June 10, 2018: Pakistan’s electoral quagmire

As the country heads towards another general election, a milestone is being achieved. Parliament, despite all the turbulence, has completed its tenure and another transfer of power will take place after July 25. This is a moment for celebration, especially as the rumour-mills had been predicting, since last year, a postponement of polls and the derailment of the democratic transition. Such fears, it seems, were unfounded; and unless there are some earth-shattering developments before July’s-end, the electorate will exercise its right to choose the next government.

But the continuity has been influenced by structural imbalances within the political system. While the PML-N government has completed its tenure, it remained under immense pressure from the judiciary, the Army as well as the media. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified for life. His younger brother and successor Shehbaz Sharif faces a number of inquiries and media scrutiny; while Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam, is also defending herself before an accountability court.

There have been some defections from the PML-N, however, the damage to party ‘electables’, especially in upper and central Punjab, thus far, has been minimal. This testifies to the popularity of Nawaz Sharif which Gallup Pakistan also confirmed in its recent poll. Sharif’s rallies have been charged even in the month of Ramazan, and he has been aggressively telling his support base that the ‘Khalai Makhlooq’ — a euphemism for the deep state — had been plotting since the 2014 protests to oust him from power. For such mobilisation against the powerful establishment to take place in the Punjabi heartland is definitely a first. This cleavage is politically significant for it defies the historical politics of central Punjab and its conventional deference to the military.

It is the electoral map of the Punjab that determines who rules Islamabad.

Will Sharif’s popularity translate into electoral gains? Perhaps not as much as some of the optimists within the Nawaz camp would believe.

Given the odds, a PTI led coalition is what most pundits are predicting after July. But then we should not rush to this conclusion as the Punjabi street mobilisation over the last year has surprised many, including the Sharifs

First, there has been a successful taming of the electronic media, which is the primary source of information and opinion formation in the country. Social media has altered the landscape but nearly 70percent of Pakistanis are still not online. TV still plays an important role in shaping political preferences. The arm-twisting of GEO network, and more recently of DAWN, is all on record, and need not be elaborated upon here. Second, the Sharif father-daughter duo could be convicted, thereby, disrupting the campaign. It is true that Sharif’s imprisonment might lead to a sympathy wave, but elections require visible leadership making the necessary connection with the voters. Third, while the dedicated PML-N voter will remain loyal, the local intermediaries in constituencies — contractors, touts, biradari honchos to name a few — may switch to PTI as they read the warning signals that the Sharifs are not returning to power. Fourth, not all the factions within PML-N are likely to stay behind the confrontationist Nawaz Sharif and his daughter. For some, power is a necessity to sustain their local political and economic influence. Finally, all the portents are tilted against the PML-N.

The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) — an independent think tank — has clearly termed the pre-poll process as ‘unfair’. The most alarming findings of PILDAT’s assessment are related to the media and the military. The perception of the latter’s neutrality towards competing political parties and candidates received the lowest score; that is, 33.4 percent. The perception of private media freedom from the influence of state institutions and vested interests was scored as 37.8 percent. There is no surprise when it comes to the military but the low score on the media front is worrying.

Democracy and independence of the fourth estate are directly linked. In fact, the long-term consequences of media disunity and acquiescence cast an ominous shadow over the progression of democratic process.

There is a school of thought within independent analysts that says that election day is always an unknown, and the voters cannot be always influenced. But voter-blocs are also rational expectants of patronage, and if they think a party under fire is not going to deliver the goods, they tend to switch their loyalties towards potential benefactors. South Punjab has already slipped away from the 2013 wave that brought PML-N to power. It is the hundred-plus seats from Attock to Okara that will determine the fate of Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif in July.

Given the odds, a PTI-led coalition is what most pundits are predicting. But then, we should not rush to this conclusion as the Punjabi street mobilisation over the past one-year has surprised many, including the Sharifs. And there is always social media to counter the half-truths peddled by the mainstream.

Whatever the outcome of the elections maybe, the next government will remain a weak one given the erosion of civilian authority. It is time for Pakistan’s political parties to reflect upon why they allowed this to happen. And the establishment must also remember that political instability is the last thing Pakistan needs when faced with intractable challenges at home and abroad.