You are here

Ifs and buts of Pakistan’s coming elections

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 09, 2013

    The anticipation over the results that will be thrown up by the Pakistan general elections on May 11 is palpable, not just in Pakistan but also other countries with interests in and concerns about Pakistan. The political air is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities. Since the election is too close to call, there is a consensus that a coalition will emerge. Various permutations and combinations of which parties can form a coalition are being discussed even before the first vote has been cast.

    Clearly, if the 2013 elections is a ‘make-or-break’ one for Pakistan, then the future, even its existence, will depend not just on who forms the next government, but more importantly on how it functions. The portents, however, are not bright and instead of stabilising the country, chances are that the coming elections could well end up making Pakistan further ungovernable. In any case, regardless of who wins on May 11, it will be an uncertain and bumpy political road ahead.

    Even a couple of days before polling, there are no clear trends visible. In every elections since 1988, pundits could predict, with a fair bit of certainty, the outcome particularly which party was likely to form the next government if not the exact number of seats the parties would get. This time, however, the election is too close to predict but the man who is threatening to change the political game is Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. If PTI ends up with around 30-40 seats (give or take another 10), then the Imran factor will turn out to be more or less a damp squib. But if a sort of ‘tsunami’ unfolds, then PTI could end up with a possible 100 or so of the 272 directly elected seats in the 342 member National Assembly.

    The thing to note is that if Imran Khan can swing the election around, then it can only be at the cost of Nawaz Sharif, and vice versa. Interestingly, in the electoral slugfest between Nawaz Sharif and Imran, Asif Zardari’s PPP doesn’t really have a bearing. The reason is simple: the PTI is a player only in two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (including FATA), which together have around 200 of the 272 seats on which elections will be held. This is also Nawaz Sharif’s playground, thus pitting him against Imran. The PPP has pockets of support in Central and North Punjab (100 seats) but its real strength lies in South Punjab (48 seats) where it will be fighting both PMLN and PTI. In Sindh, where the PPP hopes to win at least half of the 61 seats, the PMLN and PTI are seen bit players. Balochistan with its 14 seats doesn’t really enter any calculation. But Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA with 47 seats matters. Here, Imran Khan will have to defeat Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s resurgent JUI-F in addition to wresting the ANP, PPP and PMLN. This means, for Imran Khan to have any chance to carry political weight in Islamabad, he would have to contend with his main adversaries, Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. This is precisely the reason why they have been going all out against each other during the election campaign.

    Given the selection of the candidates and the constituency dynamics, it appears unlikely that Imran Khan’s PTI will emerge as the single largest party. But analysts calculate that if the voters’ turnout is closer to 60% and not the usual 45-50%, then Imran Khan’s ‘tsunami’ could well sweep the opposition away. Otherwise, the result will be along traditional lines, albeit with Imran Khan making major inroads and emerging as the third, if not the second, largest party with around 40-50 seats. If cookie crumbles in such expected ways, then the results will be more or less similar to the 2008 but with the difference that instead of the PPP, the PMLN will get around 90-100 seats. The PPP is expected to emerge as the second largest party with around 60-70 seats. PTI will occupy the space vacated by the PMLQ, which in turn will be reduced to around 10 seats. JUIF will do better in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and get around 10-12 seats. The MQM could suffer some reverses but will still remain the major party in urban Sindh with around 15 seats. The rest of the seats will be taken by smaller parties and independents.

    There is also a possibility that the PPP gets decimated to 30-40 seats, suffering major setbacks not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab but even in its bastion Sindh, at the hands of a 10-party alliance led by PML-Functional and including PMLN, Jamaat Islami, JUIF, NPP and Sindhi nationalist parties. For the PPP, this could well be a political disaster difficult to recover from. Unlike in the past when the PPP had charismatic leaders like ZA Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto leading it, today it doesn’t have such a galvanising force. Further, many of the senior leaders could possibly desert what they see as a sinking ship. In short, a debacle in 2013 could make the PPP suffer the fate of PMLQ after 2008.

    In the event that no party is able to get a simple majority and a fractured mandate emerges, government formation will become a critical issue. One possibility is that the mandate is so fractured – the PTI and PMLN getting around 60-80 seats each and the PPP ending up with 50-odd seats – that government formation becomes impossible unless at least two of the three big parties join hands, which in itself is impossible. The other possibility is that the PMLN wins around 90-odd seats and cobbles together the magic number of 137 with the help of independents and smaller parties like JUIF, PMLF, QWP, etc. A third possibility is that the PTI wins around 90-100 seats but then falls short of a simple majority because it cannot rope in any of the smaller parties. Finally, the PPP’s best-case-scenario where it profits from the PTI-PMLN fight and ends up with around 75-80 seats and subsequently using Asif Zardari’s considerable political skills at coalition formation gets the required number to form another government. At present the last scenario looks rather fanciful because the PPP has almost resigned itself to being the kingmaker and keen on holding the balance of power instead of wielding power.

    Any coalition government will by definition be susceptible to pulls and pressures of coalition politics and interests of coalition partners. Tough decisions on the economy, foreign policy, strategic issues, will become even more onerous than it already is. Scanning the political field, none of the front runners who could head the next government have any plans to address Pakistan's critical issues. Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have little to offer on policies. Like everyone else, they know what the problems are but are clueless on how to address them. For instance, it’s all very well to say that revenue must be raised, investment must be attracted, expenditure must be cut, power generation must be increased, power distribution must be streamlined, etc but how to accomplish this is answered. What is more, the repercussions of some of the promises that are being made – for instance, Imran Khan promising to shoot down US drones, or both Imran and Nawaz Sharif promising to stop military operations and hold a dialogue with the Taliban terrorists and disengage from the US war on terror – have either not been thought through or just said for a poll effect.

    While the problems facing a coalition government are obvious, even a single party-led government will find it difficult to negotiate the minefield of Pakistani politics, what with the 4M’s (munsifs’ or judiciary, military, media and mujahideen or militants) that have replaced the 3A’s (Allah, army and America), which traditionally have called the shots in Pakistan. Asif Zardari handled the pressure of the M’s either by appeasement or surrendering or even ignoring. One does not know whether Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan is capable of managing this?

    Pakistan is clearly going to remain in the zone of uncertainty after the elections. While the first civilian transition might have been completed, the real test of sustainable democracy will only come about if the second civilian transition is smooth and lasting. Unlike the PPP-led government formed in 2008, the next government will not have much political, diplomatic, or financial space to manoeuvre. Pakistan is in no position to continue drifting. Unless the next government is able to bring in political stability, it is unlikely to complete its term and there is every possibility of extra-constitutional intervention, thereby derailing the democratic process. No wonder then, it is not so much May 11, but the days thereon that will decide the future of Pakistan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.