Pakistani pop star woos voters with drum beats and dancing

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In a quiet corner of Pakistan’s breadbasket province of Punjab, one parliamentary candidate in Saturday’s general election lets his music do the talking.

Abrar-ul-Haq, a pop star famous for a string of upbeat Punjabi hits, is mobbed by children in every village he stops at and garlanded, as drummers strike up a Bhangra rhythm and brightly decorated white horses are made to dance.

Considered to have only an outside chance of winning a seat, the 43-year-old hopes his music and message of change can unseat an incumbent in the semi-rural area of Narowal who has won three times.

He leans into his microphone and urges his noisy followers at a campaign stop to be silent, before breaking into a soulful song on motherhood, a common theme in Punjabi folk music designed to tug at the heartstrings of his audience.

“It is a reference to my mother, whose death inspired me to build my hospital here,” Haq, running for the national assembly for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, told AFP.

Haq shares much in common with his leader, Pakistan’s most famous cricketer and a charismatic politician who has galvanized young people and the emerging middle class with his message of change and reform.

Both have contributed heavily to charity, with the majority of patients visiting Haq’s hospital admitted for free or a discounted fee - and both have leveraged their celebrity to run for office.

His major rival, Ahsan Iqbal, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), the main opposition party in the outgoing parliament, which is widely tipped to win the election, is a formidable opponent.

But Haq is confident of making a breakthrough for his party in what he says would be a triumph for “new” politics based upon effective and corruption-free management over traditional bloc-voting.

“People here are not satisfied with their performance - they were not getting anything done despite being in power for five years,” he says.

The PML-N has ruled Punjab despite being in opposition at a national level.

“Even without being elected, we have done more for the area with our social work, which is there for everyone to see. Of course a lot of the support is because of Imran Khan's overall popularity,” he adds.

Haq points to the pock-marked roads and the fact the district is the only one in Punjab not connected to the gas grid as symptoms of neglect by an incumbent who was more preoccupied with federal ambitions than his constituency.

Still, he faces an uphill battle. Best known for his hits, Haq’s opponents are using the lyrics from some of his more racy numbers to question his morality in the deeply religious region.

“Vote for Abrar if you want your daughters to be dancers,” reads one flyer distributed in the district written by critics, a play on the title of his song “Dance Punjabi Girl.”

Haq counters that he has also written music that explores spirituality and Sufi mysticism, adding “even long-bearded conservative men tell me they love my music.”

“It is wrong to think music and intelligence cannot exist side-by-side,” adds the law graduate, who once taught geography at Aitchison College, Pakistan’s equivalent to Britain’s Eton.

Some of his supporters agree.

Mohammed Naeem, a 42-year-old shopkeeper, told AFP: “I have voted for Ahsan Iqbal in every election he stood in. But the roads he built are already breaking down and this time I will vote for Abrar because of his social work.”

Others such as Arshad Masih, a 32-year-old Christian farm laborer, have different reasons for their support.

“We’re voting for him because he is new. Our hope is they will do better for Christians,” he says.

Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned that the risk to Pakistan’s minorities has reached crisis level and accused the authorities of not doing enough to protect them.

If Haq does achieve an upset victory, sympathy for Imran Khan, who suffered serious injuries after falling from a stage on Tuesday, could play a large part.

“Imran Khan bravely addressed the nation from his hospital bed with a head injury. Now you too must be brave and vote for a new Pakistan,” Haq told supporters.