Elections in Pakistan offer no hope
Democracy has been a pyrrhic victory for Pakistan. The first democratic government to complete a full term has left a ravaged land. Numbers do not capture the misery and distress. Inflation has ripped into the poor like a carving knife. Unemployment has metastasized. Prolonged and frequent power cuts have ruined livelihoods. Cities have become killing fields. Civic services have become distant memories. The list goes on.
Now, as elections scheduled for May 11 approach, Pakistanis wonder what else democracy has in store for them. While there are many political parties in the country only four really matter in the coming election. These are: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
The PPP — Benazir Bhutto’s party, now under the stewardship of her widower Asif Ali Zardari — has the most to lose. As the ruling party, it is held responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the past five years. Historically, the PPP has dominated the Bhuttos’ home province of Sindh. And the spell that Benazir’s father Zulfiqar, cast on the country’s largest province Punjab allowed the party to dominate the country’s politics for the best part of 40 years. Zardari’s rule has broken the spell. The PPP was never a factor in either Balochistan or the Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa). And now with the Punjab gone, the PPP will most likely emerge as primarily a regional — mainly Sindhi — party.
Recent surveys indicate that Punjab seems to be swinging toward the PML-N. Its leader Nawaz Sharif — a Punjabi himself — ranks as the most popular national leader in the province. And it is likely that the PML-N will form the next Punjab provincial government. But Sharif has grander ambitions — he dreams of becoming Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time. To achieve this he is trying hard to forge alliances in the other provinces with smaller parties. This is not the only obstacle he faces on the road to Islamabad. A new and formidable adversary has emerged in the form of Imran Khan — the now aging, but once glamorous cricket star.
Imran Khan’s party, the PTI, which languished in obscurity for the better part of 15 years has risen rapidly over the last two years to mount a serious challenge to the PPP and PML-N. The PTI’s rise is powered by two factors. The first is youth. More than 60 percent of Pakistan’s population is under 25 years old. They are looking for change. PTI — especially to the educated among them — represents this change. The second factor is general disenchantment with the PPP and PML-N. Both parties have been in government several times. And both have disappointed each time. The reasoning is: Let’s give someone new a chance.
But this is where the good news ends for PTI. Unexpected leadership decisions have created dangerous schisms inside the party. Imran Khan had always promised to bring new people into politics and this was a central part of his appeal. But as PTI’s popularity rose over the last two years he made, what many think, is a catastrophic error. Breaking his earlier promise, he opened the doors to traditional politicians. This has rankled the party’s old guard. The results have included unseemly scuffles between old and new at PTI offices across the country. Many loyalists have resigned.
Despite such self-inflicted wounds PTI remains a force to contend with especially in the Punjab. Analysts expect it will vie with the PPP to get second or third place in the 272-seat National Assembly. The PML-N is expected to get the largest number of seats.
The fourth contender is the Karachi-based MQM. This is primarily an ethnic party, which draws its strength from the descendents of Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from India during the Partition. The MQM had until recently, a stranglehold on the country’s largest city Karachi. The 25 or so seats it always manages to win from there have given it leverage disproportionate to its size. The relatively even balance in the past between the two top parties PPP and PML-N, with neither of them getting an outright majority, has allowed the MQM to in effect decide which of the two large parties will form the government. But MQM has suffered setbacks. An inflow of migrant Pashtun workers from the country’s northern province — Khyber Pakhtunkwa — has altered the ethnic balance in Karachi. And the increasing influence of the Pakistani Taleban in the city has started to contain a certain violent streak in the MQM, which has not hesitated in the past to use coercion to get votes.
The next election will most likely see a hung assembly with no party getting an outright majority. PML-N will have the most seats followed by several smaller parties. A coalition government will be formed. Democracy will move forward. But sadly nothing will change: The same people, or the same sort of people — corrupt, incompetent and insincere — who sat in the previous assembly will sit in the new.