In 2013, Pakistan’s parliament completed its five year term, contrary to the predictions of many. Elections were held on May 11th. Significantly (for scholars of democratisation) there was an orderly transition of power; from a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government to a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PMLN) one.
The campaign and issues
Political parties in Pakistan are often little more than a collection of locally powerful personalities with little programmatic affiliation. Personalities and symbols matter, both at the national as well as constituency level. It is not clear how many voters are aware of specific manifesto promises, and still fewer would decide their vote on the basis of one. As such the image of the leader provides a rallying point. Interestingly however, the PPP, despite giving prominence to Benazir’s image performed extremely badly. Tired of poor governance, multiple corruption scandals and a severe energy crisis; voters voted with their feet. This does not mean that the image of the leader is unimportant. Nawaz Sharif benefitted from his image as a man who gets things done, reminding voters of his success in delivering major infrastructure projects. However, it indicates that vote banks cannot be taken for granted; delivery matters.
Although voters were disenchanted with the PPP, the Pakistan Taliban’s deliberate targeting of the PPP (as well as the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Quami Movement) also affected the vote. More than 150 people were killed in the four weeks before the election, making this the bloodiest election in Pakistan’s history. These three parties were reduced to campaigning via social media, video links and small meetings. The Chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (Benazir’s son) was confined to making the odd speech via video link. Although social media was important in this election, this was predominantly in urban areas. Parties that were unable to campaign effectively were at a disadvantage.
In contrast, Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were able to campaign relatively freely (neither the PMLN nor the PTI condemned the Taliban attacks on their rivals), and there is little doubt that both parties benefitted from the unfettered campaign opportunities. After having his nomination papers for several constituencies, former President, retired General Musharraf was arrested in mid-April on the charge of illegally arresting top judges in 2007. The image of Musharraf fleeing the courtroom before he could be detained made him the object of ridicule, but also sent shock waves through Pakistan – unaccustomed to seeing Army Chiefs in the dock. Musharraf was subsequently confined to house arrest.
On election day, queues quickly formed at polling stations, indicating that turnout was higher than the 45 percent recorded during the 2008 elections. It was calculated that 60 percent voted – unmatched since the first national elections in 1970. Imran Khan’s impassioned plea to voters to ‘decide whether you want to make a Naya (new) Pakistan.’ touched the hearts of many (even before his dramatic accident). The levels of turnout expressed the hope and aspiration that many Pakistanis felt at this election, as well as their bravery: 64 people were killed in polling day violence, with another 225 injured.
Social media was alive on election day with reporting on alleged (and actual) irregularities. The Election Commission ordered a re-poll for selected polling stations in six National Assembly seats. FAFEN reported that 49 (later corrected to 46) polling stations had turnouts of more than 100 percent, but the general picture was that the elections were relatively free and fair, or in the words of the EU Observer Mission, ‘a competitive and improved election process… despite militant violence and procedural shortcomings’.
The surprise of the night went to Nawaz Sharif. Pundits had widely predicted that the PMLN would be the largest party, but they had bargained that the PTI would deprive it of seats in the Punjab. At the time of writing the PMLN had won 124 seats (the overwhelming majority of them from the Punjab), the PPP 31 and the PTI 27. Both the PMLN and the PTI gained at the expense of the PPP, leaving the PMLN in the position of nearly securing a outright majority.
Imran Khan had predicted that a tsunami would sweep him into power. Although the PTI performed very creditably, just beating the PPP into third place in terms of vote share, Khan’s followers held protest rallies. The man himself alleged rigging in 25 constituencies. However, no serious political commentators had expected the PTI to secure the majority that Khan had promised his supporters.
After the elections
One of the main successes of the PPP-led government had been to introduce constitutional changes to increase provincial powers and revenue. In 2009 I was able to write that the PPP was the only true national party. It can claim this status no longer, securing very little support outside Sindh. The PMLN’s seats overwhelmingly come from Punjab (which also returns the majority of seats to the National Assembly). As such Sharif needs to be extremely careful that his government is not perceived to be of Punjabis and only for Punjabis (there are encouraging signs in this regard).
Pakistan faces difficult challenges on several fronts. These range from the need to kick start an ailing economy and address chronic energy shortages to managing relations with the army. Sharif is likely to be more assertive than the PPP-led government in trying to wrest control of foreign policy back from the army. He has already spoken of reaching out to India. A rapprochement could boost Pakistan’s economy, as well as supplying Pakistan with access to Indian gas reserves. On the western front, Sharif had talked tough over American drone strikes. But Sharif cannot afford to distance Pakistan from the US, as can be seen by his reaction to the drone attack last week. Relations may be more amicable behind the scenes. One thing is certain; Pakistan’s politics will continue to be well worth watching.