Dr. Hussain Yasa
At last despite the best efforts of the terrorists, Pakistan has successfully conducted its 14th General Elections. Of course there are some reports of irregularities and rigging in many polling stations allover Pakistan. But these reports do not add up to systematic rigging on a scale which could affect the national result. The first element of the result was the turnout. At around 60% it far exceeded the turnout in previous elections and can be taken as an endorsement of the process by tens of millions of ordinary Pakistanis. Observers broadly seem satisfied with the conduct of the elections, especially bearing in mind the difficult circumstances in which the parties campaigned and people voted. Domestically and internationally many have applauded the performance of the Election Commission of Pakistan.
The Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by two times ex Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, emerged as the largest Party. By Sunday evening PML(N) had picked up 125 out of the 272 directly elected seats in the lower house, with 37 more to be declared. This left PML (N) by far the largest party in parliament, and hoping to be able to form a government with the support of a few independents, rather than in coalition with other parties. It had been widely predicted that PML (N) would top the polls. But few anticipated the scale of Nawaz Sherif’s victory.
In the end the high turnout favored PML (N) as its powerful campaign machinery across Punjab brought out the voters. Many observers had thought that a high turnout might be a sign of new voters deserting the traditional parties. Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan hoped to be the main beneficiary of the surge in new voters. These predictions turned out to be well wide of the mark. PML (N) slightly improved its position relative to 2008 in all provinces but swept the board in the Punjab provincial assembly, with a two thirds majority.
The other clear result of the election was the resounding defeat of the Pakistan People’s Party. By Sunday evening they had only with 30 seats and were struggling towards a final total under 40 seats. This left them vying with PTI for second position in the National Assembly, the most miserable result the party has achieved since its foundation. The party is largely confined to the rural strongholds of Sindh and came third across most of Punjab. The strategy of President Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairman of the party was to use Imran Khan as a tool to weaken Nawaz Sharif in Panjab backfired as such progress as PTI made was at the expense of PPP and its allies, not PML (N). Most of Zardari’s Panjabi comrades, including ex cabinet ministers and two former prime ministers lost their seats. Pakistan Muslim League- Q, the coalition partner of PPP in Panjab also lost in the same way. Now, Pakistan People’s Party will only retain its provincial government in Sindh. Although the party has clear majority in Sindh assembly but still has to keep onboard its old alliance partner Mutahida Qaoumi Movement (MQM).
Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) also performed well but below the expectations of its Chairman Imran Khan. He had hoped to gain the majority in the lower house. Serious observers of course always knew there was an element of self-delusion in the Imran Khan confidence. Still, many observers expected PTI to do better than the 32 seats they got in the early results. Many pre-poll surveys marked PTI as top favorite in the urban areas. Nevertheless PTI’s achievement is respectable. The party has progressed from obscurity to being one of the two main opposition parties nationally. It has become the largest party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PTI victory in KP Province delivered the other stunning result of this election – the annihilation of the traditional secular Pakhtun nationalist party, ANP. The party simply disappeared from both the national and provincial assemblies, a resounding rejection by the voters of the main ally of the PPP in government. Asfandyar Wali, the Party head lost his seat to Jamiate Ulemaye Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F).
MQM held onto the urban areas of Sindh and even improved its performance in the provincial assembly elections. It got 19 seats in the early results. The MQM’s tight grip on Karachi, the largest city and the main economic hub of Pakistan proved to be an effective remedy for the reaction against PPP and partners.
The election reaffirmed the marginal role of explicitly religious parties in Pakistan national politics. Jamiate Ulemaye Islam-F and Jamiat Islami picked up a handful of seats in the national assembly. Only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa did they pick up a fifth of the seats. But here too they were well beaten by PTI which seems to have been better than the mullahs at capitalising on anti-American sentiments.
An explanation of the PML-N success
The main reasons for the PML-N victory are:
1. Bad governance, corruption and failure to deliver by the PPP-led coalition. The previous government failed to address the energy shortage, economic crisis and terrorism.
