Pakistan goes to polls today (25 July). The elections are mired in controversy. At the national level there are three parties – PML(N) (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz), PPP ( Pakistan People’s Party) and PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), in addition to various smaller and regional groupings. Elections are being held for 269 National Assembly seats out of 272 as elections to 3 seats have been postponed; 10 seats are reserved for minorities and 60 for women in the 342 Member National Assembly.
The 272 general seats are split between the four provinces Punjab (141), Sindh (61), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (39), Balochistan (16), and two territories that is FATA (12) and Islamabad Capital Territory (3). The elections are being supervised nay conducted by the powerful establishment (Pakistan Army and the ISI). Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan appears to have full support of the Establishment whom he had once called the ‘Umpire’. Nawaz Sharif had called it ‘Khalai Makhlook (Aliens)’.
A change of track from idealism to expediency helped Imran Khan come closer to his goal and cultivate the Establishment. The times are further in his favor with the decapitation of the main opponent i.e PML(N).
Punjab: It is central and northern Punjab that will finally determine the country’s future; 95 National Assembly seats are concentrated in the region that largely constitutes urban constituencies, unlike feudal-dominated southern Punjab. The rules of the game are completely different in the heartland.
Corruption of a leader and court decisions have very little influence on electoral support. There is no indication of the PML-N losing ground in its bastion of Punjab des pite some high-profile defections and alleged meddling by the Establishment persuading candidates to switch sides.
There is definitely some sympathy for the PML-N after the imprisonment of Sharif and his daughter Maryam, and there is no evidence of any major cracks in the party’s popular support base either except in Southern Punjab although the PTI does seems to have made some inroads in the PML-N power base, with the Establishment’s support.
The region between Multan and Rahim Yar Khan has 46 NA seats spread over 11 districts. PTI has reasonably good presence there along with PPP which has strong candidates in Multan and Rahim Yar Khan.
Sindh: Here there is the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) formed by the Establishment which is an anti-PPP combine, and is likely to get some seats especially from interior Sindh. Imran Khan’s PTI hopes to have some electoral presence in the province where the PPP appears unassailable. The disintegration of the MQM (Mohajir Qaumi Movement) that dominated the politics of urban Sindh for almost three decades has provided an opportunity for the PTI to grab a few more seats from Karachi.
Balochistan: Electoral politics in Balochistan are entirely different. The emergence of the Establishment-backed Balochistan Awami Party on the scene following the Senate elections has brought a new element to provincial electoral politics. The PTI seems to have already established some understanding with this party.
There are militant groups like Milli Muslim League, Tehreek-e-Labaik, Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in the fray. Most of these actors are seen as spoilers, i.e they can do some damage to mainstream parties and change the results in a few constituencies. The new far-right actors have diminished the bargaining prospects of smaller religious parties like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Samiul Haq faction) and factions of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan.
The Establishment’s support to Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf and few other smaller groups has aroused suspicions in mainstream parties about the extent of the role of the security establishment. Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister, who is now in jail serving a 10-year prison term after being convicted in one of the corruption references, is saying it openly.
The People’s Party and some other parties may not be that forthcoming but have the same concern. Because of Pakistan’s harlequin history and repeated military coups, politicians do not trust the generals and men in uniform have an unfavourable view of the elected leaders. This chronic mistrust is one of the many reasons that democracy has never taken roots and none of the elected prime ministers ever completed his five-year term.
Today, Imran Khan may be in the good books of the Establishment but tomorrow he may be facing the same fate as his predecessors. Some of his detractors believe that if Imran forms the next government, he may not be able to survive for even two years as he is very ambitious and may venture to interfere in No-Go areas like the Defence Budget, Defence, Nuclear and Foreign Policy especially in relation to India, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Middle East Israel, the West and other important countries.
Democracy needs elections and proper elections need a level playing field. Else, public confidence in political institutions and processes is undermined, and the legitimacy of those elected is weakened or lost altogether. A large cross section of Pakistanis is not seeing the election as free or fair. The banning of Nawaz Sharif from holding political office, raises doubts in many ways.
Some suspicious events have confounded voters. There are 49 independent candidates with Jeep as their election symbol which in a way indicates that they are supported by the Establishment. This category includes Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the former Interior Minister who is extremely close to the Establishment like Imran.
The prognostication is that there may be hung National Assembly. PTI may get around 80 to 85 seats. The PML (Nawaz) may get around 70 to 75 seats. The PPP may get around 35 seats. The Independents may get around 40 and other smaller parties may corner the rest.
Punjab may also have a hung assembly. PPP may scrape through in Sindh, PTI in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and the Establishment-supported “Baluchistan Awami” Party with group of smaller parties in Baluchistan.
But then as Islamabad High Court Judge Justice Shaukat Siddiqui said, the judiciary is not Independent and both media and judiciary are controlled by the Army and ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). The election process itself and the future thereafter seems precarious. However, it seems clear that the Establishment will call the shots and choose the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers of its choice.
The writer is a Senior IAS officer of the Punjab Cadre and is working as Secretary to Government of Punjab.