True to script

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Sharifs ride the Punjab wheel of fortune, again

One outstanding corollary of Pakistan’s electoral science is that whoever wins Punjab – the country’s most populous province with 148 out of 272 general seats of the National Assembly on offer – is pretty much home and dry.

This is why PML-N despite only scoring big in Punjab gets to rule the country again – and with their kind of numbers, decisively.

Nawaz Sharif’s return as prime minister for the third time was well scripted as a number of national and international opinion polls preceding the vote had predicted.

What has taken most pundits by surprise however is the scale of mandate PML-N has received from the critical bastion of power in the Pakistani matrix. Still, there is a sense of disbelief at the roughshod riding since it flies in the face of strong projections in the media ahead of the polls, in which rival PTI appeared to be giving the PML-N sleepless nights as it surged in public reckoning with a kinetic campaign that culminated with an emotional appeal for the electorate not to miss a golden opportunity to change the old order from a hospital bed after Imran Khan fell from a 15ft high fork-lifter at a rally two days from closing time.

The dramatic images of the fall galvanized a disparate nation with even Sharif forced to cancel rallies for a day as a sympathy wave surged across Pakistan for its revered cricket hero.

However, the end results show this may not have contributed to the eventual tally in any meaningful way, if at all. The ‘PTI factor’ – easily the biggest draw of Pakistan’s 10thgeneral elections – is deserving of a separate piece, perhaps, in the coming weeks.

Apparently, the electorate in Punjab chose to go with experience, leaving Khan with a window to learn the ropes in opposition.

But the capitulation of the PPP did contribute enormously to the PML-N’s return to power. While it was expected the former would take a bit of a hammering, again, the scale of bludgeoning has embarrassed analysts over their pre-poll calculations.

However, what cannot be denied is that the PML-N’s was always the big ticket for Circa ’13 as was evident in how droves of wannabe parliamentarians from other parties flocked to Raiwind in the months leading up to the polls.

In fact, the process was started in earnest last year as Sharif forged alliances with a number of political groups or parties to reinforce his political capital. In bare knuckle terms, the PML-N won the day thanks to its calculated ploy of herding electables of all hues.

The party had the right mix to go with it as Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif did more than just raise populist slogans: he delivered with a handful of public welfare schemes with a strong shelf life in terms of political capital as usual.

You have to hand it to the Sharifs for always calibrating projects that are etched in public memory, bringing them a windfall each time they go to the hustings.

The recently built Metro bus system in Lahore, spread over 27km and covering dozens of residential and commercial localities along the city’s main lowbrow artery – like the Motorway and Yellow Cab scheme of yesteryears – are all a stellar reminder every day about who delivered them!

Even though ‘intellectual’ criticism about launching mega projects at the expense of improving basic infrastructure persists, at the end of the day, the public visibility of road networks and the plying yellow cabs handed out in the 1990s and also more recently on easy loans perhaps overrides the argument at least in the public perception.

Coming back to the polls, even though the European Union largely declared polling ‘satisfactory’ at 90 per cent of the polling stations and its chief observer Michael Gahler felt the overall exercise was “a step forward towards democracy”, serious irregularities in 10 per cent of the polling stations mainly in the Sindh province were also cited.

Punjab itself was not immune from cries of foul play with the PTI up in arms. Subsequently, serious allegations of irregularities were also leveled by other parties, citing vote snatching, stamping of ballots by party activists and/or polling staff, delayed arrival of polling staff and material, clashes between political activists and, in the odd case, even candidates, and last but not least, even the kidnapping of poll staff and candidates!

What is evident from dozens of videos and hundreds of individual cases of being at the receiving end of an unfair poll exercise is: the Election Commission as well as the law enforcing agencies failed in their singular obligation of ensuring an error-free and intimidation-free poll.

Indeed, Fakhruddin G Ibrahim, the octogenarian chief election commissioner, invited ridicule when he called the conduct of ‘free and fair’ polls as a ‘gift from us’ whilst referring to the “kidnapping of polling staff and re-polling in 43 stations of a constituency” in the same breath!

The social media was chock-a-block with evidences of rigging particularly, indicting the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi, whose activists were allegedly caught in the act in multiple videos indulging in coercive measures.

Having said that, rigging allegations are nothing new as anyone with even remote Pakistani electoral experience will tell you. However, it marks the first time these have made an impact with recorded evidence since these were the first elections conducted in the presence of a robust electronic media and a near-zealous occupation of the social media cutting across the divide.

But it would be unfair not to give credit to the valiant voters – a large number of whom were first timers, including the zestful youth and women inspired by Imran Khan’s tremendous appeal – who defied militant threats to come out in what marked one of the highest turnouts in Pakistani history.

Pit this against the dozens of killings, including those of candidates, and the unavailability of a level playing field for secular parties and you get an idea of how treacherous the terrain was.

The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached [email protected]