Pakistan Elections: a Coalition Government Likely? 9 May 2013

Pakistan Elections: a Coalition Government Likely?                 9 May 2013

Pakistanis go to the polls on Saturday in what will be an interesting electoral contest. About 86 million voters have been registered to vote. Some of them will vote for 8,000 candidates to the 342-seat National Assembly in which 60 seats are reserved for women and ten for minorities. I say ‘some’ as voter turnout in the last election in February 2008 was only about 44 per cent.

Pakistani voters also will elect 728 members to four provincial assemblies: Punjab, 371 seats; Sindh, 168 seats; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 124 seats; and Balochistan, 65 seats. Over 19,000 candidates are standing for these provincial elections.

Every candidate must be a citizen of Pakistan only—dual citizenship is not allowed. He/she must be older than 25 years of age and of good character. Importantly, each must be a ‘graduate’ possessing a recognised bachelor’s degree in any discipline. This is a difficult requirement in a nation where literacy rates are still below 60 per cent. In the previous election, this requirement was policed loosely. The current Pakistan Election Commission, which is conducting the elections, is taking this matter more seriously. In March, it listed 54 current members whose degrees it has ruled to be fake or invalid (http://ecp.gov.pk/misc/listoffakedegreeholders.pdf).

Campaigning finishes tonight (Thursday), Pakistan time. Friday is a rest (and prayer) day. Voting, which is not compulsory, takes place on Saturday from 8 am to 5 pm for registered Pakistanis aged 18 years and older in 69,000 polling stations and 194,000 polling booths. The European Union has sent election monitors, as has the US-based National Democratic Institute. Locally, a group called the ‘Free and Fair Election Network’ hopes to have 43,000 observers monitoring the election. A caretaker government is in charge until the new government is elected. The Pakistan Army is deploying 50,000 soldiers to help ensure security.

Results

If the last election is any guide, we could have a reasonable idea about who will form government two or three days after polling finishes. (A final result takes time as bi-elections usually need to be conducted where members are elected from two (or more) constituencies.) The results are by no means certain. Opinion polls vary on which party will win, although most analysts seem to agree that the contest will chiefly be between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) faction (PML (N)), the Pakistan Tehreek-in-Insaf (PTI; Movement for Justice), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), most probably in that order.

On Tuesday, the founder, figurehead and main feature of the PTI, Imran Khan, unfortunately injured himself by falling from a ‘cherry picker’. Vicariously, this might create a sympathy vote for him. Both he and his party are expected to do well with younger Pakistani voters who comprise about half of all registered voters and many of whom will be voting for the first time. One of Khan’s major agenda items is ‘zero tolerance to corruption’. Interestingly—and refreshingly—PTI is one of the few political parties in Pakistan that has any internal democratic structure to elect officials and determine candidates.

The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) faction, Nawaz Sharif, who has been Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, claims to be confident of forming government in Islamabad. However, the PTI could impact on the PML (N)’s political power base in Punjab. Nevertheless, the PML (N) appears likely to win control of the Punjab Assembly, where Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz, would again become Chief Minister.

In the other provinces, coalition governments seem likely to prevail, with local parties providing the basis of these in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Awami National Party (ANP)) and in Balochistan (Balochistan National Party-Mengal). In Sindh, the locally-powerful PPP may combine with the party that is popular with Urdu-speaking ‘refugees’ (originally from India, and their descendants), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM; United National Movement), to form government.

Other parties that may do well are the once-influential Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) faction (PML (Q)) or ‘Kings Party’, known as such because it was supportive of, and supported by, General Musharraf during his tenure. There has been little talk of PML (Q) being involved in any official coalitions, although it apparently has an unofficial agreement seat-sharing arrangement with the PPP in Punjab. Another possible coalition partner is the right-wing religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazi. Some Pakistani analysts consider that it may share power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and/or Balochistan.

One ‘party’ not contesting the elections but which, nevertheless, is having a large impact on them is the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban). It may be responsible for some 100 deaths in electorally-related violence, chiefly directed at the PPP, MQM and ANP candidates, who the Taliban claims, among other things, have empowered US drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where the Taliban is strong. It also is seeking to intimidate people not to vote on Saturday in what it considers to be ‘infidel democracy’.

One party unlikely to fare well is General Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, which has been in the doldrums since Musharraf returned to a lukewarm welcome from Pakistanis and a hostile reception from the Pakistan judiciary. Musharraf has been banned for life from contesting any elections in Pakistan. He also is dealing with an array of charges made against him. His position will worsen if Sharif takes power as the Punjabi, who Musharraf ousted in a military coup in 1999, dislikes the former soldier. Sharif also has talked of holding an investigation into the so-called Kargil War in 1999, the instigation of which he (Sharif) claimed to know nothing about.

One interesting factor is the role of some youthful politicians. Bilawal Bhutto, who is PPP President, is not old enough to stand for election. He has been notable for his absence from electioneering, with the PPP looking rather rudderless. Conversely, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, has been campaigning in Lahore, which some success. Unfortunately, Ali Haider Gilani, the son of a former Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was kidnapped on Thursday by unknown (at this stage) assailants.

Overall, a coalition government seems likely in Islamabad. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given that Pakistanis have been governed this way for the last five years.

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