A vilified president and his reportedly pouting son, a former cricket star and lothario turned messiah, a Saudi proxy who once wanted to declare himself the Shadow of God on Earth, a mercurial leader in exile, a self-confessed peddler of nuclear wares, a sullied former Army chief. These are just some of the men who will lead their parties, big and small, through Pakistan’s national and provincial polls on May 11.
The elections are expected to mark the first-ever transition in Pakistan’s history from a fully-civilian elected government to another. But these are historic polls for another reason too: the Supreme Court has eclipsed the Army as the primary power to stage-manage the run-up to Election Day. According to one pundit who wished not to be named, the court’s involvement in electoral matters is “queering the contest for some political parties,” especially President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party.
There’s much at stake. There is the looming withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces from Afghanistan, where Pakistani generals don’t want India establishing a foothold. There is the state’s inchoate policy toward the Al Qaeda and Taliban terror franchises which has cost the country some 49,000 lives since the 9/11 attacks. There is the economic mess—food and fuel shortages, unemployment, inflation, mounting costs from the war on terror, running deficits from voter-pleasing social welfare and development schemes. There is the electorate’s alleged loss of faith in their representatives in Parliament.
The path to revival or ruin for this nuclear-armed nation of some 180 million will depend on the results of what is shaping up to be a highly contentious race in ever more dangerous times.
Terrorists, especially the Pakistani Taliban, have threatened to disrupt the democratic process with a tsunami of violence. Among their avowed targets: Zardari’s PPP; former president and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, who ended his four-year self-exile on March 24; and the Awami National and Muttahida Qaumi Movement parties—sometime allies of the PPP—which are also deemed pro-U.S. and liberal.
On March 31, there was a bombing at the campaign office of an ANP candidate in Bannu. Two are dead, and at least five injured. The Pakhtun-dominated party is also being bloodied by drive-by bombings in Karachi. On March 12, the district election commissioner of Quetta was shot dead. Pamphlets warning citizens against voting have been littered across Balochistan. The Election Commission has pleaded with the Army to help keep the peace on polling day.
At the same time, terrorists have expressed little recent displeasure with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Nawaz Sharif’s strain of the Pakistan Muslim League, which is reportedly working with sectarian and terrorist organizations for electoral dominance. (Not to be outdone, the PPP is also reportedly making similar arrangements.) The goal of “free, fair, and peaceful” elections is very likely to remain an unfulfilled aspiration. Threats from the Taliban as well as the weight of incumbency are likely to suppress turnout of PPP, ANP, and MQM voters.
Voter turnout was around 40 percent in the last elections. This time, 86.1 million Pakistanis—34 percent of them between the ages of 18 and 30—are registered to vote at some 75,000 polling stations across the country, including in the Afghanistan-abutting federally-administered tribal areas lousy with jihadists. The Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to contest. (It has allotted symbols to each party to help voters who cannot read: nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan’s party has been given a missile, Imran Khan’s a cricket bat.)
The goal of ‘free, fair, and peaceful’ elections is very likely to remain an unfulfilled aspiration.
With over 20,000 candidates nationwide, the polls will present Pakistanis with a range of colorful options to choose from. The hapless left—which aspires for social freedoms and liberties, peace with India, a laissez faire approach to Afghanistan, strong but secret relations with the U.S., curbs on the Army’s involvement in matters of government—is led by the PPP, ANP, and MQM. The rigid right—which is anti-America, and preaches a front-and-center role for religion—is represented by the Saudi-swaddled PMLN, Khan’s PTI, and myriad religious parties. The long-shot fringe includes Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, A. Q. Khan’s Tehrik-e-Tahafuz-e-Pakistan (TTP), and the political divisions of militant groups which have also been allowed to run. Of course, the line between left and right stands blurred as all parties have moved inexorably to right of center, desperately aligning themselves with public opinion.
Surveys suggest the elections will yield a hung Parliament at the center where unstable, unsavory, and unwieldy coalition-building will be necessary. This is Zardari’s forte. Two of the three recent opinion polls have the PMLN leading the PTI and PPP. But Khan’s supporters say the surveys skip on the millions of new young voters (and possibly Pakistani expats who may be able to vote) likely to flock to Khan. Zardari’s camp says the opinion polls discount the impact of initiatives like the Benazir Income Support Program, which has doled out over $1 billion in the last five years to the rural poor. Previous elections have shown that perceptions of corruption do not influence voters. Despite the furious indignation of glass-house talking heads on cable news TV, these elections are unlikely to be any different.
Neither of the two mainstream parties—PPP and PMLN—is expected to win an outright majority in the National Assembly. The PMLN ruled the country’s largest province, Punjab, for a full term. And while its government in Lahore was viewed more favorably than the PPP government in Islamabad, discontent is rampant. Pakistan’s next government may have to include smaller, kingmaker parties like Khan’s PTI, which sat out the 2008 elections.
A weak coalition government of unnatural and wary allies always in search of leverage would work to the advantage of both the Army and the Supreme Court. The Zardari-led government had ceded foreign policy and defense matters to the military, rubberstamping, mostly obediently, whatever demands came from the generals. It had likewise surrendered legislative and executive space to the judiciary.
Even though the PPP has a lock on Sindh, its prospects for the National Assembly are hurt by the fact that the Election Commission has barred Zardari from campaigning and his 24-year-old son and PPP chairman, Bilawal, may not campaign either owing, apparently, to security concerns.
These elections are not about the false choice between more-of-the-same and a storm-swept revolution. These are polls that pitch Pakistan’s darkest, isolationist demons—that unholy coalition of Islamists in politics, media, the judiciary, and military—against the shrinking voices and flawed, endangered agents of relative sanity.
The Supreme Court is also adamant that the constitutional provisions of Muslim piety required of all those who seek public office be dusted off and applied to weed out candidates. In Thatta on April 1, an election official quizzed Zardari’s foster brother, a candidate for the Sindh assembly and likely the province’s next chief minister, about Islam and asked him to recite Quranic passages that all “good Muslims” are supposed to know by heart. He got the answers right. On May 11, let’s hope Pakistan’s voters get the answer right too.
From our April 12, 2013, issue. For updates, follow Ahmed on Twitter.