July 1, 2018: Election 2018 will not lead to political stability

Pakistani electorate will exercise its right to choose the next government in less than a month. Much has been said about the ongoing engineering or pre-poll manipulation but that’s not the entire story. The political parties contesting these elections are also in a state of disarray and their choices in selecting candidates and announcing party programmes leaves much to be desired. Once again, the political elites will share the blame for the partial rollback of democratic process.

The largest party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) is beset by a number of serious and seemingly intractable problems. Its top leader, Nawaz Sharif, stands disqualified and faces the prospect of a conviction by an accountability court. Nawaz’s heir-apparent — his brother Shehbaz — also faces a number of inquiries and is not the charged national campaigner that the party requires at this juncture. The party is not trusted by the military and also, by and large, faces hostile television screens.

PTI is likely to gain in South Punjab, a sizeable number of seats in central and upper Punjab and its prospects in KP are promising. This will improve its standing way above the 2013 tally

The PMLN faces odds that are increasing by the day. It’s vocal leaders such as Daniyal Aziz stand disbarred from contesting elections. Others may follow suit. Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was also disqualified in one constituency but later allowed to contest. PMLN candidates are complaining of intimidation. Whether these charges are true or not, the message is clear: no return policy for PMLN. This is worrisome for the prospects of democratization as the country moves to a third elected government.

But major political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) — seem oblivious to the democratic reversals. For PTI and its leader, this is the opportune moment that the party has been waiting for. Aided by deep state, a horde of electables and sections of friendly media, Imran Khan was never that close to power as he appears today. PTI is likely to gain in South Punjab, a sizeable number in central and upper Punjab and its prospects in KP (including erstwhile FATA) are promising. This will improve its standing way above the 2013 tally that reduced it as the third largest group in the former National Assembly.

But according to even the most optimistic assessments, the PTI is still short of the numbers needed to form the government. The PMLN remains a formidable foe and PTI gains in KP remain uncertain due to the past voting behaviour of electorate there. Moreover, the emergence of Mutthahida Majlis e Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious parties will present tough competition in many parts of the province. Similarly, while the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan was initially designed to cut PMLN to size by chopping its Barelvi support, it is also going to take away some support from the PTI candidates. With all its gains and engineered strength via the infamous electables (a code word for turncoat, opportunist politicians that always want to stay in power), PTI would need coalition partners and the PPP is the likely choice.

The PPP is likely to do well in its home turf, Sindh province, Karachi and may bag a few seats in other provinces. Unless there is a miraculous turnaround, PPP’s prospects in the Punjab remain bleak. But even then it is likely to emerge as a power broker and Mr Zardari excels at forming coalitions and extracting his pound of flesh. This election may just enhance PPP’s stakes in the power play beyond ruling Sindh and holding influence over the Senate. It remains focused on the new, emerging power arrangements sans PMLN.

Previous surveys and polls continue to confirm PMLN’s hold over much of central and northern Punjab. The party has not fragmented despite all the signals and arm-twisting that is possible in the age of social media; and brand Nawaz continues to have a resonance along Grand Trunk Road. But if Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam are not campaigning due to the illness of Kulsoom Nawaz then the party’s prospects are likely to suffer. Nawaz’s politics of calling out the deep state may not yield immediate results but it has engendered a new consciousness in a province that was always deferential to the military establishment. This will have long-term impact and perhaps will benefit Maryam Nawaz in the years to come. Much of that depends on the way the party is reorganized if Maryam rises to the leadership position.

In short, July 25 will witness a truncated tally for PMLN whereby it may retain a large number of seats but unable to form the government or be short of allies. The mood of Punjab voter is different this time however. There is anger against the permanent institutions of the state and there is unprecedented political consciousness. Some of that can be seen on social media. Shehbaz Sharif has much to sell in the urban Punjab and PMLN is likely to gain a good number of seats in the provincial assembly thereby making its chances somewhat brighter at the provincial level. But all of this will be clearer within the next fortnight as the leading trends will be captured through a fresh round of polls.

In the meantime, foreign media outlets have highlighted the creeping censorship that Pakistani media are facing. DAWN, the country’s respected newspaper, is suffering a forced drop in its circulation. Earlier, GEO was taught a lesson for not toeing the line. Other outlets have become adept at self-censorship. The caretaker administrations appear to be ineffective as parallel power centres are handling issues relating to pre-poll arrangements. This is not encouraging, to say the least.

Perhaps the only silver lining in this mess is that Pakistani citizens and voters appear to be far more aware than the previous electoral rounds. Having said that the elections and the incoming coalition (of any hue) are not going to create stability. A fractured polity may result in a hung parliament with adequate room for intervention of the extra-democratic forces. Our shortsighted political elites are unable to learn obvious lessons from the country’s history. Their bickering and lack of consensus on the rules of the game will further delay and dilute democratic consolidation.