POLITICAL uncertainty is nothing new for Pakistani politics and the Pakistani voter. Forced to the hustings ahead of schedule, courtesy the dissolution of assemblies by angry presidents, the nation has become accustomed to electing new governments with old habits amidst the usual mystery surrounding the identity of the armys "real favourite". But even by Pakistans liberal standards of political confusion, the coming general election on February 3 appears to be in a league by itself.
With all kinds of theories and scenarios being heatedly discussed, predicting the composition of the next government is extremely difficult. However, most political observers agree that the next National Assembly is likely to be highly fragmented, with Nawaz Sharifs Pakistan Muslim League ( PML ) just about managing to form a coalition with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement ( MQM ) and Awami National Party. But whether the elections will be held at all is not clear, what with the Supreme Court likely to rule on Benazir Bhuttos petition against her dismissal just days before the poll.
To say the least, the February 3 poll promises to be the quietest election in history. The combined effect of the holy month of Ramzan and the Election Commissions harshly imposed ban on campaign posters, use of loudspeakers anywhere except in a public rally and the strict limit on canvassing hours, have robbed the event of the usual colour and high- profile activity that would otherwise have been at its peak in the fortnight before the polls.
Add to that the widespread disgust over the caretaker governments failure to hold the much- hyped process of accountability of the corrupt bureaucratic and political elite, and the mood darkens. There is already talk about a very low turnout, with the Jamaat - e-Islamis planned quit polls canvassing likely to make things worse. But all said and done, it could prove a deceptive calm because past elections have shown that the turnout is usually higher than that projected by political observers.
Over 6,000 candidates are fighting it out for the 700 national and provincial assemblies seats but under changed rules which could determine the ultimate complexion of the assemblies. Previously, provincial elections were held a day after the National Assembly polls which tended to influence the outcome of the provincial elections; this time around, the elections for the national and provincial assemblies are being held on the same day, which could be rather confusing for a largely illiterate electorate. Benazir and Sharif have accepted the change after a cursory show of disapproval, but neither is happy.
Sharifs eagerness to avoid criticism even of the highly controversial Council for Defence and National Security ( CDNS ), which will effectively put an elected premier in a straitjacket is understandable. Political experts, intelligence reports and independent survey poll are painting him as the clear winner in the coming elections, with the possibility of securing 90- 92 seats in the 217-seat National Assembly. The PPP is being credited with a haul of no greater than 45- 50. Sharifs optimism may not be that unfounded even though the PPP s battered image is showing tremendous recovery because of President Farooq Legharis failure in making corruption charges stick or even secure trials of the allegedly corrupt PPP functionaries.
At the time of its sacking in November, the Benazir government had been reeling under charges of rampant corruption that tainted most members of her team, starting from her principle secretary to her spouse. The economy was in tatters and the sacking of her government actually resulted in an upward swing in the stockmarket.
In sharp contrast, at the time of its dismissal in 1993, the Sharif government did not suffer from such harsh public perceptions.
The economy was in bad shape then but it was hidden from the public eye. High- profile schemes like the building of a multi- billion rupee motorway, the yellow taxi scheme and major industrial concessions had created a semblance of massive economic activity. The hangover of those heady days remains and even bitter critics agree that Sharif could boost the depleted confidence of the business community and jump- start the economy. Whether he would be able to indulge in his economic antics of the past in the presence of strict IMF /World Bank restrictions would, of course, have to be seen.
Meanwhile, the undecided fate of Benazirs petition could have a bearing on election results. The Supreme Court is expected to announce the decision just days before the actual polling day to possibly deny the extraction of any political mileage by Benazir if the decision goes against her. But the fact that the decision could go any way has dampened the mood of political workers and voters.
In its latest verdict on a government dismissal case in 1993, the Supreme Court had thrown out President Ghulam Ishaq Khans dismissal order, restoring the assemblies and Sharifs government. Earlier in 1990, a petition by Khwaja Tariq Rahim (then a PPP stalwart but now a presidential ally and governor of Punjab) against the dismissal of the Benazir government had been rejected by the court. However, in 1988, in a petition against the dismissal of the Junejo government, while striking down the presidential action, the court refused any relief to the petitioner on the grounds that the election process was in a very advanced phase.
While the Supreme Court grapples with Benazirs petition, she has publicly painted any adverse verdict as being proof of the court holding a different view of a prime minister belonging to a bigger province which had the largest representation in the armed forces (Sharifs from Punjab, which dominates the forces; while Benazir and Junejo belong to Sindh). Incidentally, the incumbent chief justice belongs to Sindh while the chief justice who had restored the Sharif government belonged to Punjab.
At any rate, the electoral process cannot but be affected by the eventual outcome of the Supreme Court petition. In the event of a PPP boycott in the wake of an unfavourable court decision (which is widely expec- ted), the turnout would be even lower and would result in an unviable set- up, without any representation of a party which traditionally holds almost 38 per cent of the votebank. However, in the past parties that boycotted polls have learnt harsh lessons. The decision on this question could swing Benazirs, and the PPP s, future role.
Another factor which could influence electoral results is dark horse Imran Khans Tehrik- e- Insaf. His handsome looks, coupled with the absence of any track record of public service (read corruption), fast catapulted him into political prominence. He first started the accountability chant, only to see it hijacked by Sharif and Qazi Husain Ahmed of the Jamaat- e- Islami.
While Imran is expected to get just a few thousand votes in every constituency, this could well be enough to contribute to the losses of Sharifs men because of the identical profile of PML and Tehrik- e- Insaf voters. Both Imran and Sharif draw their strength from the urban middle class and stand to garner the largest chunk of the traditional anti-PPP vote.
The PPP stands to gain from a sympathy vote. Sharif is also happy because the Jamaat- e- Islami, which took away some 15,000 votes from the PML in every constituency in the 1993 elections, is boycotting the polls. However, Imran Khan threatens to fill in that gap in 1997. Which may not worry Sharif.
So, while the electoral scene remains murky, one thing is clear: Pakistans political problems show few signs of abating after the voters have gone back home.