Will lion of Punjab Nawaz Sharif become prime minister for the third time or will captain Imran Khan ride a tsunami of youth power?
Sixty-six years after its creation, a democratic transition is taking place for the first time in Pakistan's history. An elected government has completed its tenure, put in place an independent Election Commission, and handed power to a neutral caretaker set-up to allow free and fair elections. But the fear of violence is palpable. Under normal circumstances, passions run high during election season-political leaders campaign in full force, election meetings and rallies are held at every nook and corner, and the atmosphere is that of a mela
. In Pakistan, it seems, however, as if the election campaign is being staged solely for television screens, not the streets.
There is not much election activity outside Punjab, where campaigning is so hectic that candidates sometimes forget their own loyalties. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, who has been holding large rallies apparently because the Taliban have granted him immunity, inadvertently asked his voters to vote for PML-N. "Ab jaayein aur sher
(PML-N's election symbol) pe mohar lagaayein
(Go out and put a stamp on the lion)," said Khan at an election rally. He realised his mistake rightaway. Laughing heartily, Khan corrected himself: "Ballay pe
, sher ka toh mai shikaari hoon
(Stamp on the bat; I am going to hunt the lion)."
His main political rival, Mian Nawaz Sharif, who hopes to become prime minister for the third time, couldn't help taking a dig at Khan's faux pas. "Even our rivals want you to vote for sher
," he joked. People are not so cheerful about PML-N's prospects though. Young voters-of whom there are 13 million first-timers-are likely to vote for the charismatic Khan. At an election rally in Sheikhupura, Sharif asked the audience to raise their hands to show how many of them were 'naujawaan
' (youngsters) and 'youth'. When the crowd enthusiastically cheered, he replied in Punjabi: "Lo dasso
Sheikhupura jama hoyi aye
Nawaz Sharif de jalsay te
. O jaide baaki
youth di gallan karde ne
, o kithay ne
? O kaidi youth di gall karde ne
? (All the youth have gathered here in Sheikhupura at Nawaz Sharif's rally. Where are those who talk about the rest of the youth? Which youth are they talking about?)"
The first-time voters are 30 per cent of the electorate. They have a third choice, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In a mainstream bi-party system, predictions are usually easy to make before the elections even if a coalition is in the offing, but a tri-party system-in which each party would rather sit in opposition than form a coalition with any of the others-makes the task of political pundits all the more difficult. There is a further complication: In the backdrop of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an alliance of militant groups, targeting the left-of-centre parties that were coalition partners in the last government-PPP, Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM)-it seems as if elections are only going to be held in Punjab, which is relatively unscathed by the terrorists, and in which the leading contenders are the PML-N and PTI-two parties that are soft on terrorism. Khan is accused of being pro-Taliban while the Sharif brothers have made electoral alliances with terrorist sectarian outfits.
The threat of terror is everywhere. As Farahnaz Ispahani, a former PPP member of Parliament who was unseated last year by the Supreme Court for being a dual Pakistani-American national, puts it: "Unless the prevailing terrorist activities targeting the three centre-left parties are stopped, the elections will not be free or fair. But the historic handing over of power from one democratic government to another without a hitch is essential for Pakistan's growth as a democratic state."
At two joint press conferences held in Karachi in May-end, PPP, ANP and MQM leaders vowed to contest the elections despite the toll that Taliban bombs have taken on their cadres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh province. Conspiracy theorists say that liberal parties are deliberately being kept out of political power with the Afghan endgame in sight.
"This (TTP threats) gives a very clear advantage to the Islamist political parties and a signal to parties of the political Right that they must either support the Taliban or maintain diplomatic ambiguity towards them," explains Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defence and political analyst. "Those who openly criticise the Taliban and militancy are directly under threat."
Imran is the X factor
PPP's campaign is being hampered due to security threats. Its chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has been compelled to lead the election campaign through a video-taped message. "I wanted to contest the elections by living amongst you," he said, "I wanted to campaign in the streets of my country alongside every worker of mine. The world knows we have sacrificed our lives for democracy."
According to most analysts, PPP will not be able to bag more than 60 seats out of the 272 national seats for which direct elections are held, mostly from Sindh-60 seats are reserved for women and 10 seats for non-Muslims for a total of 342 in Pakistan's National Assembly. PML-N is expected to win at least 90, mostly from Punjab. This is a reversal of fortunes for both compared to their tally in the 2008 elections. The X factor is Imran Khan and the independents. Both Zardari and Sharif will have to buy seats from the independents and regional parties in the post-election scenario if Khan doesn't play ball. PTI has so far ruled out forming a coalition government with either the PPP or PML-N. That is a recipe for a weak and unstable coalition government, which won't be able to take the hard economic and political decisions that need to be taken if Pakistan is to be put back on the rails.
"Many people are of the view that both PPP and PML-N have been tried and tested so Imran Khan deserves a chance at ruling the country," claims Asma Shirazi, a tv political anchor. "As far as I can see, there will be neck-and-neck competition between PML-N and PTI in Punjab. But PPP is not out of the game yet. It can still win 55-60 seats. Nawaz Sharif has not ruled out forming a coalition with either the PPP or PTI and has no qualms in taking oath from President Asif Ali Zardari," she says. In a recent speech, Sharif mentioned the presidency; some sources say there are talks within PML-N whether Sharif should become the president or prime minister if his party comes to power.
By and large, polls and analyses have favoured PML-N's electoral chances. Sharif is the one remaining popular leader from the 1980s; the other was the late Benazir Bhutto. Going beyond his traditional base in Punjab, and a broader coalition of conservative electorates, Sharif built his political appeal after defying the military and civil establishment. He broke away with the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a right-wing alliance cobbled together by ISI, and has continued to distance himself from General Zia-ul-Haq's legacy. His main themes of popular politics are economic progress and civilian assertion vis-à-vis the military establishment.
