Preparing for the Elections

Spearhead Analysis – 08.02.2018

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

In every country around the world, election time can lead to a flurry of activity from the general populace as well as the political candidates, and is considered a time for momentous change and a step towards progress. However, in recent years, polarizing opinions and a renewed attempt at challenging the status quo has led to a series of unpredictable results. The American public chose to elect a billionaire and reality television star Donald Trump as their new president, while the French also broke with tradition and voted for Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party, that had been created only a year before the 2017 Presidential elections. Europe as a whole saw the rise of several Alt-Right political parties in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, and similar upheavals are expected all across the globe in the future as well.

In Pakistan, preparations are already underway for the upcoming 2018 general elections, and everybody around the country is braced for what are expected to be a contentious few months before a new government can be sworn in. Already political leaders from across the nation can be seen organizing rallies, releasing their party manifestos, and preparing their troops for the long and arduous political journey ahead. Here, we will provide you with a brief rundown of the political landscape of the country and the what to expect from the upcoming elections.     

Baluchistan

A cursory glance at the current makeup of the Baluchistan Provincial Assembly will show the wide variety of political factions present in the province today. While popular parties like the PML-N enjoy quite a large following in the region, most seats are divided amongst a mixture of Baluch nationalist parties, as well as a few religious and Pashtun centric parties.

All parties will be vying for 17 seats in the National Assembly, and for 65 seats in the Provincial Assembly. Currently PML-N holds a majority in both, but their hold seems to diminishing, especially after the recent scandal that led to the resignation of their own party’s Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri. The Opposition benches were forced to file a no-confidence motion against Zehri, and in spite of his party’s majority in the provincial parliament, he failed to keep hold of his office. After what was a long deliberation period, the PML-N, along with the approval of the PML-Q, as well as the other major parties of the region, including JUI-F, BNP-M, ANP, PkMAP and BNP-A finally elected Abdul Quddus Bizenjo to replace Zehri.   

Politics in Baluchistan are shaping up to be quite a fascinating study, with several Baluch nationalist parties vying for power, against mainstream parties like the PML-N. Recent reports have also suggested that the PPP is trying to win support in the province as well, something they did quite well back in the 2008 elections. Surprisingly, PTI has as yet failed to drum up much support as they have been able to do in the rest of the country, and at the moment it seems that their focus is perhaps elsewhere. As far as regional parties go, two of the most prominent are the Baluchistan National Party (BNP) and the National Party (NP). The BNP is among the most vocal parties in the region and have been fighting for greater autonomy for the people of Baluchistan ever since the party’s birth, back in 1996. They are opposed to the excessive military presence in the province, as well as the role played by the center in the daily workings of the region. The NP also support the same causes and are looking to secure a degree of self-rule, devoid of any interference from the center; a sentiment shared by most other Baluch regional parties.

There are also quite a few political factions in Baluchistan that represent the considerable population of Pashtuns present in the province today as well. Within this context the biggest party today is the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) which hold a considerable number of seats in the provincial assembly as well three seats in the National Assembly. They are set to repeat their performance from the last elections, however their focus seems to more on FATA at the moment, which might leave room for parties like the ANP to try and a make a move on their considerably large Pashtun vote base.   

Religious parties have traditionally performed quite well in Baluchistan and they seem set to repeat that success once again. The leading religious party in the region is the JUI-F, however they recently announced that they would be resurrecting the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) once again, along with other religious parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JAH) and Islami Tehreek, also called the Shia Ulema Council. It is under this banner that they will be contesting the upcoming elections and trying to fight the rise of relative upstarts like the Jamaatud Dawa (JUD) and their political party, called the Milli Muslim League (MML). 

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)

If the last few elections are anything to go by, then it is expected that the majority that the PTI has enjoyed in KPK might have just come to end. It has been the only province that has consistently chosen to back a new political party in each election cycle, which is why the MMA, ANP and PTI have all held significant majorities in the region in the past. However, each party that found itself replaced by another, provided the people of KPK with ample reason to seek a change.

