Pre-election politics


It may not play out as the parties want

The dismissal of Dr Tahirul Qadri’s petition against the Election Commission by the Supreme Court on February 13 revived the hope that the general elections would be held on time. Though some people are expected to raise unnecessary objections on the electoral process in order to delay the elections, these efforts are not expected to succeed. There is a general consensus in Pakistan that the elections should be held as specified in the constitution.

The election-related political activity started a couple of weeks ago. Now it has picked up considerable momentum. The political parties are expected to agree on the people to head the caretaker federal and provincial government before the end of February.

The decision of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) on February 16 to withdraw from its partnership in power with the PPP and quit the federal and the Sindh provincial governments can be explained in the context of the forthcoming elections. It reflects pragmatic political considerations rather than the MQM’s official narrative of betrayal by the PPP.

Traditionally, the MQM believes in taking the advantage of staying in power without sharing any blame for mis-governance and policy failures. True to this tradition the latest decision is meant to distance itself from the PPP governments at the federal level and in Sindh so that nobody blames the party in the course of the election campaign for the policy failures in the last five years. It has already blamed the PPP for increased violence and other problems in Karachi. This theme will be played up in the election campaign in urban Sindh.

The MQM has its secure constituencies in urban Sindh, especially in Karachi and Hyderabad, with huge concentration of Urdu-speaking populace. It does not need any political party’s support to perform in these constituencies. Therefore, it can safely contest elections alone. It does not have to join the efforts of the PML-F and the PML-N to create an anti-PPP alliance in Sindh, mainly in the rural and interior Sindh.

The decision to withdraw from the Sindh government and sit on the opposition benches enables the MQM to claim the position of the leader of opposition in the Sindh provincial assembly because it now has the largest number of seats in the opposition. This will enable the MQM to influence the selection of the caretaker chief minister for Sindh. The withdrawal from coalition government in Sindh gives them additional clout for the selection of the caretaker chief minister. They could not play such a role if they stayed in the coalition government with the PPP in Sindh.

The MQM will be free to negotiate partnership with any party that gets the highest seats in the National Assembly for the formation of the federal government. In case the PPP does not sustain its position of having the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, the MQM will be free to negotiate a deal for partnership with the PML-N or any another party that leads the new coalition government on the strength of its block of parliamentarians elected from urban Sindh.

The PPP had passed a law to establish a dual local government system in Sindh to pacify the MQM. Though this decision has cost the PPP politically in interior Sindh but it saved the federal government at that time because the MQM had threatened to leave the coalition government. Now, the federal and provincial governments are coming to an end in four weeks, it is neither problematic for the MQM to stay out of power nor the PPP is adversely affected by the MQM’s defection, although the PPP may keep its criticism of the MQM somewhat low-keyed. If the relationship between the two does not further deteriorate, the Sindh Governor, a MQM loyalist, may not be replaced by the PPP.

There are other interesting developments in view of the forthcoming elections. Some of the Islamic parties have created electoral alliances and partnerships with the hope that they perform as good as they did in the 2002 elections. There are no signs that their dream can realise in the forthcoming election. In Sindh, a host of political parties, including some nationalist groups, are endeavouring to cash on the alienation that can be discerned in rural Sindh from the PPP. It seems that the PML-F led by the Pir of Pagaro is expected to increase its seats both at the provincial and federal level by adopting anti-PPP stance. The PML-N Chief, Nawaz Sharif is also devoting time for addressing public meetings in interior Sindh, playing up the non-performance of the PPP and promising to change their lives if his party gets to power. The PML-N wants a closer cooperation with the PML-F but the Pir of Pagaro is playing cautiously. His policy is good relations with the PML-N but avoiding a formal alliance. The Pir would not like his options to be restricted by permanent electoral partnership with either of the two major parties.

A number of political leaders are shifting from one party to another mainly to counter the possibility of being dropped by their original party from nomination as the party’s candidate for the elections. At times, these shiftings take place because of local factionalism. If one faction in the party gets an upper hand in electoral politics, the rival faction may (not always) decide to move to another party.

In the Punjab, the PML-N continues to sustain its preeminent position and the recent defections from the PPP have been a morale booster for the party. The PPP is struggling hard to overcome its leadership crisis in the Punjab which has caused mobilisation problem in and outside the party. It can benefit from the overcrowding of competing political parties among the Islamists and the political right. Tehrik-i-Insaf challenges both parties but it can cause more vote-loss to the PML-N. Another competition will come from the Jamaat-i-Islami that did not contest the 2008 elections.

The PPP is hoping to get some seats in the Punjab by default because so many parties are competing for votes on the rightest-Islamist political spectrum. It is also cultivating Dr Tahirul Qadri who has dubious political agenda but vehemently opposed to the Sharif brothers. This presumption may or may not materialise. The PPP needs to pay attention to putting its house in order in the Punjab and bringing out its loyalists for voting on the polling day.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.