THE run-up to the elections is proving extremely bloody. There is certainly more to come. Interestingly, what Pakistan is experiencing is usually not considered ‘election-related violence’.
The traditional concept is more about constituency-based, candidate- or party-driven violence, voter intimidation, post-election violence triggered by the losing side, etc. Ours is still militant violence — its targets however, have momentarily become election-related. Nonetheless, in as far as this violence is likely to affect elections profoundly, it is entirely relevant. There are two points of view on this.
Some continue to insist that elections won’t happen, arguing that either the powers that be will make violence an excuse to derail the ballot or that there will be such mayhem that elections will simply not be possible. Both arguments are a stretch.
In terms of deliberate postponement, all sorts of conspiracy theories have gone on for months; eg the PPP government doesn’t want elections and thus will get parliament to extend their term; Tahirul Qadri’s here to fulfil this agenda; we may have a coup; the establishment is deliberately letting violence escalate, etc. None of this has happened. And even if someone wanted to derail the polls, the time to pull it off has passed.
As for violence making elections impossible, the quantum would have to jump multifold and that too in key urban towns to spread the kind of fear that would result in elections being postponed. The ‘threshold rule’ applies here: the state has virtually no capacity to prevent targeted violence up to a certain threshold; beyond this, the militants have little chance of carrying out a coordinated campaign of major attacks in city centres in a short time. There is little reason to believe this will be upended over the coming fortnight.
The other point of view on the violence-election link is that elections will take place but it won’t be a level playing field. This is correct; elections are likely to happen and violence is certain to affect parties disproportionately. There is a need to examine just how this is likely to play out however. Let me offer some preliminary thoughts. We know the following:
(i) The Islamist enclave has targeted the three in-power parties from the previous set-up, the PPP, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). They have ostensibly spared right-of-centre outfits; (ii) major violence is in areas already known to be sensitive — Fata, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi and parts of Balochistan. Punjab has been incident-free so far; and (iii) if the militants want to make it truly count, one can expect attempts to strike key urban metropolis with greater frequency.
We also know from virtually all the survey and polling data produced by various sources over the past three to four months that the election race at the national level will be a two-way battle: the PML-N is the frontrunner followed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). The PPP is lagging. (Provincial data is not consistent enough across surveys to make a call.)
Finally, from global evidence and conventional wisdom, we can decipher the mechanism through which militant violence may impact electoral outcomes: this type of violence induces uncertainty; uncertainty leads to lower and more unpredictable voter turnout in affected areas; these constituencies then become more likely to throw up unpredictable results — read, create upsets. In essence, all else being equal, the parties that are otherwise favourites to win seats in impacted areas (or are banking on votes of segments of society most likely to opt out of voting due to security concerns) will be most adversely affected.
So what does this say about the 2013 elections?
The first obvious implication is that the right-of-centre parties have an advantage over their left-of-centre counterparts. Indeed, the ANP has been targeted more frequently than any other party; the MQM has been increasingly so; and the PPP ostensibly is too scared to campaign properly.
That said, since none of these parties appear to be the favourites, it may be a non-issue in determining which outfit emerges with the single largest share of seats; both the PML-N and PTI are in the ‘spared’ camp.
As for sensitive locations, parties ahead in constituencies in western KP and Fata, Quetta and its surroundings and Karachi are likely to be most affected. The PTI and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl are banking heavily on votes from KP’s most troubled areas. This will help parties like the PML-N whose strongholds are in relatively more secure regions. Similarly, results from Punjab will be least influenced by violence. This will help the predicted frontrunner in the province — again the PML-N.
In Sindh, the MQM depends largely on Karachi; the PPP’s rural strongholds are less affected and thus are likely to produce the expected results (in the PPP’s favour). Balochistan’s dispersed support makes it difficult to predict but parties with a Quetta bias will have most to worry about.
In terms of the potential for the heat being turned on in the urban metropolis, the MQM and PTI with their relatively stronger urban bases (all other parties have a stronger support base in rural and rural-urban constituencies) will face the greatest unpredictability.
Finally, one can’t neglect the importance of the new, young voters in this election. The PTI is banking most on them. How they’ll react to violence is anybody’s guess. One view is that they are the most idealistic and energised and will be least affected. The contrary argument is that urban youth, especially the elite, are most risk averse and least familiar with what to expect at a polling station and would thus opt out. The former helps the PTI tremendously; the latter may be a kiss of death.
Overall, if we are to believe the surveys available, the PML-N is ahead; the current pattern of violence will reinforce its position.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.