Paradox of Election 2024

Published February 8, 2024
The writer is an author and journalist
The writer is an author and journalist

PAKISTAN goes to the polls today amid despair and uncertainty. For many, the outcome has already been decided, with one of the largest political parties having been effectively forced out of the race. Yet, surprises cannot be ruled out.

Whatever the result, the 2024 polls will have a huge impact on the future course of Pakistani politics. The most important question is: how would it change the country’s power equation? With the PTI virtually out of the equation, the stage seems to have been set for Nawaz Sharif’s return to power. The resurrection of the three-time prime minister tells the story of the ever-shifting sands of Pakistani politics.

It is, however, not over yet. The polls could throw up many surprises. A large turnout could defy the odds. The return of a large number of ‘independents’ could alter the entire power game. A fragmented mandate could push the country’s politics onto uncharted territory. Sharif’s dream of being crowned for the fourth time may prove elusive. Let us wait for a new episode of the game of thrones post-Feb 8.

The latest conviction of incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan (for entering into matrimony allegedly during the iddat of the former first lady) just days before the polls demonstrates the desperation to completely block him and his party from the electoral process. It was Khan’s third conviction in less than a week; the combined sentence is more than 30 years in prison.

Given the voters’ sentiments, it will not be a cakewalk for Nawaz Sharif’s party.

These rushed verdicts in the run-up to the polls have further exposed the sordid game being played by the security establishment, which has delegitimised the electoral process. Khan’s latest conviction has brought shame on the entire nation and has made a mockery of justice. The verdict has cast a huge shadow over the elections.

These punitive actions appear to be part of a plan to discourage PTI voters from coming out to vote today. Yet it could have the opposite effect, causing angry supporters to break the wall of fear. The power of social media and artificial intelligence has become a major tool for the party to mobilise its voters with, mostly the youth, thus impacting the outcome of the polls. Any attempt to shut down the internet today is not likely to be effective.

Punjab, the country’s biggest province with more than half of the National Assembly seats, is the main battleground. That may be the reason why the security establishment is resorting to repressive tactics against the PTI and other dissident groups. Until the very end, the Punjab police was reportedly raiding PTI election offices and the homes of candidates backed by the party. There were also reports of candidates affiliated with the PTI being picked up in order to prevent them from campaigning.

Such actions against a particular party refutes the claim of the caretaker administration and the Election Commission of Pakistan that all sides are being given a level playing field and that free and fair polls are being conducted. The role of the ECP as an impartial body guaranteeing free polls is being questioned. It is apparent that the ground was being cleared for the PML-N to sail through.

But given the voters’ sentiments, it will not be a cakewalk for Nawaz Sharif’s party, notwithstanding the support from the security establishment. There is always a limit to the extent such manipulations can work and obtain ‘positive results’.

While Punjab may be the main electoral battleground, the outcome in the other provinces will also be extremely critical to determining the post-election power equation. It may be difficult for the security establishment to completely manage the poll in KP where the popular tide in favour of the PTI is much stronger.

The PML-N does not have a significant support base in the province except for some pockets in Hazara district. It will certainly be much harder for the establishment to keep PTI voters away from polling.

It is apparent that the kind of intimidation being used in Punjab may not work in the extremely volatile situation prevailing in the province. Meanwhile, a surge in militant violence against the police and other law-enforcement agencies has aggravated the law-and-order situation, making the job of the administration much harder. Any use of force against the opposition could have serious repercussions.

A completely different electoral dynamic is in play in Sindh where the PPP still holds the dominant position. While no surprise is expected in the interior where the PPP doesn’t face any challenge, the situation in Karachi appears unpredictable, with many parties in the field. But the hold of the PPP on the province seems unshakable. It is also hopeful of getting a significant share of seats in Balochistan.

Given this advantage, the party is now focusing on regaining some lost space in Punjab and KP in order to be a player in the battle for Islamabad. It is not surprising that the party has trained its guns on the PML-N that it sees as a major rival in the power contest. The entire effort of the party leadership in those provinces is to win over PTI supporters. But there is no indication yet of the party having made much of a breakthrough in this direction.

However, the PPP leadership appears confident of garnering the support of independents mainly affiliated with the PTI, who are expected to return to the National Assembly in large numbers. It will be a different ball game then, with PTI-affiliated independents holding the balance of power. Such a situation may completely spoil the PML-N-establishment game plan.

What happens after Feb 8 remains unpredictable despite the unprecedented manipulation and pre-poll rigging. It may turn into, as one analyst described it, a popular wave against the state.

The unpredictable outcome of the polls could also prove a serious test for the security establishment. Vote-rigging may be the establishment’s last resort. But that would be at the cost of the country’s future.

The writer is an author and journalist.
zhussain100@yahoo.com
X: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2024

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