• Over 105m voters to elect their representatives
• No party likely to sweep polls
• New religious groups emerge
• Terror attacks during campaign caused more deaths than in 2013 polls
ISLAMABAD: More than 105 million voters are set to elect their representatives for the national and provincial assemblies on Wednesday (today) for the next five years in what appears to be one of the most contentious and unpredictable polls in Pakistan’s political history.
With fears and uncertainty about timely elections being over, the traditional contest will once again be among the three major parties — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — though what makes these elections different is the emergence of new religious groups.
Some of these religious groups have fielded more candidates than the number of contestants of other parties. A number of candidates are contesting from the platforms of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT). The TLP has fielded even more candidates than the PPP in the race for the Punjab Assembly.
The recently-revived Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) — an alliance of pro-democracy religio-political parties that had ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) in 2002 — is also in the race.
The Election Commission of Pakistan’s data reveals that nearly 600 candidates are using the platform of four religious parties and groups. A few other smaller religious parties like the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and Muttahida Ulema-i-Mashaikh Council of Pakistan are also in the electoral field in Punjab. The platform of the AAT is being used by the candidates of the Milli Muslim League (MML), which has been denied registration by the ECP due to its alleged links with banned outfit Jamaatud Dawa led by Hafiz Saeed. The TLP is headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who acquired prominence after staging a sit-in at Faizabad interchange in Rawalpindi for weeks on the issue of Khatm-i-Nubuwat. Another little known religious party, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Islami (TLI), has also fielded 18 candidates in Punjab.
Perturbed over the participation of such a large number of candidates belonging to the proscribed organisation and other religious parties, the mainstream political parties and civil society are questioning the role of the caretaker government and Election Commission of Pakistan in this regard.
The PTI with the largest number of ‘electables’ in its fold appears more confident than ever to sweep the elections. The PML-N is relying on both its performance as well as sympathy votes with the party supremo Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz in Adiala jail and Kulsoom Nawaz on a ventilator back in London. The PPP is banking on its history and an astoundingly successful election campaign led by its young chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to expect a better performance in today’s polls than in the 2013 general election.
PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif in his recent TV interview has termed the July 25 election “mother of all elections” whereas PTI chairman Imran Khan believes that these will be “make or break elections”.
As usual a large number of independent candidates are also in the electoral race, but the significant number of those contesting on the symbol of ‘jeep’ has acquired the attention of the media and political experts. Estranged PML-N leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, vying for two NA and two Punjab Assembly seats this time independently, has also been allotted the symbol of “jeep”.
The allotment of the ‘jeep’ symbol in large numbers to independent candidates, including most of the PML-N dissidents, has triggered a debate, particularly on social media, suggesting that those contesting on the symbol are backed by the establishment.
Chaudhry Nisar, however, clarified that he had not asked anyone to seek the symbol of ‘jeep’, trying to suggest that it was a mere coincidence.
The media had termed the 2013 election campaign the ‘bloodiest’ ever with the death count being 117. Though the number of attacks during the election campaign this time is less than those carried out during the previous election campaign, the death toll this year was over 170 with three candidates — one each of the Awami National Party (ANP), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and the PTI — being targeted in suicide blasts.
The PTI and PML-N have declared Mr Khan and Mr Shahbaz, respectively, their candidates for the office of the prime minister. In the PPP rallies, there were slogans of Wazir-i-Azam Bilawal, but the young PPP chairman in his recent news conference in Islamabad stated that the party would decide its candidate for the premiership once the polls were over.
Earlier, Bilawal during a TV interview had said his father with the experience of managing a coalition government was the “best choice” for the prime minister if a coalition government was formed after the July 25 elections. He said his father was the first civilian president to have completed his term and the coalition government under him was also the first civilian government that completed its full term in the history of Pakistan.
Most of the political pundits and analysts are predicting a “hung parliament” after the polls, apprehending more political turmoil in the coming days. Their apprehensions seem to be true if Mr Khan’s words are taken seriously that his party would prefer to sit on the opposition benches rather than joining a coalition with the PPP or the PML-N.
In his interviews and speeches, Mr Khan on a number of occasions had stated that only a strong government could deliver for the people of this terrorism-hit financially-stricken country.
