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Pakistan's Election Scramble Begins
Image Credit: Rachel Clayton/DFID

Pakistan's Election Scramble Begins

 
 

Pakistan has not had a long history of successful democratic transitions. Interspersed with frequent military takeovers, Pakistan’s democratic journey has been anything but steady. With this backdrop, a successful democratic transition of government in 2018 will assuredly be a milestone.

“In a country where four military generals tossed the Constitution in the dustbin… a parliament completing its tenure is no ordinary political event. The completion of the tenure marks a new political beginning — a big step towards democratic transition,” Rasul Bakhsh Rais, an acclaimed author and political scientist, wrote before general elections in 2013, which marked the first democratic transition of government in Pakistan.

With Pakistan set to undergo another democratic transition next year, naked pre-electoral warfare has already kicked off in the country. Wheeling and dealing among political parties is in full swing. Daggers are drawn as political parties from both sides of the aisle are eager to secure their turf and anxious to build on it by tapping into new electoral pockets beyond their traditional strongholds.

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The ruling political party — Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) — looks well seated in the saddle in Punjab, crucial for carving a way into the center once again. Similarly, the major opposition parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and  the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are shaping up nicely in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, respectively, and also looking for ways to break the PML-N victory streak in Punjab through a combined effort. However, the electoral scramble for Islamabad is not as simple as it looks. It is a cesspool of Machiavellian politicking, and the electoral juggernaut is only going to get more intense and polarized with every passing day.

As Pakistan inches closer to another peaceful transfer of power, there are several factors likely to figure in the 2018 election.

First Election After Raheel Sharif

The general election in 2018 will be the first after retirement of former army chief General Raheel Sharif, who made successful strides against terrorism in the country and was considered to be popular among the public. In its electioneering bid, the ruling PML-N is set to cash in on the successes of popular anti-terrorism operations led by Sharif. Although the ruling party would also boast its achievements in other areas including governance and the economy, the relative calm in the country as a result of successful anti-terrorism operations will surely feature as one of its most significant rallying cries in the election campaign.

Although the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism in the country was devised and implemented with significant support from the opposition parties, only the ruling party would like to take credit for the successes.

Corruption

Corruption is one of the most significant issues likely to impact voting patterns in the next election. Opposition parties and pundits claim that the issue of corruption, especially the revelations by Panama Papers last year that allegedly exposed family members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif exploiting secretive offshore tax regimes, has already cost PML-N its moral legitimacy to rule and the political damage cannot be denied. At the time of writing this piece, the opposition parties have their fingers crossed and are looking forward to getting maximum political mileage out of the Panama case. In particular, PTI’s electoral bet hinges largely solely on the upcoming verdict in the case.

Further it may be noted that again the issues of corruption and poor governance are what cost the previous government, led by the PPP, heavily. The party was reduced to control of only Sindh province when the electorate, disillusioned by the PPP’s (perceived) corruption and poor governance, voted into power the incumbent PMLN government in 2013. And now it has become nearly impossible for PPP to regain lost glory.

Role of Social Media

Social media will play a significant role in shaping the overall narrative in the lead-up to the election and will prove to be a significant driving force for political parties to woo their voters.

After Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the United States and rise of Narendra Modi in India, political parties in Pakistan, especially the PTI, realize how social media’s algorithms appeal to emotions rather than evidence and facts. Political campaigners in Pakistan are ready to exploit it.

If international precedent is anything to go by, social media may defy common sense and fatally destroy fortunes of the ruling party by exaggerating its “corrupt” image. Social media could potentially catapult Imran Khan, who already masters the art of using social media, and his PTI into power in 2018. Columnist Muneeb Farooq believes “since PTI has (apparently) a strong social media network it is bound to benefit from it.”

Census

The population census currently underway in Pakistan will play an important role in the election but it will not significantly alter the standing of political parties in the legislature. Essentially, the total number of seats in national and provincial assemblies will be increased and the demarcation of constituencies will be changed but overall the numerical effect will be largely balanced out at the national level. However, powerful feudal landlords and political families fear they may lose their influence.

It may be noted that there is some concern that if the election is to be held based on remapped constituencies, the census has to be concluded by September this year. In this vein, academic and columnist Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi told me, in a phone conversation, that although it is not impossible to consolidate the results of census in time, doing so will require the “political will” of the government.

X-Factors: The Pakistan Army and the United States

There is a perception generally held in Pakistan that a political party is more likely to win the election if, besides enough electoral support, it has blessings from the United States and Pakistan’s army. This view was most recently voiced by one of PTI’s key leaders when he alleged that a “grand scheme” had been hatched between Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and then-Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to make Nawaz Sharif win the 2013 election.

If this perception is anything to go by, it may be argued that the new U.S. administration under Donald Trump will quickly lose its leverage if, or rather when, it cuts aid packages for Pakistan. And in this context maybe China, thanks to its huge infrastructure development projects under the $51 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), would be eager to fill the vacuum.

So although previously U.S. favorability was thought to be important for a political party to form a government in Pakistan, after CPEC’s rise to significance as an economic lifeline for the country, China’s blessings which may be more important.

However, Farooq doubts there was any truth to the perception in the first place. He says, “It’s more of a conspiratorial mindset to actually think that [the] U.S. has a role to play in our country’s politics or it helps a political party come into power.”

And as far as political role of Pakistan Army is concerned, journalist and columnist Cyril Almeida opines that after appointment of the current Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, it was initially thought that he would be different from his predecessors. However, four months in, he is beginning to look and sound awfully familiar and (like others before him) blithely crossed a political line when he recently met the chief of a major opposition party. Almeida adds that the new army chief probably had not been hyper visible so far because “total power takes some time adjusting to.”

In Pakistan, the army is the most influential institution and has historically had and still holds a very important say in political affairs. Farooq, who rejected the political role of the United States, in case of the military, grants that “Our military’s top brass has had a history of indulging itself in political affairs of the country. At some occasions it has directly or indirectly helped political parties to form a government and similarly also helped them forming alliances against a sitting government.” Hence the general perception that the army’s blessings are important for a political party’s better prospects in elections cannot be completely ruled out.

Mahboob Mohsin is a political commentator. He is working as a Research Associate with Information Technology University, Lahore. Follow him on Twitter: @MohsinMahboob.

Waqas Halim heads the Center for Technology in Education at Information Technology University and is a Fulbright scholar from Columbia University.

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