While the general populace supported the religious mandate adopted by the MMA in 2002, as well as the completely contrasting leftist and secular mandate of the ANP in 2008, they grew tired of both and each party was routed in the following elections. While the PTI has had an arguably much more positive effect on the province, especially with their police reforms, it remains to be seen whether they have done enough to convince the people of KPK to break from precedent, and vote them into power once again.

While the PTI is actively attempting to shore up support in the region, there are other factions seeking to foil their attempts. With the resurgence of the MMA, it is expected that the combined vote base of the JI and the JUI-F might give them enough seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies to ensure that they are a major part of any future government. However, disagreements between both parties over FATA reforms threatens to derail any momentum that they might have built up so far and these issues need to be ironed out before they can start focusing on the vital election campaign ahead.

With 43 National Assembly seats and 124 seats on the Provincial Assembly up for grabs, the PPP and the PML-N have not been idle either. The PPP have traditionally enjoyed a reasonable amount of support in KPK, however their long absence from mainstream politics has affected their popularity in the province, and has prompted their leader, Asif Ali Zardari to extend a partnership deal to the MMA. On the other hand, while the PML-N has always maintained a small presence in the region, their power has been diminishing over the past few years and they face a fight to hold on to the 7 National Assembly seats and 16 Provincial Assembly seats they won in the previous elections.      

One major development that might affect the outcome of the elections in KPK might come from FATA. After being ignored by the center for years, the contentious region is finally set to receive much needed support, with a series of reforms that will eventually lead to its merger with KPK. However, there are many local tribal leaders who are opposed to these reforms and fear that their traditional tribal way of life is threatened if these changes do take place. Whether these reforms are a success or not remains to be seen, but it is clear that most political parties are already planning for a united FATA and KPK, and are altering their election campaign accordingly.

Sindh

Politics in Sindh have largely been dominated by two major parties over the last couple of decades. The PPP and MQM have both enjoyed great support all across the province and, even though, the former has managed to win votes all around Pakistan in the past, the latter have failed to conjure any lasting support anywhere except for Karachi and a few other small cities around Sindh. However, even that has been enough to help them become a vital part of every government since the late eighties and add to their considerable influence at both the local and national stage.     

Recently though, the MQM has suffered from one controversy after the other and that has seriously affected their vote base. In August of 2016, their party founder and longstanding leader Altaf Hussain drew the ire of the public due to one of his speeches in which he made several contentious statements, going as far as to call Pakistan a cancer for the entire world. The fallout from this incident led to a split within the MQM and prompted influential party leader Dr Farooq Sattar, as well as most of the other senior party members to publicly denounce their former chief, resulting in the creation of two factions-one based in London (MQM-L) and the second based in Pakistan (MQM-P).

While many in the MQM-P camp assumed that their troubles were now behind them, and they could look forward to getting back on track for their 2018 election run; they did not predict, that it would be one of their own party stalwarts that would presume to impede their way. Former MQM senator, and popular Mayor of Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal had made a return to politics early in 2016 with his own Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), and the upheaval in the MQM hierarchy greatly helped his cause. Many former members from the party changed alliances to support Kamal’s vision, further dividing the MQM vote base.

It seems that both sides seemed to have realized that a fractured vote base would only be beneficial to their opponents like the PPP, PTI as well as the reemerging PML-F. It was to counter these opposing powers that the MQM-P and the PSP decided to join forces and announced their plans to contest the 2018 elections under a single banner and new party name. Remarkably this coalition only lasted a few hours, as in the following days PSP chairman Mustafa Kamal accused the establishment of having coerced him into forming an alliance. He also asserted that the establishment had been behind the very formation of the MQM-P, saying “MQM-P itself was created in the room of Major General Bilal Akbar, then director general of the Sindh rangers”.  

