Pakistan elections: a critical juncture

May 2, 2013

By Nishat Ahmed

As Pakistan gears up for crucial general elections in just over a week, on 1 May the Frontline Club hosted a panel discussion, First Wednesday: Pakistan goes to the polls, to consider the country’s prospects.

The panelists on the evening were journalist and author Irfan Husain,  Pir Zubair Shah of the Council on Foreign RelationsUmber Khairi, a producer and radio broadcaster with BBC Urdu at the BBC World Service and the High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Hasan.

L-R: Irfan Husain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Umber Khairi, Pir Zubair Shah Photo credit: Adil Shahzeb

L-R: Irfan Husain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Umber Khairi, Pir Zubair Shah Photo credit: Adil Shahzeb

Chaired by Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the debate aimed to give an overview of the main political parties contesting in the election – to be held on 11 May – marking their distinctions along religious and political lines. They also discussed their electioneering pledges as well as the ensuing threats and violence at rallies.

In answer to the question of the make up of the political parties, the panel agreed on their often ambiguous nature which makes some hard to distinguish along religious or political divides. The role of regional parties was also emphasised. In answer to a question of their importance, Shah explained:

“You have to be interested in the regional parties; besides Baluchistan you have to know what’s going on in tribal areas . . . who is running there, which parties are supporting them. In the tribal areas for the first time they have extended the Political Parties Act of Pakistan’s constitution; now you can run on a party political platform. However the situation there is still tenuous as attacks on secular party candidates are encouraging them to stand as independent.”

The changing face of the electorate was also linked to the emerging urban middle class, which seem to favour the party lead by Pakistan’s former cricketing hero Imran Khan. Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf (PTI), in Khairi’s view, is favored by younger voters but is also seen as a Taliban sympathizer:

“He is not a very experienced politician . . . he comes across as rightist. He is trying to form an alliance with Jammate Islami, a large regressive Islamist party, which has had association with Al Qaida.”

The role of the military, which over Pakistan’s 65 year history has toppled many elected governments, was also discussed. However, protracted legal disputes over its role in recent years has resulted in banning the country’s last military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, from contesting.

The question of crumbling economic infrastructures, possibly stemming from Pakistan’s intractable financial decline, was also highlighted in the discussion. Husain explained:

“The biggest single issue is currently recurring power shortages that the government could not get a handle on . . . so the country is on its knees . . . and there are areas in Pakistan where electricity goes out for 18 hours a day. . . . This is one issue I think the electorate is going to punish this government for.”

Forecasting the outcome of the elections, the panel agreed that a coalition was the most likely outcome. High Commissioner Hasan said that rural areas of Pakistan held majority votes and was therefore less hopeful for the prospects of PTI as it is more urban based. However, he foresees Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) making large scale gains in its traditional heartland province of Sindh, as well as sweeping the votes in Southern Punjab with its coalition partners.

For Khairi on the other hand, forecasting the outcome was likely to give a false picture:

“I wouldn’t like to make a prediction because when they did the voters verification, about 37 million were unverified and thrown out of registers and 36 million came in with new voters . . . it is a very unclear. I think there is going to be a coalition . . . but it is also an interesting election because it is the first time when there isn’t a right-wing religious party coalition contesting against specifically, say, PPP or Nawaz Sharif.”

Assessing the prospects of the other major parties, Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PMLN) and  PPP, Husain explained:

“The polls show that PMLN is ahead and will get the biggest number of seats so it’s very likely that he [Nawaz] will lead a coalition, but he is not expected to get an outright majority. Next to that in the polls is the PPP, which may or may not be part of a coalition. PTI is expected to do much better than before and pollsters are giving him [Khan] 15 to 30 seats out of 270. So we are looking at a coalition with Nawaz Sharif being the dominant player.”

Shah was more hopeful as the elections look set to bring in a second, consecutive democratic term in Pakistan’s history, but he was also critical:

“They have made progress on constitutional issues but face problems of power shortages and corruption and the elections in the regions are important to USA and NATO – all this is related and how you predict the outcome . . . PMLN, PTI and other religious parties will have a field day and the secular parties will suffer . . . the effect will be a hung parliament which can not do the basic things on security and foreign policy.”

You can watch the full event and listen to the podcast below: