There is a lot of visible excitement in the streets of most urban centres in Pakistan. The last time there was even greater public involvement was during the 1970 election when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised change for the betterment of the downtrodden people against the 21 rich families of the country. The 11 May election is accompanied with a lot of passion and expectation of a naya (new) Pakistan, which is expected to be different from a corruption-ridden country led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
In the past five years, the term ‘Zardari’ has become synonymous with financial mismanagement on an enormous scale and poor governance. Notwithstanding deliberate and focussed propaganda against one party, the PPP and its leadership ought to share the blame for mismanaging the country. Moreover, its leadership was almost absent from the lives of ordinary people.
However, the fatigue of the past five years added up to that of Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s 10-year rule. Pakistan has suffered from the lack of a common narrative on the War on Terror and terrorism in general, giving ordinary folk the impression that had it not been for Islamabad’s support of the US and manipulation by Washington, the country may not have suffered so badly. The stories about drone attacks get further exacerbated with the pressure of long hours of electricity and gas outages and a phenomenal increase in the cost of living. Thus, the naya Pakistan is meant to be financially viable, with good supply of electricity and other amenities, and a proud and independent nation that will not do things at the behest of the Americans. It is believed that this election is a game of numbers that will force many parties to get into all sorts of coalitions.
Despite that, all sorts of predictions are being made as to who will form the next government; the popular battle seems to be between Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and the former- cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). A couple of weeks ago, the prediction looked like the PML-N getting around 100 National Assembly seats (out of 342) versus 65-70 by the PPP, with PTI trailing behind at 30-35. Now, closer to election, it seems that the PTI and PML-N are in a neck-to-neck fight. The PPP may still retain around 60 seats, mainly due to its support in rural Sindh.
Watching television channels, it almost feels as if the only ones in the running are the PTI and the PML-N. In fact, even the PPP has started airing negative publicity, mainly against Sharif, a development that will help the PTI. Analysts suggest that the traditional PPP faithful, popularly known as the jiyalas, may, in fact, vote for the PTI because the PML-N is not acceptable to them.
In any case, the PPP has, in some way, accepted its shortcoming in terms of lacking a visible leadership. Due to security reasons, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was unable to campaign inside the country and is only using video-conferencing to connect with the people. Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s hands are tied due to a judgment by the Supreme Court that put restrictions on him from openly campaigning for the PPP because being the president, Zardari represents the federation and should be above party politics.
Zardari’s sisters and the cabal, on the other hand, were unable to run the PPP ably in the past five years resulting in a situation where the party has few sympathisers and very little to offer to the people. Nevertheless, the PPP will survive in its home province of Sindh where there is no real alternative. Talk to Sindhis and they will wax eloquent about their love for the Bhuttos, but voice their disgust with the party’s current leadership. However, they will still vote for the party because the option is between the PPP-supported waderas (zamindars) and the ones backed by the Deep State.
The situation for, what was once Bhutto’s party, has become even more precarious due to threats of violence from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The two ethnic parties — the Awami National Party (ANP), which is visible mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and urban Sindh (mainly Karachi), and the Mutahida Quami Movement (based mainly in urban Sindh) — are also targets of TTP attacks, which make them argue that the election will not be free and fair as the Taliban has promised to target these three parties and not the PTI or the PML-N. Moreover, the Taliban has strictly forbidden ordinary people, especially in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, from casting votes.
The counter-argument is that the attacks, mainly on PPP, ANP and MQM processions and candidates, are just an excuse to divert attention from their lacklustre performance. The ANP would have been wiped out due to stories of financial mismanagement while it ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the past five years. The MQM, on the other hand, is equally bad, but will survive the election because the party is the only option for the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community in urban Sindh.
In terms of political fervor, the PTI appears to offer what the PPP did in 1970. Khan has got many people excited with his promise of ridding the country of corruption and terrorism in a record 90 days. He also talks about ending the War on Terror, drone attacks and parleys with the Taliban. The PTI has laid out an extensive plan of expanding the tax net, increasing spending on education and health, and also bringing the military under greater civilian control. It also claims to have the support of the youth who are visible in his campaign.
