Upcoming Elections: Beyond the uncertainties

Spearhead Opinion – 21.12.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Upcoming ElectionsA critical prerequisite for holding timely elections was recently cleared. The Constitutional Amendment Bill 2017, which stipulates the new National Assembly seats configuration and paves the way for delimitation of constituencies on basis of the provisional census results was finally approved by the Senate. The ECP shall now carry out fresh delimitations prior to the next General Elections.

The political landscape is vibrant owing to the upcoming general elections. Shifting alliances, negotiations and fiery public rhetoric tend to create some uncertainty, but it is all part of the ‘game’. A critical difference this time around is the strengthening system of checks and balances emerging around the political field. This at times paints dystopic visions, primarily because its ‘new’, triggering fears of the unknown. An improved system of checks and balances and accountability indicates a positive development in Pakistan’s democratic evolution, one that may create far-reaching improvements in governance. The political fabric must learn and adapt to this change.

A few top leaders of PML-N do not appear to have taken this change well. Following the Supreme Court’s Panama Case verdict, the ruling party has paradoxically become a virulent critic of certain State institutions. Currently, the top leadership is geared up to embark on a ‘justice restoration movement’; for in their perception, mandates by the people provide relative impunity that cannot be challenged in courts. These rallies carry a two-pronged effect for the ruling party; of adding pressure against the verdict and as an electioneering stunt aimed at attracting a fervent nation. It is inadvertently attempting to polarize the state structure from its people, which could set a dangerous precedent.

PML-N maintains a majority in the National Assembly, it is speculated that the top leadership is currently eyeing the upcoming Senate Elections in March 2018 after which it would hold a majority in both Houses. It is also assumed that such a reality would enable PML-N to push through with certain amendments aimed at reconfiguring accountability measures. There is obviously an active opposition and a neutral Supreme Court Justice system to prevent democracy from slipping into an oligarchy. Nonetheless, it would continue to elasticize the trend of high profile legal contentions and obstruct focused governance. Moreover, the top leadership is already embroiled in corruption investigations, which could take some time to wrap up.

Punjab has usually been perceived as a PML-N’s stronghold, several estimates suggest that this trend may continue and enable PML-N to emerge victorious yet again. This reality, however, in the recent times has reportedly witnessed some changes, especially after the Faizabad incident. The Chief Minister Punjab is also facing pressure in regard to the Model Town Case. It is to be seen if the party will re-invent itself or wane.

PML-N’s rise to the top is not a result of the mandate of all Pakistani citizens, as the debate on the voting process is a separate matter. Nonetheless, it is one of the largest political fronts especially in the most populous province of the country. Its presence is a stabilizing factor in the political landscape of Pakistan. An important party with great potential must make some choices. It is imperative that the party shifts its focus to resolving pressing national issues, discussing its future plans for Pakistan in its campaigns and works towards implementing genuine principles of democracy.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, has recently been cleared of the charges against him; whereas the PTI’s Secretary General has been disqualified.

PTI has been on the forefront of anti-corruption campaigning, and it is not certain what impact Jehangir Tareen’s disqualification will have on PTI’s image; but Tareen is noted to be an important donor and ‘electable’, which PTI has recently lost.

Khan’s electioneering strategy largely revolves around ridding Pakistan of corruption, the party has recently also brought to light few other important agendas such as: education reforms, pollution control and streamlining administrative affairs. PTI reportedly maintains strong support in KP, it has a significant public support at an overall national level as well. The recent surge in KP seats may assist PTI expand its presence in the National Assembly.

However, the party must also focus on expanding its alliances – a factor which at times seems challenging for PTI. PTI’s ally in KP -The Jamat- I-Islami has recently announced its support for the revival of the Muthaida Majlis- i-Amal (MMA) and will soon announce its ‘detachment’ date from PTI. MMA has in the past managed to create its government in KP, and this could create some challenges for PTI in KP.

However, the PTI has made an interesting alliance recently with JUI-S; this move garnered some criticism against Imran Khan from within his orthodox voter base. Though, in terms of tapping into the madrassah reforms agendas and realizing that nationalist parties and to an extent religious parties are key players in KP and Baluchistan region, this alliance may turn out to be a fruitful strategy.

Since the splintering of MQM, Karachi is said to have become an important ‘open field’ which many parties are eyeing to dominate. Recent news suggests of a possible alliance between PSP and PTI, this may prove useful for both PTI and PSP. PTI must also seek to mend fences with nationalist parties in KP and Baluchistan and work around the realities of politics in Punjab — in order to bag more wins or at least to emerge as a strong opposition.

It is believed that the future of PPP, like its current state, has become limited to a ‘provincial level’. PPP in the recent past has carried important rallies and claims to emerging as the victor in the upcoming elections. The party carries a strong brand image owing to its predecessors, and its platform still includes several important and credible voices.

 However, its past record has been less than promising – its governance record in Sindh has been no better. The views on its top most leaders are also skeptical. Several of its recent positions on the evolving national politics have been noted by many as ‘opportunistic’. Many predict PPP would win in Sindh—primarily because of ‘limited options’, and they have also been noted for making efforts to fill the power gap in Karachi. PPP is nonetheless an important party, that carries immense potential. It is to be seen if they can apply a democratic framework within their rank and file and improve governance mechanisms.

The revival of MMA has created some shifts and speculations. As per records, the voting outcomes of the religious parties have been mediocre. However, important parties like JI and even JUI-F maintain a clout in KP and Baluchistan regions. This revival has also coincided with talks of JuD chief running for next elections. The alleged ‘MML’ candidates along with the TLYR candidates provided an indication of their burgeoning potential during the NA-120 and NA-4 by elections. There are speculations of MML and TLYR joining forces with the MMA platform. During a recent interview, JI chief Siraj-Ul Haq when questioned on the possibility of this reality, did not decisively agree or reject this notion and said ideologically similar forces would be welcomed. It is yet to be seen if the parties joining to form MMA can overcome their own critical differences and sustain the alliance. On the other hand, the JUI-S has indicated support for PTI. Its chief also maintains a significant clout over the Difa-I-Pakistan Council; the impacts of these alliances on the voter base are yet to be seen.

People are following political developments with interest but also speculate on the ability of the political system to sustain the pressures that are developing. People want political leaders to move away from attacks on each other and focus on major issues facing the country. In this context the Army Chief’s interaction in Parliament is being viewed positively especially his advice that Parliament should take the lead in major policy review and formulation. The Chief Justice has also pointed out that it is Parliaments’ job to legislate on reforms especially judicial reforms. The US has sounded concern on the mainstreaming of people listed as international terrorists and according to the US Ambassador to the UN is taking note of those not siding with the US—in the context of the vote on US decision on Jerusalem.