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Pakistani electoral mosaic

With general elections due somewhere after mid-2018, the expectations of the people and the stakes thereof have evolved dramatically with the political scenario changing almost on a daily basis. The Supreme Court’s (SC) decision to annul the Election Act 2017 has confounded all election predictions by throwing what amounts to a monkey wrench into the electoral process.

In the NA-120 by-election held in September 2017 Begum Kulsoom Nawaz of PML-N polled over 61,000 votes defeating PTI’s Dr Yasmin Rashid who grabbed 47,000 votes. Ali Khan Tareen, the son of PTI stalwart Jahangir Tareen who held the Lodhran NA-154 seat before being disqualified in December last, received over 90,000 votes but lost by a considerable margin to PML-N’s Iqbal Shah. Lodhran was a significant PML-N victory, for the PTI a major upset in a stronghold from where Jahangir Tareen’s margin of victory in 2015 was almost 40,000 votes. Even with PML-N dominant, expectations for mostly a straight PML-N-PTI fight in the Punjab will change. There is now likely a late PTI surge to coincide with defections by the disenchanted in the PML-N camp, this process force-multiplying after Nawaz’s conviction in the PanamaGate case.

Sindh’s rural areas remain a strong support base of the PPP. Except for individual PML (F) exceptions, PPP’s candidates have won every election hands down since the party’s inception in late 1967; this despite not bringing about any major change in the lives of the common man. The backing of the entire administrative machinery makes pre-poll rigging very much a certainty. With the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) becoming a laughing stock and in a meltdown, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) of former Mayor Mustafa Kamal, stands to gain. The joker in the pack be-devilling PPP is Rao Anwar who Zardari inadvertently confirmed as a rumoured “hitman” by labelling him “a brave kid” in a recent interview.

Nawaz Sharif’s recent massive election rally in Peshawar notwithstanding, he cannot overtake PTI in KPK. Following the PML-N, JI and JUI-F, PPP and Aftab Sherpao’s JWP may get the odd seat or two. Without an outright majority, PTI may well continue with a coalition government with the JI. In our first-past-the-post system the loss of Nawaz the “vote getter” as opposed to Shahbaz Sharif the “doer” in the campaign trail will be badly felt by the PML-N. Even given that they still get maximum seats in the Punjab, PML-N will need the PPP and independents to form government in the Center. While the once-vaunted PPP may not have far more than a dozen seats or so, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto has come of political age, being “re-launched” post Davos 2018. Interviewed by an Indian publication while attending the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos recently, he impressed critics by deftly answering some very loaded questions.

The recent run-up to the Senate Elections shows that horse trading of the worst kind is the order of the day. Former Speaker of the Senate Wasim Sajjad has expressed forcefully that there must be direct elections to the Senate. An indirect election is always riddled with corruption; the whole process of democracy being called into question. The PML-N faces a potential electoral disaster in the Senate by taking an emotional instead of a calculated risk by having the Senate applications signed by Nawaz Sharif, conceivably all PML-N Senate aspirants could have their papers declared “void”. Subject to legal challenges, one can be sure that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will bail the PML-N candidates out somehow.

During the hearing of whether a person disqualified by the SC can head a political party, some remarks were passed by the Court; the PML-N is militating against this. Across the country judges do pass such remarks but what is relevant is the contents of their eventual judgment. While the prime minister was eloquent about the right of Parliament to enact laws without direction from anyone, implying the Supreme Court (SC) (and maybe the Army?); his parliamentary initiative out of the blue was certainly a desperate attempt at a pre-emptive strike. While he was correct, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi should have added that it is also the moral and bounden duty of the SC to strike down laws repugnant to the fundamental structure of Constitution. On Wednesday last, the judges gave a fitting reply by exercising “their” prerogative under the Constitution to strike down the Election Act 2017.

Convicted or not, Maryam Nawaz is clearly not acceptable to the hardcore PML-N loyalists like Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who has openly called her “inept to hold office” and that he will “not work under her”. Those who know her or have worked with Maryam do praise her political acumen and other qualities; unfortunately in public perception she comes across as a spoilt brat. Logic demands Shahbaz becomes PM but Hamza’s taking over as Chief Minister (CM) Punjab will be opposed by cousin Maryam with Shahbaz unlikely to entrust Punjab to anyone else; he will most likely stay on as CM. The PML-N will have to compromise like they did earlier in choosing as stopgap Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. PM Abbasi has surprised everyone; people generally across the board are more than happy with his commendable performance. Some hard-bitten foreign journalists asked this writer in Davos: “Where have you been hiding him?” If the Establishment continues being comfortable with him, he will be the odds-on favourite to be the next elected Prime Minister.

Given our bleak financial circumstances and other national headaches general elections may be delayed till September, or maybe till October. However, the present political momentum and the damning court verdict give PML-N adequate reason for the elections announcement to come sooner than later; maybe soon after the Senate results, the elections being held 90 days thereafter. Is electioneering possible during Ramazan and under the heat?

Ikram Sehgal, "Pakistani electoral mosaic," Business Recorder. 2018-02-23.
Keywords: General elections , considerable margin , Election hands , Laws repugnant , Parliamentary initiative , Political acumen , Shahid Khaqan Abbasi , Pakistan , Maryam Nawaz , PMLN , PTI , PPP , WEF , KPK , JUIF , ECP , SC , CM