In examining the results of Pakistan’s local elections,
Rahimullah Yusufzai finds few surprises-with one notable exception.
The outcome of the recent local government elections in Pakistan have shown that the political parties that won the May 2013 general election have largely maintained their popularity by winning the majority of seats in their strongholds in the four provinces of the country.
Local government polls were for the first time held on a party basis and were seen as an indicator of the political parties’ support nearly two and a half years after the last general election. The different ruling parties have completed half of their five-year term and the polls were being viewed as the verdict on their performance to date.
Pakistan presently has a number of ruling parties. In fact, almost all major political parties and some of the minor ones are in power as part of coalition governments at the federal or provincial level.
At the top is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which rules at the centre, and in Punjab (the most populous province) and Balochistan (the largest province by area). The PML-N has a small presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and an insignificant support base in Sindh. Critics often dub it as a Punjab-based party and accuse Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is chief minister of Punjab, of giving preference to their native province in decision-making at the expense of the three smaller provinces.
The late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is now headed by her spouse, former President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, and their only son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is the ruling party in the family’s native Sindh province. The party has lost ground in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkwa and Balochistan and is struggling to prevent a further drop in its popularity in these provinces.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), founded by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan. It has become the main opposition party in Punjab at the expense of the PPP, but its electoral support is insignificant in Sindh and Balochistan. The PTI is also the major rival of the PML-N at the national level, after having outvoted the PPP as the second biggest party in terms of its share of the vote.
There are a few other smaller ruling parties as well. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), the country’s biggest Islamic party headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, is part of the PML-N-led federal government. The Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F), a Sindh-based party, is also an ally of the PML-N in the federal coalition government.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, three small parties are part of the PTI-led coalition government. They include the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) of former federal interior minister Aftab Sherpao, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad Pakistan (AJIP).
In Balochistan, four parties are part of the seemingly unwieldy coalition government. The PML-N is the biggest party in terms of its strength in the Balochistan Assembly, followed by the National Party (NP) of Baloch nationalists, and the Pakhtunkhwa Awami Party (PMAP) of Pashtun (or Pakhtun) nationalists.
A few lawmakers of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), which was launched in the country to serve as a platform to fulfil military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s political ambitions before the 2008 general election, are also part of the coalition government in Balochistan. Once deprived of official support, the PML-Q was reduced to a marginal player in the country’s politics and was rejected by voters in the 2013 general election. Musharraf later formed another party, All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), but it couldn’t attract public support. However, he continues to remain in the limelight by frequently appearing on television channels and fighting a legal battle in a host of criminal cases registered against him.
Balochistan, despite being the most underdeveloped province in Pakistan, was the first to hold local government elections and the results largely reflected the outcome of the May 2013 polls. The PML-N, the NP, the PMAP, along with the JUI-F, won most of the seats in the province. However, there was a delay in holding election for the nazims, or heads of the various tiers of the local government, that would have made the union councils and the town and district councils fully functional.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the next to hold local government polls. The PTI bagged the majority of the seats, thereby broadly reflecting its status as the party with the most electoral support in the province. The nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP, which ruled the province as part of a coalition government from 2008-2013 and then fared poorly in the 2013 general election, made a slight comeback in the local polls. The JUI-F, Jamaat-i-Islami and the PML-N won seats in their traditional strongholds. The district governments have now been formed, but the powers given to the nazims have become a matter of dispute because the ruling PTI seems to be backtracking on giving them the authority it promised earlier. It is true the PTI government has allocated 30 per cent of the provincial development budget to the local governments, but at the same it has made these councils subservient to the bureaucracy headed by the deputy commissioners in every district.
Under pressure from the Supreme Court which directed the provincial governments to hold the much-delayed local government elections, the PML-N government in Punjab and the PPP government in Sindh also held polls recently. The PML-N won the biggest number of seats in Punjab, where the party has been in power for years, but contrary to expectations the PTI failed to put up a good fight. Imran Khan had campaigned hard and long in Punjab but the results came as a disappointment to it in both rounds of the phased polling in different districts. In fact, the independent candidates won more seats than the PTI. The other parties, including the PPP, PML-Q, Jamaat-i-Islami and JUI-F lagged far behind.
The results in Sindh also went according to expectations. The PPP won big in the province to reassert its steadfast support among the Sindhi voters. Rural Sindh continues to trust the PPP, which has lost the backing of the people in the rest of Pakistan after losing every election in recent years and even suffering defeat in its stronghold of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs in urban Sindh mostly voted for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which is led by the self-exiled Altaf Hussain based in the United Kingdom since 1992.
The PML-N and PTI couldn’t do well in Sindh. The PML-F did relatively better, but none of these parties could dent the support for the PPP. However, the PPP lost Badin district in Sindh largely due to the strife in its ranks. Dissident PPP leader Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, whose wife Fehmida Mirza served as the Speaker of the National Assembly from 2008-2013, put up his own candidates, who inflicted defeat on the PPP nominees. Zulfiqar Mirza had made serious allegations of corruption against Asif Ali Zardari, who has been haunted by similar charges in the past, when his wife Benazir Bhutto was twice the prime minister of Pakistan. It is said the PPP will be unable to stage a comeback in Punjab and other provinces unless Asif Ali Zardari is replaced and his 26-year old son Bilawal gains maturity to return the party to its previous 1970s glory, when its late founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, made it the voice of the downtrodden sections of Pakistani society.
The local government elections haven’t brought any surprises as far as the vote-bank of the political parties, both ruling and opposition, is concerned. Support for all other parties except the PTI can be predicted to some extent. The PTI is an upstart political party led by the never-say-die non-politician Imran Khan and it can be expected to spring a surprise and change the equation of electoral politics. It will thus be interesting to watch the PTI and Imran Khan, who recently suffered a personal setback when his second marriage to journalist Reham Khan collapsed after just nine months.