Analysts remain divided in their predictions. Some think PML-N will win more than 100 seats from Punjab and get well within striking distance of a stable coalition. Others think this is not possible, given Khan's rising popularity and his emergence as a 'hero'. Khan became Pakistan's hero by putting it on the cricketing world map; he has charisma and is a great philanthropist. But he has come under criticism for never directly condemning the anti-American Taliban or the anti-India jihadis
. At the same time, whenever he talks to non-Pakistani audiences in India or the West, he tells them he is not a reactionary or an anti-India politician. At the end of the day, however, it isn't issues that will decide who votes for whom. Pakistan's average voter turnout is 45 per cent. Voter turnout in three provinces — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh — may remain low due to the bloodshed that is being witnessed there. It is only Punjab, and more specifically urban Punjab, where voter turnout could increase manifold in these elections due to Khan's popularity. PTI's chances of doing well in the elections largely depend on young voter turnout.
Cyril Almeida, assistant editor of the Pakistani daily, Dawn
, says, "My sense is that the momentum is with Sharif right now, though Imran and PTI are making a late charge. Imran is the first politician poised to take advantage of the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 2002. No other politician has so actively targeted the youth vote. However, whether they will come out to vote or not remains to be seen."
M. Ziauddin, executive editor of The Express Tribune
, calls him a breath of fresh air but says he has a "long way to go because we are still entrenched in an old political system where biradaris
(clans) still matter. We need a break from this system but it's not going to happen in this election." Ziauddin believes Khan may win 50 seats, mostly in Punjab. "If PTI dents PML-N in Punjab, Sharif has no other place to make up for the loss. This means there will be a hung Parliament."
But disagreements abound. “I don’t think Imran Khan can reach that figure,” says Iftikhar Ahmad, a journalist who has been covering elections in Pakistan since 1990 for Jang
Group as head of its election cell.
Sharif, who already thinks and acts as though he has won the elections, has a raw vision of modern Pakistan. With an insatiable appetite for modern gadgets, electronics, cameras, music, he is fond of glitz, glamour and modernity. He often confuses economic progress with building motorways, bullet trains, underground metro stations, wide roads, palm tree-lined avenues, partly as a throwback to the great emperor Sher Shah Suri and other Mughal emperors and partly to the sands of the Middle East-where he spent much of his time in exile-which were raised from nothing and then turned into modern New Yorks. He wants to build cities on the beaches of Gwadar with seven-star hotels and Burj Dubai-type skyscrapers. But he doesn't seem to know where the money for such grandiose projects is going to come from. In 2012, Pakistan could attract foreign investment which was equal to 12 per cent of its GDP (from nearly 22 per cent in 2007) and Sharif has no plans to raise resources from within by taxing the rich.
While some of his projects such as building motorways and the new metro bus system in Lahore were well-intentioned, they have incurred huge expenditure and need recurring subsidies to keep them going. He does not want to borrow money from the West, yet he does not have a solution for raising such money. His passion for gadgetry and gimmickry resulted in the Yellow-Cab scheme, the Sasti Roti scheme, and free laptops for students which were merely handouts without any institutional policy in place.
Alliance may be possibility
Modernity can only be enjoyed by the rich and is not for the poor but Sharif does not have a vision to alleviate poverty. Sharif knows he cannot liberalise the economy without enforcing taxes but he has not found a solution to this problem since his own constituency is known to be anti-taxes.
In Pakistan, passion often overtakes rationality. Sharif knows how to flog the virtue of nationalism, identity and self-respect. He does not wish to alienate his conservative constituency with overtly liberal values, which is why his political nationalism is imbued with religious fervour and ideological ambiguity. By carrying out nuclear tests in 1998 and officially declaring Pakistan a nuclear power, Sharif established his credentials as a nationalist. Since then he has used this credibility to establish his ground when it comes to maintaining peaceful relations with India. Sharif's peace overtures have not been questioned in the same rigorous fashion like others whose nationalism and patriotism were under question.
As far as civil-military relations are concerned, Sharif signed the Charter of Democracy (COD) with Benazir Bhutto to strengthen the democratic framework on the one hand and take the route of amity with India on the other. He firmly believes that without economic partnership with India, the region cannot move forward and Pakistan will be a beneficiary and not a loser, as some people assert, if it happens. Some analysts believe that while Sharif is not going to take on the military, he will not give in to their whims either. He will not get into a fight with them but won't surrender unconditionally either so that the supremacy of civilians is maintained. In order to have a working relationship with the military, he would rather go for truth and reconciliation between the army and civilians. He understands the military is popular in Pakistan while politicians are unpopular, so his government needs to put up a good performance to gain credibility with the masses. He wants an end to the military's monopoly over national security. This notion of India as an enemy has to end through a friendly foreign policy that compels the military to stop this doctrine. He also wants good relations with the US but wants to tread carefully at the same time-being aware that the country cannot get out of the current straitjacket.
The importance of these elections is not lost on anyone. The issue of civil-military imbalance cannot be resolved unless and until democracy continues to function uninterruptedly in Pakistan. Despite recent reassurances by General Kayani that elections will be held on time, the military is still seen to be distrustful of the political class. Post-election chaos can help the military establishment and other undemocratic forces. Some analysts believe the PPP and PML-N may end up forming a coalition to save democracy. That would be an irony for two foes who have fought tooth and nail all their political lives but many analysts believe an alliance between the two largest mainstream parties will make for a strong civilian government. May 11 will decide the fate and future course for Pakistan.
(Originally published in India Today