2. PML-N was helped in its election campaign since it was the only main party which seemed completely free from fear of Taliban attack on its campaign. Many believe that Taliban had a secret deal with Nawaz Sharif. By mounting repeated attacks on their rallies they didn’t allow the secular parties to conduct their election campaign. In particular PPP, ANP and MQM could not run effective campaign. There were many suicide attacks and explosions in meetings and rallies of these parties. The only party which proved able to cope with this threat was MQM because of its strong party structure and discipline. MQM also benefited from its strong base in urban areas where people have access to electronic media and internet based social media.
3. The better performance of the PML-N government in Panjab where Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif served as chief minister during last five years. Shahbaz Sharif has also been hyper energetic in his public dealing and many give him the credit for the triumph in these elections.
4. The anti-incumbency sentiment is another main factor. Ruling over Pakistan in current conditions is not an easy task. No government has addressed the popular expectations for progress towards a peaceful and prosperous life. In Pakistan it seems that parties never get elected for consecutive terms.
5. Ultimately PML’s projection of the idea of trusting a tested leader proved more appealing than PTI’s appeal to trust someone who has not held office.
6. Nawaz Sherif was the one who calibrated his anti American stance at just the right level for voters. He used slogans of a sovereign Pakistan, promises of radical reform and new jobs creation and vows to bring quick peace and stability by talking with the Taliban.
The real question is whether the new government will be able to take the policy decisions required in Pakistan’s current crisis. Nawaz Sherif is the one who will face the challenge. But he will be looking at every last result in the National Assembly to calculate just how much dependent he will be on support from outside the party to be able to govern. In his victory speech he indicated his willingness to form a coalition if necessary. But he would probably prefer to govern with the support of the independents rather than a coalition with one of the other major parties.
1. To address the huge expectations of Pakistani people is a difficult task. Nawaz will face exactly the same challenges which were the cause of the downfall of PPP. Will Nawaz Sharif keep his promise to end tiresome load shedding, reduce violence and political instability and improve economic performance? All this remains to be seen.
2. Nawaz Sharif will have to work out how to cohabit with Asif Ali Zardari, who stays on as President. The PPP is down but not out. It retains a majority in the senate and still has grassroots support in Sindh, the second large province of Pakistan. A confrontation with its President would be a gamble and probe into corruption cases against the incumbent president may remain a dream for Nawaz Sharif rather he has to calm down his anti Zardari sentiments to rule smoothly.
3. Although, PML-N has emerged as the larger party nationally it remains mainly a party of Panjabis. Apart from Panjab, all other provincial governments are likely to be led by other parties. To maintain national unity Nawaz will have to carry the other parties with him.
4. He promised to initiate talks with the Taliban. But they don’t recognize the constitution of Pakistan and wanted to topple the PPP led government because of its close collaboration with US led war on terror. The question remains to be answered as to what Nawaz Sharif will be able to do differently from the PPP led coalition. Will he do an unsavory deal with the Taliban in pursuit of quick fixes in Pakistan? Will he be in a position to stop the drone attacks in tribal areas held by Taliban and its Al Qaeda friends? What will be his policy on NATO supply?
5. Another important issue has been the difficult relationship of Nawaz Sharif with the military establishment of Pakistan. So far PML (N) stance on war on terror has not been the same as of the Pakistan Army’s stand of considering it as own war and not for Americans. Nawaz Sharif has to develop a consensus on the issue with the Army lest the people of Pakistan would continue to suffer due to absence of a consistent national policy to counter terrorism. Now, he has to manage this issue. Another important issue is the trial of the ex military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharaf who toppled his elected government in 1999. If his federal government will charge him with committing national treason, what will be immediate reaction of Pakistan Army?
Dr. Hussain Yasa is the Chief editor of the daily Outlook Afghanistan