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Continuity of command or change

Updated July 25, 2018

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MILLIONS of Pakistanis go to the polling stations today to declare whether they want continuity, represented by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or change of command, promised by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

Apart from the tussle for power between the two claimants at the Centre, the four provinces of the country are voting on the day to press their own choice of government — simultaneously paying a tribute to the ideals of pluralism amid assertions that the exercise could have been fairer and one where greater freedoms for the people were ensured.

Surveys in the run-up to the election projected the PTI and the PML-N fighting it out for the honours, and some accusations of favouritism and lack of level playing field. The PTI, which was dubbed the blue-eyed boy of ‘the establishment’, in turn termed these allegations part of some international scheme. It went as far as saying that some foreign elements were supporting the incarcerated Mian Nawaz Sharif. As the PTI flashed its patriotic credentials and wooed the voters towards a new Pakistan, the PML-N at least appeared to retain its core vote despite the pressures its leadership has been under in recent months.

Various polls conducted close to the election claimed that Imran Khan, who ran an extremely hectic electioneering campaign, is the toughest challenge that the PML-N has faced in many years. However, the numbers gathered in the surveys failed to identify a clear winner, with the party of the Sharifs shown to be only marginally ahead of the PTI in some crucial central Punjab districts, and the PTI leading its nearest rival by equally slim margins elsewhere. The anti-PML-N forces, which seemed to be stronger in southern parts of Punjab, could well propel Imran Khan’s chances of getting to the prime minister’s office.

In Sindh, the PML-N chose to back the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) — a patch-up of different groups mainly out to thwart the Pakistan Peoples Party’s attempt to dominate the politics in the province. There were reports that the front could create trouble for the PPP in certain parts of Sindh, with the PTI also throwing its weight behind the GDA at some places. There was even talk of the PPP losing the fight to form the provincial government — but this eventually was discussed less and less as the voting day neared.

The local predictions 10 days from the contest were that the PPP could lose a few seats in Sindh. It has to be seen now whether the eleventh-hour tour of the province by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has sufficiently propped up the party’s chances in critical districts such as Dadu and in making sure that the party was comfortably poised to run the province for yet another term.

A very interesting contest is on the cards in Karachi where, in the words of one observer, people, after so many decades, have an opportunity to think about who they are going to vote in. The break-up of the Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement has created room for new and old entrants to assert their presence in Karachi. Besides the Jamaat-i-Islami, PPP and PML-N, the MQM, Pak Sarzameen Party and PTI are all vying for the honours in Karachi. Not to be forgotten, there is quite a noticeable presence of religious-political groups in the city. These groups, for instance Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, are out to steal the thunder from their more conventional predecessors such as the Jamaat and Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl which are contesting under the common Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal umbrella this time.

The campaign by the PTI and PPP and also by the PML-N does to a large extent help create an impression that the commercial capital of the country could come up with a result this time quite unlike the ones in the recent elections. But just as the MQM was the runaway winner in successive elections in Karachi over the last almost three decades, the ethnic card appears to be still worth some votes here. Even the Jamaat candidates in the city think that it is good to include a line or two in their introduction about their ‘UP-background’.

In Balochistan, first of all, the media’s focus is on the turnout followed by who gets to rule the province. The National Assembly contests are third on the ladder so far as public interest is concerned. Despite a devastating bomb attack in Mastung days before the election, journalists in the province believe that the voting percentage is going to improve this time round, from the dismal less than two per cent figure in some areas in 2013.

The 16 National Assembly seats in the province are likely to be divided between the religion-based parties, collected in the MMA but mainly JUI-F, the nationalists and the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party. The general feeling is that a large number of these elected MNAs will be ready to join any government in Islamabad — an impression that may be a little difficult to sustain on a closer look.

Bigger surprises have taken place in Pakistani politics but, BAP’s potential apart, both the JUI-F and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party of Mehmood Khan Achakzai have been close partners of the PML-N in the recent past. In the event of the PTI looking for parties to join it in a coalition, Imran Khan might find it hard to reconcile with Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Mehmood Achakzai, and vice versa.

Imran Khan’s PTI might well be faced with a similar situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it has just completed a five-year term. Should it succeed in retaining power here, this would break a tradition in a province known for changing parties in the government each successive election. Pre-poll projections said the PTI could well emerge as the biggest party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most conservative estimates put the tally of provincial seats for the PTI here at 30, with the party expected to secure the largest share of National Assembly seats in the province. The PTI leadership on its part is confident of securing at least 50 out of the 90 provincial assembly seats.

Again the MMA, with the JUI-F showing prominently, is a force for Imran Khan’s party to contend with. At the same time there are other strong challengers spread over different Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas. The PML-N cannot be written off and may well end up with a provincial count in double figures, and there is the Awami National Party, which is seen to staging some kind of a comeback after a poor showing in 2013. The ANP tally might exceed that of the PML-N, according to analysts who, nonetheless, acknowledge a strong presence of the PTI all over the province as compared to the more region-based appeal of its opponents. The PPP and JI are also in the run on a few seats and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa overall retains its old character where it has something to offer to everyone.

The rather complicated post-poll scenario where Imran Khan might have to search for allies in violation of his own vows during the election campaign places him under that much greater pressure to emerge as a winner by some distance in Punjab. The province as usual holds the key to who is going to form the government at the Centre and the PTI is obviously very keen on replacing the PML-N as the ruling party in Lahore as well. Surveys speak of neck-and-neck fights in most parts of Punjab. The PML-N still looks capable of pulling off its famed polling-day magic. It can give the PTI senior leadership, including Imran Khan, a run for their money.

The opinion polls say the PML-N is leading on a majority of seats in Lahore. However, in a few of these contests as well as in other constituencies in the province, the N-League lead is wafer-thin. Except for some seats where the PML-N looks invincible, the scale could be tilted in favour of the PTI by a few handfuls of votes. General observation has been that the PML-N influence gets lighter as you move some distance away from Lahore. This contention is backed by the instance a couple of weeks before the election when more than 10 PML-N nominees in southern Punjab returned the N-League tickets and chose to fight the election as independents.

For the last few years, it has all been about whether the PML-N can withstand the Imran Khan charge, and whether this tense situation can be resolved without the PTI chief coming to power. Today’s vote just might decide it, although some exports foresee more turmoil of the kind that had prevailed in the country since the 2013 polls. Aspersions have already been cast on the conduct of the polls and the organisers have to be at their most efficient and most objective to avoid more allegations of rigging.

For Imran Khan’s sake, with or without achieving its goal of dislodging the PML-N in Lahore, without getting a simple majority, the PTI could gather the number of seats that puts it on course to a much eagerly wanted term in power in Islamabad. But this is not to say that the party is not tasked with realising an almost impossible wish of gaining at least simple majority in the National Assembly. At the end of all these surveys, all these analyses that had this ring of finality about them, short of a miracle, Pakistan looks all set to elect a hung lower house of parliament today. The time for shouting has ended. The politicians aspiring for power better start talking with each other in conciliatory tones now.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2018