their electoral symbol, a cricket bat, to strike corruption out of the arena.
“I will vote for the PML-N, as I always have,” says Muhammad Siddiq, a 62-year-old who sells vegetables on a pushcart.
His wife, Nadira, interjects.
“Look, whoever wins, whether it’s the lion or the bat, the truth is that we’re still going to be out on the street, pushing that cart.”