(From Reuters)

Pakistanis began voting Sunday in a closely contested by-election seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rule after he swept to power in 2013 elections.

An army soldier stands guard as polling officials deliver election material to a polling station in Lahore
An army soldier stands guard as polling officials deliver election material to a polling station in Lahore

The race for the parliamentary seat in Punjab, Pakistan’s richest province and Sharif’s power base, pits the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party against the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Last year PTI’s leader, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, led street protests in the capital for months, alleging rigging in the 2013 polls.

The protests forced Sharif to rely on the powerful military for security, which gave them a greater say in foreign and security policy. Many in the military had opposed Sharif’s election promise to improve relations with arch rival India.

On Sunday, 348,000 were expected to  vote under army supervision as close Sharif ally Ayaz Sadiq faces off with PTI candidate Aleem Khan in the NA-122 constituency in the Punjab capital of Lahore.

Sadiq said the race was a battle to “prove the very legitimacy of the 2013 election.”

Khan’s party had only ever won a single parliamentary seat – his own – before 2013, when his promises of a crackdown on widespread corruption and tax evasion by the wealthy won enough voters to propel the party to power as the third-largest in Pakistan.

A Gallup poll conducted this month said 37% voters favored PTI while 46% favored PMLN.

“People are fed up by the PMLN’s empty slogans,” said PTI’s Aleem Khan. “I am positive that I will win.”

Security and the economy have improved under Sharif, although analysts say many external factors have contributed.

Attacks have fallen around 70% this year, partly due to a military offensive in the northwest and a military-led crackdown in the southern city of Karachi.

Annual inflation is at its lowest in a dozen years, largely to due reduced international oil prices. The economy is growing faster, although still not fast enough to absorb new entrants to the job market.

But the government has failed to crack down on corruption or tax the wealthy, whose continued tax evasion is starving social services like schools and hospitals of cash.

PMLN say Aleem’s promises of reform are undercut by his tenure as minister under a military dictator, and PTI’s failure to fulfill its election promises in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province it rules.

“Where are the dams Imran was going to build?” said voter Zaman Naqvi, cradling a stuffed lion, PMLN’s election symbol. “Where are all the uplift projects? Where are the improvements in education and health?”

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