Picking up the pace
The new general elections in Pakistan are expected to be announced not later than the middle of March 2013. It was generally believed at the time of the debate on the national budget in the parliament in June this year that the elections would be held by the end of 2012. Now, it seems that the ruling coalition at the federal level wants to stretch its tenure to its maximum limit.
The PPP and its allies hope to improve their performance in the last six months of their tenure. They want to focus especially on reducing electric power cuts by the end of the year. However, there are hardly any signs that the federal government is likely to make any major breakthrough in its socio-economic policies and power generation. Most of its attention will continue to be devoted to defending itself in front of the superior judiciary as the latter would keep its pressure on the federal government. Another uphill task is to keep the coalition partners, the MQM, the ANP and the PML, satisfied.
The PML-N does not appear to be keen on early elections. Its Punjab government is building much publicized transport project in Lahore which is likely to be completed by the end of the year. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif would like to inaugurate the new transport system and add this to its achievement list for the next elections. The PML-N also needs some time to neutralize Imran Khan’s appeal to youth.
The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) is engaged in political mobilization. The South Waziristan march was the latest attempt to draw attention towards the PTI and project itself as the most vibrant party. It also plans to hold party elections but this move is likely to cause dissension in the party.
No matter if the elections are held before or after mid-March 2013, election related low-key political activity has already started. A good number of political leaders are exploring different political parties for getting the party ticket. The main focus is on three political parties, the PPP, the PMLN and the PTI. Some political leaders are changing parties or negotiating with their party leaders for securing party ticket for them.
The PML-Q has moved ahead of other parties by announcing allocation of party ticket to some of its members. This amounts to preempting the PPP that will contest elections in the Punjab in collaboration with the PMLQ.
Pakistan’s political scene is taking an interesting turn in terms of political orientations of the competing political parties. The situation on the centre-to-the left of the political spectrum seems somewhat orderly. The PPP occupies the leading position, followed by the MQM and the ANP. The PML-Q, a right of the centre party, is expected to stay with the coalition. These parties have uneasy relationship with one another but they will lose if they splinter. The MQM and the ANP are strong in their respective province but both face challenges from Islamic political parties i.e., the Sunni Tehrik in Karachi and JUI-F and the PTI in Khyber Pukhtunkwha.
The political scene on the right of the center to extreme-right and Islamist orientations appears to be crowded and confused. There are a host of political parties that are expected to appeal to similar voters. The PML-N leads this side of the political spectrum but it faces challenge in the Punjab from Imran Khan’s PTI. Islamic parties and groups like the Jamaat-i-Islami will also pull some votes from amongst those being sought by the PMLN and the PTI, although the Jamaat has limited capacity to attract votes. As the Jamaat has an image problem a good number of people with Islamist orientations are expected to opt for the PML-N and the PTI.
The PML-N is quietly negotiating with small Islamic-sectarian groups, especially the Ahle-Sunnet-Wal-Jamaat party, formerly the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, for seat adjustment. It may try to collect smaller groups around it to weaken the position of the PTI. Other smaller political parties like Awami Muslim League, PPP-Sherpao would strive for political survival.
The Islamic political parties are endeavoring to create an electoral alliance like the MMA in 2002. So far the conflict between the Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI-F is the major obstacle. It seems the Jamaat Chief, Syed Munawar Hussain, is not in favor of alignment with the JUI-F. The Sunni Tehrik decided in January 2012 to turn itself into a political party and it plans to contest elections in the Punjab and Sindh, especially in Karachi where it would revive the traditional JUP support. Since 2011, Jamat-ud-Dawa has become active in domestic politics. It is possible that it decides to become part of the Islamic conglomerate to contest the elections along with the former MMA and Defa-i-Pakistan Council.
The urban Sindh is dominated by the MQM, although other contenders, including the PTI, would challenge the MQM’s traditional dominance. In the rural areas, there is a noticeable alienation from the PPP. It is difficult to suggest who will benefit and to what extent. The nationalist groups are endeavoring to offer them as an alternative to the PPP. The PML-Functional is hoping to bag more seats. The PML-N has also engaged in mobilization in interior Sindh. However, its success in the interior depends on the standing of its Sindhi candidate rather than the PML-N and its leadership.
Balochistan continues to be divided among sardars, politically active ethnicity based groups and political parties. Its electoral results are expected to be divided unless Sardar Akhtar Mengal and others return to active politics and create political alliances with mainstream political parties.
As the right of centre and Islamist political spectrum is overcrowded and divided. Unless the leaders bring some coherence on their side and resort to seat adjustment or create an electoral partnership, they will undermine each other. The advantage will go to the parties from the center to the left on the political spectrum.
Political developments in the last three months before the elections will be critical to internal stability and democracy. The PPP may lose some seats which will weaken its political clout. However, this does not necessarily mean that the PML-N will be the beneficiary. It may also lose some seats. Smaller and new political parties, especially the PTI, will make electoral gains. Such divisive trends would make it difficult to cobble together a coalition at the federal level. The success will be for the political leader who creates a coalition of different parties.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.