While an alliance between the PSP and the MQM-P would have been beneficial for both sides, the resulting fracas had an adverse effect on their credibility, further alienating their vote base, and in effect aiding the cause of their opponents. The PPP in particular were quick to react to the whole controversy, and now seem to be the most to gain from this entire episode. They were the clear majority in the last election cycle, managing to win 94 seats in the Provincial Assembly, and 42 of their total 47 National Assembly seats from this province, and with one of their main rivals going through such turmoil, they are only set to add to this number.   

Punjab

There are a total of 342 seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, and with 183 of them set to be elected from Punjab, it is no wonder that every major political party in Pakistan has their eyes set firmly on this province. Any party looking to form a government at the center will need to either drum up a significant majority in Punjab, like the PML-N managed to do in the last election cycle, or somehow succeed in getting votes from every province in the country.

Historically, the PPP is the only party that has repeatedly managed to attract support from all corners of Pakistan. This is in contrast to the PML-N whose main vote base has been mainly focused in Punjab; assisted by pockets of support from the other provinces. It is this very support that has many political commentators predicting another PML-N victory in the 2018 elections, albeit with tougher opposition from parties like the PTI, and as the NA-120 by-election proved, by religious parties like the MML. These by- elections, and the circumstances leading up to them have been detrimental to the political future of Pakistan and have been amongst the main talking points in the build up to the 2018 elections.

In 2016, certain financial and highly sensitive documents were released from the law firm Mossack Fonseca and were given the name the “Panama Papers”. They contained the private information of various legal, land and financial holdings of a plethora of prominent personalities from across the globe. Many in Pakistan were shocked when the names of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s children, and several other family members and acquaintances also started cropping up in the documents. This led to accusations against the Prime Minister of corruption and nepotism, and after a protracted court case, Nawaz Sharif was finally disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding any public office. They cited his failure to honestly disclose a complete list of his assets as the primary reason behind their ruling. Even though Sharif denied any wrongdoing, he agreed to honor the court’s decision and step down as the Prime Minister, eventually being replaced by the PML-N’s Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Nawaz Sharif’s decision to step down meant he had to give up his national Assembly Seat, which in turn led to the aforementioned by-elections. While PML-N did manage to win the seat, the opposition parties also performed quite well. Their performance was especially commendable taking into consideration that the constituency has traditionally been a PML-N stronghold and was being contested by the President of PML-N Punjab chapter, as well as former First Lady of Pakistan, Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif.

These elections were an eye opener for the PML-N hierarchy. There were rumors of an internal strife in the party, and reports of a power struggle between the two Sharif brothers and their children. It was only recently that they finally realized that their hold over Punjab was susceptible and it convinced the PML-N leadership to change their strategies for the upcoming elections. While Nawaz Sharif has been a prominent and vocal campaigner for the party, his inability to hold public office till the court decides otherwise has prompted him to name his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, as his successor to the premiership.  

While the PML-N seem to have set their political campaign back on track, their countless difficulties over the past few months have given hope to their opposition, who now believe that the PML-N’s support in the community is vulnerable and that their position can be exploited for political gain. The most to gain is arguably the PTI. They have been growing in power in Punjab over the past few years, especially in the urban centers like Lahore, and their work in KPK, especially with their police reforms has been lauded by the public at large. They also have momentum on their side, and seem to be causing the PML-N a lot of trouble, especially with their support for the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) and its leader Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri.

In the 2013 election cycle, PML-N won a resounding victory in the province and managed to win 310 of the 371 seats available on the Provincial Assembly, while only 18 of their total 189 MNAs came from outside Punjab. While this number might see a significant reduction in the upcoming elections, the difference might not be enough to keep the PML-N from forming another government in the center. While the PTI and the PPP have significantly augmented their presence in the region, they will need something special to break the hold the PML-N enjoys over the province. But till that happens, it is highly likely that Pakistan will once again, find a Sharif, and the PML-N, taking over the highest office in the country.

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