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Battle at the ballot

May 11, 2013

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PAKISTAN goes to landmark polls today that mark a huge stride forward for the democratic process in the country. A blood-stained run-up to the elections does not seem to have dampened the voters’ fervour.

Perhaps, the tensest battle in Pakistan’s electoral history has come to a close and is now waiting for the people’s verdict. Will it be the return of the old guard or a surprise victory for a new entrant? It is certainly going to be a very difficult call in a close fight.

Seemingly, the only certainty is that the polls will throw up an even more fragmented house than in previous elections, making it much more difficult to form a viable and effective coalition government. With 148 out of 272 seats for the National Assembly at stake, Punjab remains the main battleground that will ultimately decide the final outcome.

Unlike in the past there is a three-way battle this time in Punjab with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) forcing its way into an arena that had traditionally been dominated by the PML-N and PPP. The rise of the PTI has dramatically changed electoral dynamics in the country’s largest province.

Until a few weeks ago, it seemed that the elections were all sewn up for the PML-N in its stronghold, but the renewed surge in PTI support has completely changed the electoral calculus. Seemingly, the PML-N still has an edge, but the lead has further narrowed over the past few weeks.

What makes the outcome of the elections more unpredictable is Pakistan’s changing demographic reality. The ‘youth bulge’ manifested for the first time in the electoral rolls has introduced a new political dynamic. Almost half of the registered voters or 47.5pc of 84.3 million are under the age of 35.

An overwhelming majority of them are first-time voters who can make a significant difference in the elections. If they turn up at the polls these young voters can be a major swing factor in most constituencies and a game changer.

With its unenviable record in government, the PPP faces its toughest challenge yet in this province where its support base, particularly in the urban areas, has been shrinking for a long time. Various opinion polls indicate a sharp slide in the party’s standing particularly in central and northern Punjab where the bulk of the seats are located. Although the party has maintained its support base in the feudal-dominated southern part of the province, that too is being challenged by the PTI.

There are not many surprises in store in Sindh. Despite growing discontent, it looks as if the PPP will hold its ground in the rural areas while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is most likely to retain its control over Karachi and Hyderabad. But a significant realignment of political forces has helped the PML-N make some inroads in the province.

The political scenario in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remains in flux as the Awami National Party (ANP) has almost been forced out of the campaign because of the Pakistani Taliban’s terrorist attacks on its rallies. Other political parties have also been targeted but not in the same way as the ANP. The politics of KP have traditionally been divided into Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun regions. The Hazara districts have historically been dominated by various PML factions.

This trend persists with the PML-N having a clear edge in Hazara. The PTI has lately made some inroads there, but does not pose any serious challenge to the well-entrenched PML-N candidates. The Pakhtun belt is much more fragmented with the ANP, PTI, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and PML-N jostling for votes.

The return of Baloch nationalist parties has dramatically changed the election scene in Balochistan. Led by Akhtar Mengal, a former provincial chief minister, the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) and some other nationalist parties which had boycotted the 2008 elections in protest against the army operation are now back in mainstream politics lending greater legitimacy to the elections. The BNP-M and the National Party may get most of the seats from the Baloch areas. In the Pakhtun belt, the JUI-F remains a major force with the ANP and Mahmood Achakzai’s Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party also sharing some seats.

There are three possible post-election scenarios: a) the PPP-led coalition returns to power; b) the PML-N emerges as the single largest party and forms the government in alliance with some smaller parties; and c) a hung parliament where no political party is able to form the government.

In the first scenario, it is likely to be an exceedingly fragile coalition with a depleted strength of the PPP and allied parties particularly the ANP and PML-Q. Also in question is the reliability of the MQM as a coalition partner.

The second scenario is, perhaps, most plausible given the high probability of the PML-N returning as the single largest party. The party has already entered into a pre-election alliance with the PML-F and some Sindhi nationalist parties as well as the BNP-M in Balochistan. But even in the best scenario, the PML-N will require the support of the MQM to form any viable coalition government in Islamabad.

The third scenario envisages a strong showing by the PTI in the polls winning a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, thus blocking the chances of the PPP and PML-N to form the government.

In this scenario, the PTI is likely to emerge as a powerbroker and in a strong position to negotiate with both parties on its own terms. The PTI has often stated that it would prefer to sit in the opposition rather than be part of a coalition government. A prolonged stalemate in the formation of government may have serious consequences for the country’s political and economic stability.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain