Pakistanis will elect a new government today. Since the return of democracy in 2008, a third elected government will be sworn into office. The simple fact that there will be another peaceful transfer of power in a few days, is, something to celebrate. For too long Pakistanis had been denied the right to choose their governments and each time democracy was scuttled or subverted, the consequences were dire for the country. At least the civil-military elites have reached the consensus that without representative rule, governing Pakistan is not easy.
Almost all surveys indicate a close contest between Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) in the Punjab with independents likely to win in large numbers. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), PTI is likely to make a comeback and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) by all accounts will hold its lead position in Sindh. It is unclear which party will be the largest in national assembly but PTI has the edge for a variety of reasons. It is seen as the favoured party and its electoral strength has been bolstered by defections from PMLN and PPP. Most importantly, the disqualification of former PM Nawaz Sharif and his recent incarceration have played a significant role in creating a somewhat promising field for Imran Khan and his party. Yet, the fate of PTI at the ballot box remains uncertain. By late evening today, we shall find out if the bagging-the-electables formula will work for the PTI or not.
Despite the setbacks – and they are many, the PMLN refuses to wither away. In much of urban Punjab especially in the northern and central parts of the province, the PMLN remains strong. This is where the real battle of 2018 will be contested. With close to 100 seats, voters in this region wield the real power. The electorate here is better educated, more prosperous and far more connected than many of their compatriots. If PMLN retains its power here, its prospects may improve either in terms of leading a coalition or acting as a formidable opposition.
Elections 2018 have been marred by controversies and many observers have raised questions on the conduct of authorities especially the caretaker governments and the election commission of Pakistan (ECP), largely for their inability to be fully in charge of the situation. From the security of candidates and electorate to the pre-poll defections fingers have been pointed towards two institutions of the state – the judiciary and the military – especially by the PMLN. Of late, the PPP also joined the chorus. It is an open secret that the former PM Sharif had a major falling out with both. A judge of the Islamabad High Court also came up with a list of serious allegations in particular against his own institution. These were unfortunate developments for the country cannot afford such polarization.
Perhaps the next Parliament would need to deliberate on how to ensure that the electoral process is further strengthened and how the ECP can be strengthened when a transition takes place. The utility of caretaker governments has also been questioned. Such questions will have to be settled later.
The PTI voters led by Imran Khan want the country to embark on a major anticorruption drive. The hardcore PMLN voters claim that their votes would strengthen the civilian supremacy. The PPP under its dynamic young leader Bilawal Bhutto intends to make a comeback and if not getting enough seats, the party aims to be the ‘kingmaker’. The religious parties want their version of Shariah and the independents fighting under the ‘jeep’ symbol hope to be a bloc of powerful coalition partners.
The electorate will deliver its verdict by the evening. But the crucial dimensions of electoral exercise are a) the turnout; b) security especially in Balochsitan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and c) the transparency of polling and results’ declaration. It is vital that the caretaker administration acts under its mandate and directs all concerned to ensure that the election-day is free of disruptions and roadblocks.
Elections 2018 will set the direction for the country. Slowly but surely democratization is underway and what Pakistan is undergoing is neither unique nor exceptional. All democracies endure the turbulence, the contest and the noise.
We are just getting there.