With real issues staring it in the face
The people of Pakistan have spoken by exercising their right to vote. The increased voter turn-out is a positive development, showing that more people are taking active interest in the electoral process and democracy. This was in the face of the Taliban threats to disrupt the elections.
Two political parties focused on youth mobilization for participation in the election process and especially for the exercise of the right to vote. Imran Khan mobilized youth for his political party, PTI, describing them as the vanguard of his effort to create a new Pakistan. The Punjab chief minister mobilized youth for the PMLN in response to Imran Khan’s effort. The Punjab government distributed free laptops and solar lamps to thousands of students in order to win them over. In some cases the teachers were also given free laptops.
The media also played an important role in mobilizing people for casting their vote. Radio and TV broadcasted progammes and appeals to the people in general and the affluent sections of society and youth in particular to go the polling stations and cast their votes. Newspapers were also active in issuing similar people to vote. The statements of some religious leaders were published in newspapers that described voting an important duty of a Muslim.
There are no strong differences in the socio-economic programmes of the major political parties. The vote on May 11 discarded the PPP and the ANP that were blamed for poor governance and non-delivery of basic societal services to the people. The PML-Q suffered a setback mainly due to its internal incoherence and as a partner in the federal government. The MQM, another ally in the federal government, managed to retain its seats in urban Sindh because of peculiar ethnic appeal and its effective party network that continued to provide services to its voters in Karachi and Hyderabad. From time to time, the MQM functioned as an opposition party despite being part of the federal and Sindh governments.
The acute power and gas shortages and increased financial pressure on the common man led the voters, especially in urban areas, to reject the ruling parties at the federal level. The opposition parties convinced the voters that mismanagement and corruption on the part of the ruling PPP were the main causes of poor governance and the acute electricity and gas shortages. The corruption issue also hit the PPP hard. The PPP-led federal government was also damaged by politically loaded comments on poor governance and corruption of high officials made periodically by the higher judiciary in the course of court cases.
The regionalization of politics has resurfaced in Pakistan. The PML-N is now the single largest party in the National Assembly. Over 90 percent of its seats have come from the Punjab. It has once again emerged as the symbol of Punjabi identity that is more inclined towards the political right with conservative and Islamic political orientations. The PPP has been limited to Sindh, although its candidates got votes in the Punjab but these were mainly from the PPP hardcore; others deserted the party. In Balochistan the mandate is divided which is the traditional pattern of politics in the province.
It is important that the PML-N accommodates the political forces from other provinces in the federal government and work to build political ties and sharing of power across the provincial boundaries. It needs to avoid being labeled as the solely Punjabi government in view of the in-built advantage for the Punjab due to the election result, demography and the relative sway over state structure.
The political parties that openly challenged militancy and the Pakistani Taliban faced the wrath of the Taliban in the course of the election campaign. The Pakistan Taliban launched attacks on public meetings, party offices and leaders of the ANP, the PPP and the MQM. The ANP was the major target of their attacks.
The PPP and the ANP lost the election badly and the MQM barely saved its seats in the urban Sindh, mainly in Karachi. The parties that have right-wing Islamist orientations and are known for their soft line and sympathy for militancy have performed better. These parties have varying degrees of reservations on Pakistan’s counter terrorism efforts and especially the Pakistan Army’s security operations in the tribal areas.
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the entry of the PTI as the single largest party in the provincial assembly is a new development. The KP will have a coalition government which will be sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban and not in favour of security operation in the tribal areas. From this perspective, the developing situation in KP can be compared with the years of the MMA rule there (2002-2007) when the provincial government was supportive of the Taliban movement.
Despite the tangible electoral tilt towards the political right, Islamist parties have performed poorly. The only exception is the JUI-F whose success can be attributed mainly to its entrenched position in some districts of the KP, which is not primarily religious, and its supremo Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s worldly political acumen.
The PPP debacle has some resemblance with its extremely poor performance in the 1997 elections. However, there were new factors pertaining to the working of the PPP as a party after the death of Benazir Bhutto. Its failure can be blamed to the incumbency factors and its poor governance performance, the party’s internal organizational problems, an acute crisis of leadership at the national level and especially in the Punjab, the handling of party affairs by Faryal Talpur, who has no personal clout in the party with the exception of being the sister of President Zardari, and dispiritedness of a large number of workers. Its leadership was also totally absent from electioneering.
The PML-N has got another opportunity after 14 years to run the federal government. It was possible for the PML-N while it was in opposition to issue vague and generalized statements on extremism and militancy in Pakistan, relationship with the United States and India against the backdrop of the party’s leanings towards the Punjab based militant groups. Now, the PML-N will have to deal with the real time situations on these issues and Pakistan’s troubled economy. The vague disposition if continued now can push the PML-N into a no-win situation. The PML-N leadership needs to learn from the mistakes of the PPP during the last five years.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.