Will elections change Pakistan?

By Khalid Rahman
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 9, 2013
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Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the damaged office of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in southern Pakistani port city of Karachi on May 4, 2013. At least three people were killed and 35 others injured when twin blasts hit Muttahida Quami Movement's (MQM) election office in Karachi on Saturday night, local political leader said.  [Photo/Xinhua]

Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the damaged office of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in southern Pakistani port city of Karachi on May 4, 2013. At least three people were killed and 35 others injured when twin blasts hit Muttahida Quami Movement's (MQM) election office in Karachi on Saturday night, local political leader said. [Photo/Xinhua]

This weekend, Pakistanis will elect a new parliament to succeed the first-ever civilian legislature to complete its tenure. The elections have gained additional significance because of Pakistan's key role in the changing strategic, political and economic landscape of the region, brought about by the US troop pullout from Afghanistan.

Although electioneering has suffered a setback because of a disturbed security environment, overall violence during the election campaign has been much less than that seen during the last several years. And a vibrant electronic media and widespread use of digital means, to a large extent, have offset the low-key election campaign.

The elections are all about political parties, which is difficult - if not impossible - for many people outside the sub-continent to fathom. The lack of aggressive campaign on the part of major players such as the Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians, Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party is actually a result of their poor performance during the five-year parliament term. The absence of any central leader has been an additional sticking point for the PPPP.

As always, the eastern province of Punjab will be the real battleground, for it accounts for 55 percent of the total seats in the parliament. But a political vacuum created by the diminishing support for the PPPP - which fell from 42 percent in 1988 to 29 percent in 2008 - as well as its ally Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, has made electioneering a major factor in the elections.

The rest of the electoral territories are less open to change, because they are either the vote banks of one dominant party, like MQM in Karachi and Pakistan People's Party in rural Sindh, or are relatively small electoral territories where local interests are split along several ethnic and regional lines, as in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

This explains the emergence of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, as a major player and its aggressive campaign against Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (headed by former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif). Despite being a right-leaning party, the PTI's stance against the PML-N has made it a choice for disenchanted PPPP voters. Moreover, the PTI's slogans of "Change" and "New Pakistan" have attracted the youth as well as uncertain PML-N supporters. But the PTI has little presence in Sindh and Baluchistan, and the PML-N faces challenges from other right-wing parties that may not only win a few seats, but also become a decisive factor in closely contested constituencies.

A 10-party alliance poses a big challenge to an outright PPPP victory in rural Sindh. PPPP allies, the MQM in urban Sindh and the ANP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, too, face difficulties. But even if the MQM's share in the parliament shrinks, it is expected to remain a major factor in the formation of government in Sindh. The ANP, however, has little chance of retaining its position in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. With its traditional support base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, Fazal-ur-Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal-ur-Rehman) is likely to remain an important player in the two provinces.

Thus it is likely that right-leaning parties, despite winning more seats, may not be able to form a decisive coalition. This would create an uncertainty after the elections in which a new alignment of the PPPP and some right-leaning parties may emerge, especially because the PPPP and its allies may gain a reasonable number of seats owing to the divide in right-leaning voters who support the PML-N, PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami or the JUI-F.

Rejection of former president Pervez Musharraf's papers and the subsequent trial proceedings against him, without any popular reaction, are evidence of his unpopularity in the country. Most Pakistanis believe that his policies are responsible for many of the troubles they face today. Some parliamentary resolutions demanding a change in Pakistan's foreign policy also reflect this popular thinking.

In this context, while terrorism will be a major issue in the elections, a policy entailing dialogue remains a popular discourse. Hence, parties that tend to agree to negotiate with the Taliban are more likely to win votes. This could also prompt the next Pakistani administration to reconsider its engagement with the United States and its role in the war on terrorism.

But it is not clear how much change will effectively take place in case the elections result in a hung parliament and a coalition government. Therefore, reconsideration of Pakistan's ties with the US - not a U-turn - is very much a possibility. This could have an impact on Pakistan's relations with other countries as well.

A greater interest in furthering Pakistan-China relations - which is a kind of consensus view in Pakistan - is certain. Building on the initiatives taken recently in regard to relations with Russia and Iran is also probable, though PML-N may not be so enthusiastic about it.

The chances of a real breakthrough with India, however, remain slim. The policy of dialogue will, nevertheless, continue because both the emerging parties, the PML-N and the PTI, strongly promote it.

On the domestic front, the economy in general and the energy sector in particular will be the main focus. But a considerable number of old corrupt parliamentarians would continue to pose a challenge in this regard.

Challenges apart, the replacement of a civilian government with another one in Pakistan - through a democratic process - itself indicates a journey toward change. As this journey progresses, it will usher in the desired change and, in the process, settle the issues that now seem like hindrances.

The author is director of Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.


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