As the country gears up for July’s elections, Irfan Husain takes a look at the contenders and the possible outcome

Pakistani politics is not for the faint-hearted. A blood sport, it has left many political careers shredded, and many politicians scarred for life. If anything, it has become an even gorier spectacle over the life of the recently ended Parliament, with fresh elections due on 25 July.

Elected politicians have always struggled against the control the military establishment has traditionally exerted over the political process, but in the last few years, the higher judiciary and the media have also become active players that have helped to destabilise the previous government. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was prime minister for most of the last five years until he was disqualified from sitting in the National Assembly by the Supreme Court on ridiculously flimsy grounds.

Instead of nailing him on corruption charges brought under the Panamagate scandal, judges found Sharif guilty of being the undeclared beneficiary of an appointment letter issued by his son’s company in Dubai. Never mind that he drew no salary, and this is a ploy commonly used by Pakistanis to avoid the hassle of obtaining a visa for the UAE. Using a constitutional provision inserted by General Zia that called on public representatives to be ‘honest and righteous’, the Supreme Court banned Sharif from Parliament for life.

When the verdict was announced earlier this year, there were dark rumours that the establishment and the judiciary had joined hands to ensure Sharif’selimination from Pakistani politics. They were supported by a large section of the media that acts on instructions from the public relations wing of the military, the ISPR. But instead of caving in to this intense pressure, Sharif came out fighting, all but accusing the army and the judiciary of being behind his unjust ouster.

In well-attended rallies across Punjab, his message of victimhood has resonated among his substantial support base. Instead of turning against him because of the many corruption charges levelled against him, his party has rallied around. In speech after speech, he has blamed ‘aliens’ – a euphemism for the plotters – for his plight.

But his biggest selling point has been the development his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, has brought about in Punjab. A long-serving chief minister of the country’s largest province, the younger Sharif has worked tirelessly to improve education and health, apart from investing heavily in the physical infrastructure.

Comprising 60 per cent of the country’s population, Punjab elects 174 seats out of a total of 342 (out of which 272 are directly elected, while 70 are reserved for women and religious minorities) in the National Assembly. Thus, a party that does well here has the best chance of forming the next government. In fact, Imran Khan’s biggest hurdle on his way to the premiership is his rival’s enduring popularity in Pakistan’s heartland.

A party that does well in Punjab has the best chance of forming the next government

Long suspected of benefiting from the establishment’s blessings, Khan, leader of the Pakistan Justice Party (PTI), has been Sharif’s nemesis these last few years, leading a string of sit-ins and rallies against the government. His initial protests were against the rigging he alleged took place in the 2013 general elections. After several enquiries had established that polling had been generally free and fair, Khan was presented a gift in the shape of the Panama leaks. Spurning Sharif’s offer of a parliamentary enquiry, Khan threatened to storm Islamabad until the Supreme Court offered to hear the case.

As the country braces itself for next month’s elections, an anti-corruption court is holding hearings into the allegations against Sharif. The judge has been instructed by the Supreme Court to expedite its verdict, presumably so Sharif’s reputation can be further stained before the polls.

The Pakistan People’s Party won a mere 33 seats in the 2013 elections after having formed the previous government following its plurality in 2008. Five years of poor governance and allegations of massive corruption under Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, saw it pushed out of Punjab to the Bhutto fiefdom of Sindh, where it now runs a largely dysfunctional provincial government.

The MQM, an urban party mostly consisting of descendants of mohajirs, or migrants from India, has long ruled the roost in Karachi and Hyderabad. Controlled by its founder Altaf Hussain from self-imposed exile in London, the party machine has been ruthless in collecting protection money and in blatantly rigging every election since the Nineties, when it rose to power. Encouraged by General Musharraf as a counterweight to the PPP, the MQM has long enjoyed official patronage. But over the last year, it has been battered by security forces, and has split into four fragments. Altaf Hussain’s interminable telephone speeches have been banned by a court order. Seeing a vacuum, other major parties are hoping to cash in on the MQM’s disarray in Karachi.

ESTABLISHMENT BACKING: Altaf Hussain leads the MQM, which has long enjoyed official patronage
ESTABLISHMENT BACKING: Altaf Hussain leads the MQM, which has long enjoyed official patronage

Although Islam plays a role in the daily life of most Pakistanis, religious parties have never done well in the elections. The only exception was following the highly controversial polls conducted under Musharraf in 2003 when an alliance of clerics formed the provincial government in Khyber-Pukhtun province (earlier the NWFP). In 2013, however, they won only 19 seats, and are not expected to do much better in July.

So how are the major contenders for power expected to do in the general elections? Without any interference from the establishment, Nawaz Sharif’s party could win a comfortable plurality that would allow it to form the next government. According to a recent Gallup Pakistan opinion poll, the PML-N has a commanding lead over Imran Khan’s PTI in Punjab, where the latter has increased its popularity from 17 per cent in 2013 to around 25 per cent currently. But at 40 per cent, the PML-N has seen its support rise from 32.7 per cent in the last election when it won 129 seats. The PPP languishes at around 15 per cent, the percentage it won in 2013.

The joker in the pack remains the establishment. While it has insisted it has no role in the elections except to provide security, there have been reports of PML-N diehards receiving calls threatening them with visits from anti-corruption officials as well as the tax authorities. Many have switched sides to Imran Khan’s party since they see him as being the army’s favourite. The PPP, too, has seen an exodus of potential candidates.

But apart from pre-election interference, it is now difficult to rig the elections on polling day. The process will be monitored by local and international observers, and supervised by neutral caretaker provincial and federal governments. To keep Nawaz Sharif out of power, there is talk of a PTI-PPP coalition, even though Imran Khan has repeatedly dismissed this possibility. But just as the establishment managed to propel an unknown Baloch politician to the chairmanship of the Senate, it can be expected to knock heads and force the PTI and the PPP into a marriage of convenience.

Never let it be said that Pakistani politics is boring.

Irfan Husain writes for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, and has also written for many other international publications, including The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and The Times of India. He is the author of the prize-winning book Fatal Fault lines: Pakistan, Islam and the West


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