Challenges of the new electoral mandate


Why central and northern Punjab should not have a monopoly over key federal positions

The new era of democracy in Pakistan is characterized by civilian continuity and peaceful constitutional transfer of power through elections. The provincial assemblies of Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) held their inaugural session on May 29, 2013. The provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Balochistan began their new term on June 1. The National Assembly also had its first session on June 1.

Three political parties from Balochistan that boycotted in 2008 contested the general elections this time round. These were Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, National Party, and Balochistan Nationalist Party (Mengal). Their participation has strengthened the representative character of the Balochistan Assembly. Two other political parties had boycotted the 2008 elections. These were the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Jamaat-i-Islami.

The PTI returned to the electoral process with impressive success. The Jamaat-i-Islami got some seats in the National Assembly and the KP Assembly from its pockets of support. However, its overall performance was poor. The same can be said about other Islamic parties. Perhaps the only exception was the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman that performed better than other Islamic parties. It won some seats from its well-known support base in KP.

148 political parties had registered for elections but 47 nominated candidates for national and provincial assembly elections. Only 18 political parties got into the National Assembly in addition to independent candidates.

A large number of women contested for general seats. However, only six were elected to the National Assembly (PML-N 3, PPP-3). 10 women were elected to provincial assembly general seats (Punjab 8, all PML-N; Sindh 1, PPP; Balochistan 1, PML-N). There are 60 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly. All four provincial assemblies also have reserved women seats. In Punjab Assembly a Sikh has been elected on a reserved seat.

The PML-N emerged as the single largest party in the National Assembly. However, most of independent members joined it and three small political parties decided to merge with it. These include National People’s Party of Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi, Jamot Quami Movement of Balochistan led by Mir Abdul Majir Abro, and People’s Muslim League of Arbab Ghulam Rahim. Some small political parties like the PML-Functional of the Pir of Pagaro extended support to the PML-N. This has provided a comfortable majority to the PML-N government led by Nawaz Sharif, making it possible for him to take tough decisions at least in the first three months.

There is regionalization of the electoral mandate. The PML-N holds the ring at the federal level and in the Punjab. The PPP has formed the government in Sindh. The province of KP is headed by a PTI-led coalition government and a coalition government is running Balochistan. Though the powers of the provinces have been increased in the 18th constitutional amendment, they have to work together on a number of issues like power generation, river water, generation and use of electricity and use of gas and other natural resources. The smooth working of the Council of Common Interests and the need of economic coordination calls for inter-provincial cooperation. Law and order is a provincial subject but close cooperation between the federal government and provincial government is needed in this field, especially when it comes to countering terrorism.

The control of provinces by different political parties can be a positive development if a sense of interdependence is recognized by those in power at the federal and provincial levels. If each party is not willing to think beyond its narrow partisan interest, the regionalization of mandate can be destabilizing. Take for example, if new federal Interior Minister (a PMLN person) cannot maintain working relations with the PPP and the MQM, he will not be able to contribute positively to coping with law and order threats in Karachi. Similarly, if the rivalry between the PML-N and the PTI is not kept under check, the federal government and the KP government may end up in unnecessary fights.

Another drawback in the current mandate is that the PML-N has won almost 95 percent of its general seats from the Punjab. Now some independent have joined it but the majority of them are from the Punjab. Some small parties from other provinces have extended support to it. The PML-N faces the dilemma of providing effective representation to other provinces in the federal cabinet that requires elected personnel. Similarly, it will have problems in accommodating other provinces in other federal institutions.

Two key offices of the prime minister and the speaker of the National Assembly have been given to elected leaders from Lahore. As the current chairman of the Senate is also from Punjab, three key offices have gone to one province. The deputy speaker is from Hazra region of KP. It is important the PML-N fully recognizes the sensitivity of regional representation at the federal level. Even in the case of the Punjab, central and northern districts should not appear to control Punjab when it comes to key federal positions.

The question of provincial and regional representation gains importance because now the cabinets cannot be expanded beyond a limit. The size of the federal cabinet cannot be more than 11 per cent of the total membership of the two houses of the parliament. At the provincial level, the maximum limit is 11 percent of the strength of the provincial assembly or 15 members whichever is higher.

Political stability and the capacity of the federal government to address the problems also depend on its interaction with the superior judiciary and the military. The superior judiciary has expanded its domain of authority by stretching the boundaries of judicial activism. In the past the PML-N supported judicial activism because the PPP-led federal government faced the pressure of the judiciary. Now, the PMLN government will have to cope with the judicial activism.

The federal government will have to maintain smooth working relations with the military, especially the Army top command, on internal and external security issues. It will have to continue to with the standard operating procedure of frequent consultations between the top civilian and military leaders and shared decision-making on security and terrorism issues. It would be advisable for the PML-N federal government to stay away from court trials of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The PML-N should forget about the past and give full attention to resolving current socio-economic problems and security issues with a fixation for creating a better future for the people of Pakistan.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.