This election will be a game of political personalities
There is likely to be a unique conundrum in Pakistani polity after the elections. The riddle is likely to be at the national level polls, rather than the concurrent provincial ones.
Despite the recent corruption controversies surrounding former PM Nawaz Sharif and some euphoria about the rise of “clean” anti-corruption messiah Imran Khan, it seems Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Noon (PML-N) party will still be ahead of others and may become the single largest party in the parliament, if not with majority.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is almost sure to come third, although that will probably be with critical king making numbers.
The Imran Khan phenomenon is something much talked about in Pakistan and outside. It has been a surprise that in South Asian politics, monopolized by the entrenched parties through various means, it’s still possible to raise a political party to the level of the “major” category.
Many saw this rise of the third force capitalizing on public aspirations as a victory of democracy, even in difficult conditions. India’s Kejriwal did that too in a lesser way.
However, Imran Khan by his own idiosyncrasy, is a complex customer. He is focused, clever, energetic, wily, selfish, and honest in some respects. However, public perception is no less complex than him, and sometimes things backfire in strange ways.
During the last PPP government, Khan targeted Zardari, then president of the country and widely known for his corruption, especially when his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto was Wazir-e Azam, the premier of the country.
There have always been some corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif and his family members, and Khan started targetting that when PML-N came back to power in the 2013 elections.
Sharif and some of his family members’ names appeared in the leaked Panama Papers, boosting Imran’s allegations. However, Sharif has already been found guilty by the court, quite controversially, in another, not so strong case, and he had to resign from the PM post. He was also declared unfit to lead his party.
He handed over the baton to his trusted companions, but retained the control almost openly.
Mixture of many
Sharif is another interesting figure of the Pakistani polity. In his initial days, he was quite hawkish, and was promoted by the notorious President General Zia-ul-Haq in politics. However, he created his own political ground in his home province of Punjab, the most populous Pakistani province with about 60% of seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly.
Over the last three decades, he had sweet and sour relations with Pakistan’s ever-powerful military. He received military support while his then-rival Benazir was ousted from power. But whenever he became a bit assertive and rational on security and foreign policy issues, the made-up raison d’être of Pakistan Army, the generals started despising him. The latter endeared Imran, of late, who cleverly obliged. In other areas, Nawaz’s rule was a mix of some development, liberalism and, unfortunately, cronyism.
There is no doubt that Imran made a significant ripple in Pakistani politics. His relentless talk of corruption-free, pro-people, and pro-youth governance of hope has energized many in Pakistan.
Also, his vehement opposition to US drone attacks in northwestern Pakistan and clever soft Islamism has helped him gain popularity. He already has foothold in the Pashtun province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and his party was leading the government there.
His party is the main opposition in Punjab, replacing PPP. In the last election, his party received the second most popular vote, and was almost at par with PPP in seats in the National Assembly.
However, the numbers were still far away from the halfway mark. Hence he had a huge ground to make up for, especially in Sharif’s home turf Punjab. And, he was actually making some headway there, going by the number and size of his public rallies in the province. But he could not pass Sharif in popularity, neither in Punjab nor nationally, as far as opinion polls are concerned.
It seems that the targetting of reasonably liberal and development-oriented Sharif and his charismatic daughter Mariam Nawaz by Imran, the army, and the court has backfired.
Sharif’s party may still emerge as the single largest party in Pakistan National Assembly election, unless something miraculous happens.
Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) winning the coming election on its own would be a daunting task now. Another problem for Imran, even if he gets reasonably good numbers, would be finding post-polls allies to form the next government.
He categorically said recently and in the past that he won’t ever be in any alliance with PML-N or PPP. It appears the only way left for him to get the numbers is a rigged election with the help of the army, caretaker government, and perhaps the judiciary.
But that will be the end-all for his fame and reputation that he built with so many years of hard work, and that may turn him into a figure hated by the public. All he can hope for is that, the smaller parties do well enough to be able to support him. Most of such parties are hardcore Islamists. That’s no lesser a problem either.
On the other hand, some kind of PML(N)-PPP post-polls alliance or understanding can’t be ruled out, notwithstanding their past rivalries. It will, however, be very painful for PPP to play second fiddle in a probable PML-N led government.
Another key issue for them would be to find a way to build a working relationship with the military and judiciary.
In fact, not much can be anticipated before the elections. PPP, PML-N, PTI all are centrist to centre-right parties. Ideology or governance policy issues are less in focus in this election than the political personalities.
Pakistan’s stability is critical for its citizenry, and also for the region in the context of country, regional, and even global radicalism/terrorism. It also has geopolitical and security implications for South Asia, the Af-Pak sub-region, and even Asia. The region and the global power centres would watch the unfolding events in Pakistan keenly.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.