Electioneering officially came to a close ahead of Pakistan’s general election later this week in what has been a fraught campaign, with all three major parties accusing each other of wrongdoing.
In the eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan made a final push at a series of rallies across the city on Monday, aiming to displace the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party from its political heartland.
Pakistan votes in a general election on Wednesday with 272 national parliamentary seats up for grabs, as well as for each of its four provincial assemblies.
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif addressed a rally in the central town of Dera Ghazi Khan, urging the nation to “give respect to the vote”, a party rallying cry that refers to their allegation that the military and judiciary have been interfering in the political process.
Earlier this month, Sharif’s elder brother Nawaz – a three-time prime minister – was convicted and jailed by an anti-corruption court. Nawaz’ daughter Maryam and son-in-law Muhammad Safdar were also imprisoned.
Nawaz Sharif claims he did not receive a fair trial, and that the judiciary was influenced by the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 70-year history. Both institutions deny the allegation.
At a colourful rally attended by thousands in Lahore’s Walton area, Khan dismissed as a foreign conspiracy accusations that the military has aided his party by threatening opponents.
“The Western media is concerned that there is rigging going on in Pakistan, and that the military is doing it,” he said.
“I wonder how the … media has become so concerned about rigging. When I was on the roads for 126 days protesting against vote rigging, where were they?”
Khan was referring to a four-month protest in 2014 against the results of the country’s last general election.
“The man who did the rigging was the favourite of India … and of the international establishment. That’s why no one said anything!”
Time for change?
At an earlier PTI rally near Lahore’s historic Data Darbar shrine, supporters said they believed Khan was the man to bring change to Pakistan.
“I will vote for Imran Khan because he will bring about the change the others have proved unable to do,” said Adnan Ali, 20, who will be voting in his first election.
Abdullah Butt, 54, a retired civil servant who was at the rally with his grandson, felt similarly.
“My whole life, I’ve only seen these two parties in power,” he said, referring to the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. “Isn’t it time we saw a change?”
Not all voters, however, have been convinced by Khan’s ambitious promises to end corruption and bring about systematic change to how power functions in the country.
“I will vote for Nawaz Sharif, because he has been wrongly imprisoned,” said 30-year-old Muhammad Tariq, who sells toys off a pushcart a few hundred metres away from the site of the PTI’s rally.
“I am not looking at the party, I am only looking at Nawaz Sharif. I think he’s a very good man.”
Ahead of the campaign’s close, Sharif released an audio message from jail exhorting supporters to go to the polls to register their protest at his arrest.
“Imprisoned people of my free nation, you must change all of this,” he said. “The time has come for you to … show such a verdict that buries all those other verdicts that have made Pakistan a graveyard for justice.”
The run-up to the polls has been marred by widespread allegations of pre-poll engineering and censorship of the press by the military.
On Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said journalists in the country faced a sustained and concerted series of curbs, including disruptions and closures of the country’s top news organisations.
“Overall, continuing intimidation and the perceived need to self-censor has severely hampered objective journalism,” the report said.
It documented instances where television channels had been forced off the air, as well as how news coverage of Sharif’s conviction was shaped by the “establishment”, a common euphemism in Pakistan for the military and intelligence services.
“It has become very difficult to tell the truth,” said HRCP spokesperson Ibn-e-Abdur Rehman. “Often it is a threat to one’s life.”
Journalist Marvi Sirmed, also a member of the HRCP, said her work had been targeted, with managers pressured to censor her work.
“Free-and-fair elections are just a dream, which is not going to be realised any time soon,” she told Al Jazeera. “This is not elections, this is a joke, this is a selection.”