Features | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan Political Battles Heat Up

A general election isn’t due until 2013. But the big political parties, the Army and the Supreme Court are already engaged in a battle that will shape the country’s future.

By Arif Rafiq for

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.

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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.

But urban Punjab isn’t the only region up for grabs in Pakistan. If the PTI makes the right alliances and manages to recruit winning candidates that don’t challenge its “clean” image, it could win elsewhere in the country, including in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where Khan’s Pashtun ethnicity and anti-U.S. stance, as well as the rock-bottom standing of the Awami National Party (ANP), could result in the PTI filling a major political vacuum. If the PTI manages to gains 10 to 20 National Assembly seats, it could be the kingmaker determining who leads the next coalition government.

PML-N mass resignations could force the intervention of the Supreme Court, which is sympathetic to the PML-N since 2007 but which has also cooperated with the Army since 2009.  The PPP contends that it will hold by-elections if PML-N members resign. But Pakistan’s previous election commissioner states that the resignation of over 300 legislators would force the dissolution of the assemblies and new elections. Still, he concedes that there’s constitutional ambiguity on the issue. And that means one could see yet another belligerent PPP-PML(N) battle at the Supreme Court – and possibly even behind the scenes by the Army.

Even if the PPP concedes to holding early elections, there’s risk the PPP and PML-N will clash over the election timetable. A PML-N push for the dissolution of the national and Punjab provincial assemblies would have to take place before March 2012.  Once the assemblies are dissolved, new elections are to be held under a caretaker government within 90 days. But Pakistan’s election commission might not have new, clean voter lists ready until mid-summer. And so the PML-N is faced with the choice of having to opt for elections within the 90-day timetable under the old, fraud-ridden voter lists, or petitioning the Supreme Court to extend the term of the caretaker government beyond 90 days, allowing for elections to be held under the clean lists.

A prolonged period of caretaker rule opens up opportunities for the Army to more aggressively influence the political process, as it did in the 1990s. The army has contained the PPP-led government and monopolizes control over foreign and national security policy. But, like the PML-N, it fears the combination of a PPP majority in the Senate and victory in the next elections would embolden the party’s leader and the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. At the same time, the army knows it will have difficulty dealing with the PML-N’s leader Nawaz Sharif, who has clashed with three army chiefs and is a vocal critic of the army’s policies toward Afghanistan and India. The Army could – if it has fellow travelers in place – utilize the extended caretaker government to “cleanse” the political system of corrupt politicians. A cabinet of “clean” politicians and technocrats would combat corruption, improve governance, and put the ailing economy back on track, while – of course – following the military’s lead on national security and keeping the PPP and PML-N in check. However, a more prominent army intrusion into politics would be ripe with risk given the proactive Supreme Court and media, as well as the resilience of Pakistan’s political parties.

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Still, as the war in Afghanistan enters its most critical phase, and with the next Army chief being chosen by whoever is prime minister in late 2013, the Army likely wants to be doubly sure that whoever is the top civilian will be pliant when it comes to national security issues. The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who wrote his master’s thesis on the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan mujahedeen groups, probably remembers when the seemingly docile Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo signed the Geneva Accords against the wishes of military ruler President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. These accords allowed for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but kept the Soviet-backed government in place. It would take the Pakistan-backed mujahedeen four more years to sack Kabul, only for the country to descend into civil war.

The coming year, according to the Chinese calendar, will be the year of the dragon. But given the uncertainty and balance of powers in Pakistani politics today, Kayani and the remainder of the country’s major power brokers are better off proceeding with the caution and swiftness of lions.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at twitter.com/pakistanpolicy and writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).