As the next general election draws closer, Pakistan’s domestic political atmosphere is becoming highly charged. Although the elections are still five months away constitutionally, it’s unlikely that the current government will complete its term. In this regard, three factors are very important.
First, the government faces a number of legal, institutional, and political challenges, which can force the ruling party to call for an early election. A number of cases involving the ruling party’s leadership allegedly in corruption are still under investigation. A few days ago, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) questioned the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, who is also the younger brother of the ruling party’s head, for allegedly awarding a large government contract to political loyalists.
In Punjab, rising political pressure on the government from various opposition groups has found solid legal and constitutional ground to weaken the ruling party’s hold on power. Apparently, all opposition parties in the country are looking for an agenda that can not only undermine the ruling party’s vote bank but, if needed, also mobilize the masses to force the government into calling an early election. For instance, the Model Town massacre case is being used by opposition political parties to demand the Punjab chief minister’s resignation. Moreover, another incident related to the ruling party’s alleged amendment into the national blasphemy law is being used to amass support by arousing public sentiment against the government. Undoubtedly, the government is feeling the heat of mounting political pressure. The recent incident involving the rape and murder of a child in Punjab saw the government employing state machinery to thwart the political opposition’s opportunist attacks against it.
Second, apparently opposition parties have recognized that if the government completes its full term and concludes the ongoing infrastructure projects, the latter can be in a good position to contest the upcoming election from a political vantage point. The ruling party remains in control in Punjab province, which contributes the majority of seats in the parliament. As of now, there appears to be no indication that lawmakers from the ruling party are going to leave the party. Speculations concerning the ruling party’s internal divisions, which became widespread after the party’s head and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, got disqualified in the Panama Papers corruption case a few months ago, have not materialized.
The completion of the current government will only isolate the opposition’s winning chances. For the opposition, the only viable way to derail the government’s preparations for the next general election is by disallowing the ruling party from completing its constitutional term in office. Opposition political parties, particularly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have already given an indication that their lawmakers may resign in the coming weeks. This threatening statement coincides with another announcement made by various religious-political groups that have warned to shut down the province of Punjab, the ruling party’s stronghold, if the provincial government didn’t implement Sharia law immediately.
Third, the role of the military establishment will be decisive in determining whether the government can complete its five-year constitutional term. Over the past couple of years, the military establishment has aggressively intervened in domestic politics, supporting and encouraging various political and religious groups to cut down the government’s power and size. For the Pakistani military, this was done to contain the current government’s attempts to push for the control of foreign and security policy; the military considers these under its jurisdiction. For now, there appears no desire on the military part to isolate the government further, for the latter has already been pushed into survival mode.
But one can argue that an early election is likely to bring a result that suits the military’s institutional interests and policies. If the next general election brings out mixed results with none of the major political parties winning a decisive victory, the military is not likely to face any active resistance from the next government in terms of demanding changes to Pakistan’s security and foreign policy. The military establishment has always preferred a weak government in Islamabad, which invariably remains dependent on the former for survival.
The next few weeks are going to be crucial in determining whether the Pakistani government can absorb the opposition’s pressure, which continues to mount rapidly.