By Najam Sethi
March 22-28, 2013
The first elected parliament and government in Pakistan's 66-year history have completed their mandated five-year term and gone home. This is a great achievement.
Generally speaking, it means that our political elites have finally recognized the value of setting and playing by the core rules of the game of electoral democracy. A clutch of constitutional amendments - empowering the prime minister at the expense of the President, empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan and the judiciary at the expense of the executive, and empowering the provinces at the expense of the centre - with the help of the opposition is testimony to this. More specifically, it means that the civilians have realized that conspiring with the military to undermine one another for short term political gains eventually hurts all civilian projects and thwarts stable nation-building.
Of course, there were some political seizures when it looked like curtains for the Zardari government. One such moment came during the opposition's Long March in 2009 for the restoration of the Supreme Court judges when a last minute decision by President Zardari staved off a possible recourse to the military as arbitrator of the last resort. Another time, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani stood in parliament and thundered against the military establishment as a "state within the state", precipitating rumours that the end was nigh. It was during those tense days that President Zardari's nerves collapsed and he was rushed to Dubai for medical treatment.
The military wasn't the only institution demanding its pound of flesh. The Supreme Court, whose raging populism has set a world record in judicial activism, also had its gun-sights fixed on President Zardari. In fact, one PPP prime minister was sent packing and another was on the run until the bitter end. The NAB and FIA too were constantly scurrying for cover. In consequence the army chief and the CJP extracted their pound of flesh, the former by getting a 3-year service extension and the latter by presiding over the most independent court in the country's history. What next?
Several issues are still hanging fire. The courts could compel President Zardari to restrict his political activities, thereby hurting the PPP's electoral prospects. The ECP could create a dangerous logjam by disqualifying candidates galore under the new amended rules for nominations. Terrorists could disrupt election rallies and discourage voters from expressing their choices. A natural disaster, political assassination or Indo-Pak confrontation could derail the transition process. More likely, however, is the prospect of electoral wins and losses that could lead to a new arithmetic of power and office signifying a recipe for bad governance.
The outgoing PPP coalition regime could muster a two-thirds majority when necessary. But it was constantly buffeted by the demands of its alliance partners and could not carry out any core-issue reforms. The incoming regime is also likely to be a coalition. But, given the arithmetic, it would be lucky to retain a simple majority for any length of time. Therefore, even under the best case scenarios, Pakistan is likely to remain in a state of dangerous disequilibrium after the elections.
To be sure, the PPP and its alliance partners are down because of their abysmal performance. But the PMLN, the main contender for power, is an uncertain outright winner because a third force led by Imran Khan's PTI is aiming at the same conservative Punjab-dominated vote bank. About 40% of the registered vote of Pakistan derives from age-group 18-40 years, much of it predisposed towards Imran Khan in the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The rural/urban divide is also about 50:50 in these areas, with PTI more popular in the urban areas than the PMLN. If the PTI is able to cut into the PMLN heartland, the net gainer will be the PPP in a three-way first past the post system.
The battleground will be Punjab with 148 directly elected National Assembly seats. If the PPP and its ally PMLQ can manage to hold on to even 40 seats or about half their tally of 72 seats in Punjab in the 2008 elections, - which is doable - they may still be able to boast the single largest chunk in the new parliament (the PPP is assured of at least 30 seats in Sindh) and lay claim to forming a government with the help of the MQM, and ANP. The 20 or so Independents could then play a role in tilting the balance.
In short, the new election is a not about popularity or issues. It is about traditional arithmetic based on ethnic and regional vote banks versus an X factor attributed to youngsters in urban areas passionate about voting for "change" under Imran Khan.
The 1970 general election was a truly fair election but it delivered an electoral arithmetic that eventually split Pakistan. The 2013 general election promises to be the fairest since 1970. But the fear is that it could gridlock the country and pave the way for another praetorian intervention before the year is out.