By Rana Banerji
May 10, 2013
Tomorrow's election will signify a strengthening of the democratic process in Pakistan, with a popularly elected government completing its full term for the first time, and a constitutionally prescribed transition taking place through caretaker-supervised polls. Accordingly, 272 out of the 342 seats in Pakistan's National Assembly will be elected under the first-past-the-post system. Of these, 148 are from Punjab, 61 from Sindh, 35 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP — previously North-West Frontier Province), 14 from Balochistan, 12 from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and two from the Federal Capital Area (Islamabad). Sixty seats are reserved for women and another 10 for minority candidates, to be selected by proportional representation from party lists.
Electioneering remained low key throughout last month, not least on account of the violence systematically unleashed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan against the Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM-Altaf) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidates in KP and Karachi. This has raised a doomsday prospect of possible capture of state power by the Islamists through seemingly democratic means. Former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani`s son, Ali Haider, was kidnapped at gun point yesterday from a street corner rally in Multan.
The electorate has a sizable youth bulge (over 30% of 86 million). But voter turnout averaged around 45% in past elections. Fear of more violence on election day may not alter this trend.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif-led PML(N) gathered considerable momentum during recent canvassing in Punjab, pegging its election rhetoric on PPP`s mal-governance in the last five years and promising better deliverables in the power sector, easing of unemployment and reduction in prices of essential commodities. Already strong in central and north Punjab, under chief minister Shahbaz Sharif it appeased sectarian groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat in south Punjab. The PML(N) seems well placed to emerge as the single largest party with about 90 seats from Punjab.
The PPP has run a lacklustre campaign and will fare poorly due to anti-incumbency, perceived incompetence or indifference towards people`s needs. There were rumours of dissonance between Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal over ticket distribution. The loyal `jiyalas` could be energised only to a limited extent. Despite an effort at seat adjustments with PML(Q), the PPP is likely to be decimated in Punjab. However, it could still win between 30-35 seats from rural Sindh. Meanwhile, PML(Q) may win a few seats from traditionally held feudal pockets in Punjab, but its winning candidates will face pressure to join the PML(N) in the aftermath of the polls.
The MQM (A) has been on the back foot in this election due to last-minute attempts at delimitation of constituencies, targeted attacks and creeping encroachment by militant Pashtuns. This may whittle its tally in Greater Karachi but it would still win 25 seats from urban Sindh.
In KP, the ANP will suffer from anti-incumbency. Aftab Sherpao`s Qaumi Watan Party, PML(N), Imran Khan`s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and parties like Jamiat-e-Ulema of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Jamaat-e-Islami could all win a few seats.
Though participation of nationalist parties and Mehmood Khan Achakzai`s non-fundamentalist Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in Balochistan may seem like a saving grace for the future of the federation, votes would be divided between religious Pashtun parties in the north, and local Sardar affiliates and nationalist groups in the south.
Imran Khan started his election campaign on a high note, drawing huge crowds in Punjab, making attractive promises to new voters about changing laws and administrative systems in decay. He boasted he would not have any truck with discredited, corrupt politicians of either the PPP or PML (N). The PTI`s main contest will be with the PML(N) — both in Punjab and KP — splitting the right-of-centre vote in urban areas without impacting as much in rural areas. There is talk of a second wave in Imran`s favour. His last-minute accident could generate sympathy, even a higher turnout of his core supporters. Estimates vary though about his final tally, which could range between 30-45 seats.
India-baiting or the Kashmir issue did not figure significantly in the election campaign, though there were stray references to the Afzal Guru hanging.
To reach simple majority (137 out of 272), PML (N) would need to rope in independents from FATA and religious parties. Wooing MQM (A) would involve difficult bargaining over spoils in Karachi. The PTI will be an important player in coalition building.
Provincial assemblies head for elections the same day. Punjab may see a pro-PML (N) mandate, Sindh may go in favour of the PPP and MQM(A) while KP and Balochistan will remain fractured.
Despite Pakistan`s army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani having recently reiterated his faith in democracy, Rawalpindi GHQ will watch the election results closely. It will not be too comfortable with a landslide for Nawaz Sharif but could live with a weak coalition under his premiership. Once bitten twice shy, Sharif has been professing respect for army seniority as the new chief`s selection looms in November. However, two senior most generals of the eligible cohort — Haroon Aslam and Raheel Sharif — were sidelined in Kayani`s latest reshuffle, leaving the new chief of general staff Rashad Mahmood best placed to succeed Kayani. He may even have built political connections within PML(N) during his last stint as corps commander, Lahore.
Choosing a new army chief will be a priority subsequent to stable government formation as Pakistan appears headed towards a hung House.
Rana Banerjee is a former special secretary in the cabinet secretariat.