If Pakistan’s elections in May were to be consistent with precedent, the center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) would gain a plurality of seats in the National Assembly and be positioned to form a federal government.
Since 1988, the fundamental features of Pakistani elections have included a combination of anti-incumbency and the staying power of electable politicians, leading to an interchange of power at the national level between the two largest parties, the PML-N and its chief rival the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) (The 2002 elections were an anomaly in some respects given the high level of military interference).
But Pakistan is a society in flux, impacted by significant demographic changes, including a youth bulge and urbanization. And it is in the midst of a prolonged spell of civil violence, terrorism, and stagflation. While there could be a continuity in voting behavior in the upcoming polls, it would be a mistake not to consider possibilities in which new factors produce alternative electoral outcomes. What are some potential wild cards that could result in a partial or even complete break from electoral precedent in Pakistan?
One wild card is the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which has shown some muscle in recent weeks, declaring established politicians ineligible for elections due to possession of fake degrees and other offenses. Low-level returning officers have overstepped their bounds in many instances, asking candidates deeply personal questions and disqualifying one candidate for allegedly not believing in Pakistan’s founding ideology. A week-long appeals process could allow the ECP to undo the excessive vigilance of these officers. But should there be a purge of viable candidates from established parties, third way forces like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) might benefit from weakened competition.
A second wild card is militant violence. Like the ECP, militant groups have the capacity to selectively purge the candidate pool. The Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has threatened to attack the rallies of Pakistan’s chief secular parties: the PPP as well as the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It has also singled out leaders of the PML-N, Jamiat Ulema-e Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-i Islami (JI) as leaders it could trust as intermediaries with the military. The TTP has continued its violent campaign against the ANP into the election season, assassinating a number of party figures. While the ANP has resorted to less open ways of campaigning, it could be hurt by the lack of a public presence. The party is already polling low. And so the specter of violence and its impact on the ANP’s campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts could make the party fare worse than expected. One would expect that the TTP is plotting the assassination of a major secular politician. But such a move could backfire for the TTP. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 led to a groundswell of sympathy and translated into a better-than-expected electoral showing for the PPP.
A third wild card is women voters, particularly in urban Punjab, which will feature some of Pakistan’s closest races. Female participation in elections, both in registration and actual voting, is lower than male participation. But the gender gap is reduced in urban areas, where women’s socio-economic role has changed in the past decade. Consumer advertising has boomed in Pakistan, despite dismal economic growth in recent years, thanks in part due to a growing number of women in the workforce. Urban, working women have more disposable income and make more independent choices as wealth earners and consumers. Will this autonomy translate into the polling booth? Will Pakistan see more split family voting? PTI could be banking on this. Its women’s wing is quite active. And one of its television advertisements features a woman physician elected to a position in the party. She states that she lost her son several months ago, but neither that tragedy nor her professional obligations prevented her from taking part in Khan’s movement for change. The target audience for the advertisement appears to be the growing number of professional, working mothers.
A fourth wild card is the youth vote. Voters between the ages of 18 and 30 make up around 35 percent of registered voters. While they don’t vote as a single bloc nationally, they could disproportionately favor some parties in highly contested urban areas in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces. Ninety-four percent of young adults in Pakistan believe that their country is going in the wrong direction. Could PTI bring them together in the form of a protest vote against the ANP, PML-N, and PPP?
Finally, a fifth and final wild card is religious minorities, specifically Christians, who could be a key swing vote in central Punjab. The PML-N, which has run the province over the past five years, has a checkered record with religious minorities. During its tenure, there has been a rise in attacks on Ahmadis, Barelvis, Christians, and Shias in the province. They might have an opportunity to tilt close races in the favor of the PPP, which has had better ties with minorities, or PTI, which has made some bold expressions of religious pluralism.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.