Lahore, Pakistan – Shayan Bhatti is among hundreds of people praying inside the shrine of Ali al-Hajveri in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and the capital of the country’s politically crucial Punjab province.
Dressed in a white shalwar kameez with a black shawl over his shoulder, Bhatti was at the shrine not only to pray for the wellbeing of his family but also for Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan who is in prison since August last year.
“He is my leader and he has been unfairly jailed. His wife and his party people have also been jailed unfairly. I prayed for his success, for his freedom, and for justice,” the 62-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Al-Hajveri, more famously known as Data Ganj Baksh, is Lahore’s patron saint. His shrine, Daata Darbar, is among the largest Sufi shrines in South Asia. Hundreds of thousands visit the shrine every year, seeking solace in prayers, and asking for forgiveness and prosperity.
As Bhatti stepped out of the shrine on Tuesday evening, he was welcomed by the sight of large banners with pictures of Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, who was cleared of several corruption charges late last year after he returned from a self-imposed, four-year exile in London.
“My vote is for Khan. Even if nobody else will come out [to vote], I will still bring my family to cast my vote for him,” he said in a determined voice.
Pakistan’s 127 million eligible voters are set to cast their ballot in the 12th national and provincial elections on Thursday. But the vote has been tainted by the absence of Khan, a former cricketing icon, and allegations of rigging by the “establishment” – a euphemism for Pakistan’s powerful military that has directly ruled over the South Asian country for nearly three decades.
As a result, the election campaign on the streets is muted and devoid of the usual festivity.
In the parliamentary constituency that includes Lahore’s older quarters, including the Daata Darbar, on Tuesday, there was little indication that it was the final night of campaigning in the area considered a stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, led by Sharif, 74, and his dynasty.
Sharif is contesting in only his second election in 20 years, but in Khan’s absence, is being considered an easy winner for a fourth stint as prime minister.
“I have lived in this area all my life,” Ali Akbar, who had been stuck in traffic in the narrow streets leading to the shrine, told Al Jazeera.
“I saw my grandfather, my father, all voting for Nawaz Sharif. And he has been good to us, to our city. Of course I will vote for him,” the 36-year-old mechanic added as he waited on his motorcycle for the traffic to clear up.
Sharif’s main rival in the constituency is Yasmin Rashid, a former provincial minister from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party who, like hundreds of her colleagues, has been in jail since May last year following a crackdown by the then government, headed by Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif.
Rashid, 73, was jailed in the aftermath of the violent protests on May 9, 2023 by PTI supporters after Khan was briefly arrested on corruption charges in Islamabad. Tens of thousands of party workers flooded the streets, targeting government buildings and military installations in some areas, including the official residence of a top military general in Lahore.
In response, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on the main opposition party, arresting thousands and trying some of them in the controversial military courts. In August, Khan, 71, was convicted in another corruption case and jailed. Last week, he was convicted in three more cases and jailed for 10, 14 and seven years, to be served concurrently.
PTI says the cases against Khan are politically motivated and aimed at keeping him out of politics. Meanwhile, the party lost its election symbol – a cricket bat – while dozens of its leaders were either disqualified from contesting or forced to run as independent candidates.
In the run-up to the February 8 vote, there have been widespread allegations of authorities arresting – and even allegedly abducting – PTI candidates, removing PTI banners and posters, and preventing its candidates from taking out poll rallies.
In Lahore, however, some PTI supporters decided to take on the authorities on the final day of campaigning on Tuesday.
Muhammad Khan Madni, a PTI candidate for the provincial assembly, was joined by a group of about 80 young men carrying flags and chanting slogans as they made their way through a working-class neighbourhood in the city.
Madni, a lawyer by profession, told Al Jazeera he was not afraid of being arrested and said the vote would reflect the righteous stance of his party.
“You can see there are police mobiles around,” he said, pointing to a few police vehicles parked along the street. “I am not afraid. Our people are not afraid. You can see the passion among these boys, they are out here for me, for our leader Imran Khan.”
Muhammed Arshad, a 64-year-old fish seller, watched the rally from his shop. “These are young people who are immature and just want to be loud about something they don’t know,” he told Al Jazeera.
But when asked about his voting choice, Arshad said he had historically voted for the Sharifs but may skip his democratic exercise this year.
“I had voted for PML-N in all the elections since the 1990s. But I don’t think I want to cast my vote this year. I don’t trust the results. They [politicians] don’t care about the poor, they are only fighting their own fight,” he said.
Pakistan’s vote is marred by a severe economic crisis, with foreign reserves drying out and inflation reaching nearly 25 percent. The country entered into a $3bn bailout package with the International Monetary Fund to save the $340bn economy from default.
A survey by Gallup this week showed an overwhelming 70 percent of Pakistani voters were pessimistic about their future and lacked trust in the vote.
Mohammed Fayyaz, a shopkeeper in Sharif’s constituency, agreed, saying the campaigning lacked the vigour associated with the election season.
“There was not much fun this year, to be honest. Khan’s arrest has definitely hurt his party. But I think it is karma for what he did to the country during his tenure,” said the 44-year-old, adding that he voted for the PTI in 2018 but will vote for Sharif on Thursday.
“They [Sharifs] have delivered on the economic front. They gave public transport in Lahore, they did work which you can see,” he said.
However, the crackdown against PTI has also eroded the people’s trust ahead of the election.
“The way this entire campaign took place, nobody in their right mind can call it a fair election,” Rana Kashif, a lawyer and PTI supporter, told Al Jazeera. was sitting inside a party election camp.
He said the police visited a party election camp earlier in the day and instructed them to stop playing PTI songs.
“Can you imagine? They are so afraid of a song that they threatened to close the camp. But we are sitting here for our leader and our people inside jail. We may lose the ballot but we won’t bow down.”