Pakistan's general election isn’t scheduled to take place until early 2013. But with two major rallies in the past week in the political battleground of Lahore, it looks as if campaign season has already begun. Indeed, Pakistanis could head to the polls as early as the middle of next year.
A complex game is currently being played between the two major political parties, the Army, an upstart ‘third way’ party, the Supreme Court and other power brokers.
But the situation is fraught with uncertainty – this chess match could result in early elections and usher in a new government. Or it could see a prolonged suspension of elected civilian rule that would either strengthen the military's hand, or tempt it to overstretch again.
Pakistan’s latest round of political pugilism might appear routine to some outsiders. But taking place as it does against the backdrop of the low intensity U.S.-Pakistan battle over the Afghanistan endgame, the potential consequences are far from insignificant.
Last week, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) began a campaign of agitation against the governing coalition leader, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PML-N seeks to deny the PPP control over the Senate, and hopes to lead the governing coalition after the next National Assembly elections. Pakistan’s bicameral parliament consists of a directly-elected National Assembly and an indirectly-elected Senate. Each of the country’s four provinces’ national and provincial assembly members constitute an electoral college that elects their region’s share of senators.
As currently constructed, these electoral colleges will give the PPP a near, if not absolute Senate majority. As a result, the PML-N needs to generate a new set of electoral colleges that will at the very least deny the PPP a majority in the upper house. The only method of achieving this is early elections for, at the very least, the national and Punjab assemblies.
However, the PPP-led coalition is currently safe from a no-confidence vote. And so the PML-N, which holds a majority in the Punjab Assembly and nearly a fifth of National Assembly seats, can force new elections for both bodies by having its members resign en masse. It’s an unconventional method that looks a lot like murder-suicide.
Indeed, for a number of reasons, opting to contain the PPP through this method could backfire on the PML-N, making it vulnerable to challenges by the rising Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party and the Army.
The outcome of early elections is far from clear. The PML-N still does well in public opinion polls, and many viable candidates have defected to it from other parties, suggesting that “free floaters” among Pakistan’s shrewd political class see it as a winner. But the PPP has mastered the art of winning while being hated, the PML-N’s reputation has been hit by an outbreak of the dengue virus, and many voters are looking for an alternative to both the PML-N and PPP.
Their alternative comes in the form of the PTI, which is led by former cricket star Imran Khan. After 15 years of limited political success, the PTI has now emerged as a serious political player. Buoyed by the support of Pakistan’s youth and urban middle and upper middle classes, the PTI made an impressive show of force on Sunday by rallying at least 100,000 people in the PML-N stronghold of Lahore. The PTI could rob the PML-N of voters and even assembly seats in its conservative, nationalist base in urban Punjab, indirectly aiding the PML-N’s arch-rival, the PPP.