In fact, Khan seems to have struck a chord with the women and youth whom he has tapped in a scheme to knock from door to door on election eve to convince them to come out and vote. Given the excitement, it is believed that there will be a 10 percent more turnout than the previous election, especially in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It is also believed that the bulk of the 40 million new registered voters will favour PTI (the party will certainly benefit from Khan’s fall from the forklift on the evening of 7 May, especially after his emotive television address from the hospital’s ICU). But this is an assumption that does not take into account the fact that a large part of the 40 million voters are also the 35 million voters that were declared bogus and cancelled. These were considered such due to discrepancy in the numbers of the National Database Registration Authority. A lot of the flaws in the database were caused due to the movement of people as a result of the floods in 2011 and 2012.
But this is not to undermine the fact that the PTI is genuinely popular among the youth, who see Khan as the only honest man. He gave the country the cricket World Cup in 1992, a cancer hospital in Lahore and a university in Mianwali. They believe he can build more despite the fact that there are issues with his party. He did come under a lot of criticism from his supporters for taking on board a lot of “bad eggs” from other parties for being electable.
Then there are other serious issues that no one wants to talk about, like Khan’s relationship with the military or the fact that he represents the political right-wing. Khan has repeatedly claimed that he will bring the military under civilian control. Such statements are made despite the reality that many see the sudden strengthening of his party as an ISI project. Even people in the armed forces talk about how former ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha brought the “mighty Khan” to the centrestage.
Moreover, ISI operatives often whisper about paying a couple of singers, who are currently part of Khan’s party and election campaign (at least one of the singers is reputed as greedy and corrupt to get attracted to financial bribes). This is not to suggest that a majority of the people who back Khan are not genuine, but that he has attracted certain ‘electable’ candidates who dance to the establishment’s tune.
Nevertheless, a more important issue is how would the PTI challenge the army’s power? Some of the people working closely with Khan, such as former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi or journalist Shireen Mazari, are reputed to be close to the establishment. Although Punjab’s caretaker Chief Minister and journalist Najam Sethi talked about how even Khan wanted to improve relations with India, it is a question how he would manage to do so given the anguish that Mazari feels about the US and India. Perhaps what he meant by bringing the military under civilian control is giving an impression of improved relations between PTI and General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi. If there is no confrontation, then the issue of civil-military tension does not arise. A part of the army is on board with Khan regarding distancing from the War on Terror and India. They are also on the same page as far as talking to the Taliban is concerned.
The politically active military does not feel so comfortable with the PPP or the PML-N. Despite the fact that Zardari did not ultimately hurt the military’s interests in a major way, there is a lot of discomfort with the president regarding the Kerry-Lugar Bill and the Memogate scandal. The change in the US assistance Bill was meant to ensure civilian control of the military. The Memogate scandal, on the other hand, was seen as an attempt to overpower the army through the use of foreign forces.
A PML-N led by Sharif bothers the military excessively. In a recent interview to Indian journalist Karan Thapar, Nawaz Sharif talked about setting up a commission to investigate the 1999 Kargil War. This may make an Indian audience happy, but it rings alarm bells in Pakistan’s military circles, who don’t want any civilian to question their authority. Therefore, many observers believe that given Sharif’s attitude, a confrontation between the PML-N and the GHQ is inevitable. This is something that people would like to avoid.
Sharif in power could also mean that he may not take the military’s planning regarding the 2014 Afghanistan withdrawal lying down. Certainly, the army would not like to see a civilian government play a role that another civilian government led by then Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo did in 1986-87 by signing the Geneva Accords by bypassing the army. This means that the army may prefer a hung and a shortlived Parliament, which would expire under the pressure of its inner contradictions. This would allow the army to control security and foreign policy better. There are many who suggest that the life of this Parliament will be short — “anything between November to the next two years”.
However, a bigger issue is what this naya Pakistan is destined to be. It has increasingly deeper shades of right-wing, which does not necessarily mean that it will become a hub for the Taliban. However, there is no party out there with a plan and vision to curb the growing latent radicalism and create greater space for religious minorities.
Recently, renowned television anchor Katrina Hussain was sexually molested at a PTI rally, an attack that was initially denied and then justified on the basis that she attracted attention as a woman. The PML-N has links with the militant outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. These are the two parties that are likely to represent the country’s future. While their leaders talk a lot about naya Pakistan, the details of its shape and how will it come about remain a top secret. What is definite about its shape is it will be tilted heavily towards the right wing.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc