If all goes well, Pakistanis will go to the polls on May 11th to elect a new national assembly and all 4 provincial assemblies. The Pakistan People’s Party was the largest party in the outgoing parliament and under the guidance of President Asif Ali Zardari, successfully held together a disparate coalition regime in the face of multiple challenges to complete its 5 year term of office.
Unfortunately, that huge achievement is almost their only major achievement in office. While things were not as absolutely abysmal as portrayed by Pakistan’s anti-PPP middle class (rural areas, for example, are better off economically than they have ever been), they are pretty awful. Chronic electricity shortages (inherited from Musharraf’s Potemkin regime, but still not fixed), galloping inflation, widespread corruption and endless terrorism have tried the patience of even the most devoted PPP supporters and make it difficult for the PPP to run on their record.
There are a few bright spots (including a relatively well run welfare scheme called the Benazir income support program) and with Zardari deploying his coalition building magic, it is not a good idea to completely rule them out. Still, they are clearly not the favourites in the coming elections. The middle class excitement (especially in Punjab and KP) is all about Imran Khan, while more serious pundits seem to be betting on Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN. Being out of the country, I have little direct knowledge of what retail politics looks like on the ground; but there is such a thing as a long-distance view and I am going to take that view and try and make some predictions. We will know in 3 weeks how out of touch I really am.
If you do want to look up what is happening on the ground in detail there are several excellent sources available, for example: Saba Imtiaz’s election watch, the Dawn newspaper’s election page (including an interesting motor cycle diary from Tahir Mehdi as he motors across Pakistan), an election page from journalist and public intellectual Raza Rumi and last but not the least, the wonderful young team at fiverupees.com, who don’t have a lot of coverage yet, but do have writers who prefer carefully checked facts and data to mere opinion.
On to predictions:
- No one will win a thumping majority. This one is easy. The early favourite PMLN is strong in Punjab, has a presence in KP (mostly Hazara) and a useful alliance in Baluchistan, but little hope in Sindh. With Punjab alone having 148 out of 271 general seats, they will probably win the most seats in the NA but it still may not add up to a decisive majority.
- PMLN will easily form the next provincial government in Punjab. PPP will still be the second largest party in Punjab. PTI will be third.
- PPP will win most seats in Sindh, but it will lose some seats in the Sindhi heartland where it has had a decisive majority in almost every election. MQM will win its usual Sindh Urban seats. PPP will win Lyari once again in spite of all its mistakes in the last 5 years. By making up with the PAC, Zardari has pulled this rabbit out of the hat after things looked decidedly shaky for the PPP in Lyari. Incidentally, in the process he has also nominated perhaps the most interesting female candidate in this election (who is likely to win her seat).
- Imran Khan’s PTI will win around 10 seats in Punjab. It may do better in KP (but there are only 35 general seats in all of KP, so “better” is not going to be enough at a national level). In Sindh his party has completely abandoned urban Sindh to the MQM and is unlikely to win any seats in rural Sindh (except one that his party vice president Shah Mahmood Qureshi may win as an independent because of the hold of hereditary feudal Pir’s (spiritual leaders) in the area; which is truly ironic since Imran Khan’s main appeal is as a “new” kind of politician and his party’s only hope in Sindh is the most regressive kind of feudal politics). MQM will hold on to its dominant position in urban Sindh.
- The heroic ANP, facing the wrath of the Taliban alone and without any serious protection from the “deep state”, will still manage a few seats in KP. JUI-F (still regarded by many foreign observers as a “pro-Taliban party”, though the reality may be more complicated) will win a few, PTI will win a few, and PMLN will win a few, and so on. PTI supporters are very hopeful of a major sweep in this province, but my long distance ill-informed guess is that while they will win seats, Anpthey will not be able to manage a sweep. My reason for saying this is that the province is in many ways the most politically diverse in the country. It consists of many different regions, many ethnicities, many languages and an electorate that is more politically savvy than people give them credit for. It’s true that things are in something of a flux because the province is the epicentre of the jihadist insurgency and there is a serious contradiction between deeply rooted religious loyalties of the general population and the need to engage in a bare-knuckle contest against militants who claim to be more loyal to that religion than anyone else. This clash has created serious problems in the mind of the Pakistani middle class everywhere, but perhaps more so in KP than elsewhere. This severe cognitive dissonance is a major factor in creating support for Imran Khan’s blend of Islamic nationalism and Swedish social democracy, but that surge is not going to carry him to the landslide he needs.
- To sum up: no one will win it all. PMLN will be the single biggest party and the much maligned PPP will be second. PTI will get maybe 30 seats. The end result will be a coalition government and this one may not last the full 5 years. This will be more like a transitional election that will set the stage for more mature politics in the next term. And it will do so because Zardari was able to get a civilian regime to complete its term and hopefully, to hold elections and transfer power. If the army can be kept out of direct politics this time it will finally begin to sink in that no savior on horseback is going to magically transform the nation. THIS is all there is. These politics, these parties, these elections, these compromises. That realization may well be the best thing to come out of this election. The elected regime itself (probably PMLN, but if PTI cuts enough into their support, maybe even PPP) will be no great miracle and will not have a very decisive mandate, but its very existence will be step forward.
Many things can go wrong in Pakistan. Many already have. There is likely to be very hard fighting against the Taliban in the years to come. There will be a civil war in Afghanistan that will involve Pakistan one way or the other. There may be new tensions with India. There may be an economic collapse. There may be an unusually serious act of terror in a great power (e.g. the USA, China, an EU country or Russia) that leads to severe consequences for Pakistan. And all of that may happen with a middle class still confused between Jihadist Islam and “Western” democracy. But it is also possible that none of this may happen. That things will drag on for years as various serious contradictions are slowly resolved. In short, there is a fighting chance that these struggles will take place in a Pakistan where the system and its continuity are being taken for granted. That will be a step forward.
Btw, this is how things looked in 2008: