The poll debate

December 19, 2017


THE rumour mill seems in overdrive in predicting how the election process may be derailed. Speculation is rife that something will give. Some argue that we need an artificial stabilising mechanism for a while. Others talk of a technocratic setup. And of course, the dreaded coup never seems to disappear from the conversation.

Even short of these extra-constitutional options, there is uncertainty around the election timing. The National Assembly speaker thinks the assemblies won’t complete their tenure. Others point to possible delays because of the improbability of the issue of constituency delimitations being resolved in time.

All this defies political logic as far as the 2018 ballot is concerned.

Eliminating the coup option doesn’t require much analysis. There isn’t an appetite among the powers that be. This army chief certainly isn’t the type but also, the army is aware that it has no magical solutions to offer for the country’s problems. It’s not going to take direct fire when it can avoid it by remaining behind the scenes.

Next, technocratic government. When I ask what this means in practice, many point to the initial post-coup cabinets of military dictators as models, eg Musharraf’s in the 1999-2001 period. But how do you get there without a coup?

There’s no realistic path to altering the 2018 schedule.

Some bring up the ‘Bangladesh’ model, without recognising its failure. Yes, the 2006-07 state of emergency and prolonged rule of the caretaker setup in Bangladesh was blessed by the military. But this came about because of significant street violence, a boycott of the poll by a major party, and with judicial support.

In Pakistan’s case, neither the PML-N nor PTI are about to opt out of the next elections as that would hand over power to the other on a platter.

The judiciary isn’t going to bite either. The current Supreme Court seems to be consciously acting as a self-anointed voice of the average citizen. Such judicial activism is not alien to the developing world; it’s an approach in which the institution overreaches and takes it upon itself to signal intolerance for governance failures and its perceived causes. But this isn’t a judiciary acting on GHQ orders. Right from chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s time, the judiciary has been seen as trying to cement its institutional position perhaps as a key power broker that can’t be placated at will. Nothing would harm this effort more than bowing to the khakis or politicos.

As for the election’s timing, there isn’t a realistic path to altering the 2018 schedule.

The PML-N could potentially have benefited from an early ballot in two scenarios. First, right after his ouster, Nawaz Sharif could have garnered a sympathy vote and gone up against a PTI unprepared for an election. Second, had Imran Khan been disqualified by the court last week, the PTI would have suddenly been at its most vulnerable. The PML-N could have conceivably considered cashing on this.

Now, Nawaz is going to wait it out for the March 2018 Senate elections he has been eyeing all along. And while he could call elections after securing the Senate, it won’t make any qualitative difference in the timing of the elections, preponing them only by 45 days or so, but it would give the caretaker setup 90 instead of 60 days to hold polls. This makes little sense for the PML-N: the lesser the time available to the caretaker to switch around a pro-PML-N bureaucracy and make other changes to offer the fairest election possible, the better for Nawaz & co.

The opposition, on its part, neither has the numbers in the assemblies to force early polls, nor will it benefit from them. For the PTI, its biggest bump-up in terms of popularity is likely to come from the accountability court’s convicting Nawaz. That’ll be the signal to the Punjabi voters, they hope, that Nawaz (and PML-N) is done and that they must look elsewhere to keep the province’s tradition of voting for the perceived winner.

Also, if you are in the camp that wants the PML-N to survive but with Shahbaz Sharif at the helm, as some argue the establishment does, the only chance of Nawaz ceding ground to his younger brother is also going to be in the wake of his convictions.

Finally, the census and the question of a delayed ballot. The delimitation bill on amending constituencies should lay this concern to rest. While technicalities of the process can still create road blocks, going the delay route assumes the major political forces that would have to force this agenda benefit from a prolonged caretaker rule. One can’t see how they gain by backing anything that holds the normal electoral process in abeyance even for a day.

All eyes ought to be on next summer. It is time to begin asking the political parties tough questions about their priorities.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2017