Seats required to form govt
To form a government at the centre, a party requires 172 seats out of total 342, the number unlikely to be achieved by any single party.
The PTI seems to be largely satisfied with the present caretaker set-up and the ECP. PTI information secretary Fawad Chaudhry, who is contesting NA seat from Jhelum, even declared that these elections would be the ‘fairest of all the elections’ so far held in the country.
Level playing field
The statement from the PTI leader came in the backdrop of allegations by most of the mainstream political parties, mainly the PPP and the PML-N, that the ECP and the caretaker government had failed to provide them a level playing field.
During the campaign, the two parties openly accused the “establishment” of supporting Mr Khan in the elections, dubbing the cricketer-turned-politician as the new Ladla (favourite).
Both the PPP and the PML-N are also questioning the “larger role” being given to the army in the conduct of elections.
Though in the past, too, the political parties used to cry over the role of “establishment” in the political and electoral process, it was for the first time that the PPP dared naming the military officials allegedly pressurising candidates to either change their loyalties or withdraw from the race. But the ECP clarified that the army had been given the role in accordance with the Elections Act 2017 only to ensure a peaceful environment for the elections.
Despite the pre-poll rigging allegations, the PPP and PML-N claim that they will produce surprising results in the elections.
It is generally believed that the election campaign has remained lacklustre and the parties did not get sufficient time for campaigning. But some political experts are of the opinion that these elections are being held after the longest-run election campaign, as the PTI had been in the election mood since the 2014 D-Chowk sit-in.
Not only the PTI but also other parties, including the PML-N that was in the government at the centre and Punjab, arranged a number of public meetings and rallies over the past two years. The campaign gained momentum particularly after the disqualification of former premier Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case in July 2017.
270 NA constituencies
On Wednesday, the polling will be held in 270 out of 272 National Assembly constituencies after the postponement of the elections in NA-60 Rawalpindi and NA-103 Faisalabad. The ECP deferred the election on NA-60 Rawalpindi seat just three days before the polling when PML-N’s Hanif Abbasi was sentenced by a court in the ephedrine case. In the Rawalpindi constituency, his main rival was Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who had been expecting a walkover after Mr Abbasi’s disqualification.
The AML chief, who is backed by the PTI, challenged the ECP’s decision first in the Islamabad High Court and then in the Supreme Court, but did not get relief. Mr Ahmed is also contesting from another NA seat (NA-62) from Rawalpindi.
In NA-103 (Faisalabad), the election has been postponed due to the natural death of an independent candidate.
570 provincial assembly constituencies
Similarly, polling will be held in 570 of the total 577 provincial assembly constituencies. Voting has been postponed in seven constituencies due to the deaths of the candidates, including ANP’s Haroon Bilour in Peshawar, BAP’s Siraj Raisani in Mastung and PTI’s Ikramullah Gandapur in D.I. Khan.
Punjab: the main battlefield
As usual, Punjab will be the main battlefield where a tough contest between the PML-N and the PTI is expected. The PPP that has fielded mostly new faces due to massive exodus from the party in the recent days is also hopeful of improving its previous performance in the province.
The PTI has fielded majority of newcomers in the province, but there are reports from a number of cities and towns that old party workers and members have not accepted the new entrants. There is also a negative campaign on the social media against those who frequently change their loyalties and a debate is also going on in the political circles with a few believing that this time the people will reject “turncoats”.
It is believed that this time, the PPP will also have to work hard to get the required number of seats to form government in Sindh due to the presence of the newly-formed Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) comprising of almost all anti-PPP forces.
The most interesting contest is expected in Karachi where two breakaway factions of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are in the field with the third faction of the MQM-London headed by founding leader Altaf Hussain giving a call for the election boycott. Due to this internal rift within the MQM, both the PPP and the PTI are expecting to get their share.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PTI’s stakes are very high as the province has never returned the same party in consecutive elections. There seems to be a three-way contest pitting the PTI against the MMA, on the one hand, and against the ANP on the other. The PPP and the PML-N reportedly seem trailing far behind to vie for the fourth and fifth positions.
In Balochistan, the newly-formed BAP is expected to give a tough time to the traditional nationalist parties. The MMA also expects better results from this province as well besides Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2018