Elections in Pakistan will not necessarily herald stability

Elections in Pakistan will not necessarily herald stability

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Pakistan’s constitution requires that the election of a national or provincial assembly must be held within 90 days if it is prematurely dissolved before its term concludes. The provincial assembly of the largest province – Punjab was dissolved on January 14 at the advice of its Chief Minister and four days later, the same scenario was repeated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). While the National Assembly of Pakistan and the provincial assemblies in Sindh and Balochistan provinces continue to exist and their elections are not due before October this year, if these assemblies complete their five-year terms in August, the elections to Punjab and KP Assemblies must be held by April 15 and 19 respectively if the constitution is to be strictly followed.

This situation has created the unprecedented prospect of holding the general election to the five assemblies in two batches separated by about six months. In the past 11 general elections held since 1970, the elections to the five assemblies were either held on the same day or separated by three days.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan whose party controlled the majority in Punjab and KP Assemblies, had directed the Chief Ministers of Punjab and KP to dissolve the two provincial assemblies in order to force the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers of the other two provincial assemblies to dissolve their respective assemblies too, so that the general election to all the assemblies could take place at the same time but prematurely. The primary purpose of premature dissolution of the two provincial assemblies sacrificing about a year of their five-year terms, was to engineer an early national election paving the way for Imran Khan to return as the Prime Minister of the country. Khan demands early elections because he is riding the crest of a popularity wave right now and apprehends that as time passes, his popularity may decline and he may not be able to win the election or may not be able to secure a comfortable majority in the assemblies.

Contrary to Khan’s calculations, the federal government has dug its heels and is not ready to dissolve the national assembly prematurely and hold early elections. Pakistan therefore, faces the prospect of two provincial elections in the next two months.

PTI may be in a relatively comfortable position to win provincial elections in KP, but competition with rivals in Punjab may be quite hard.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

An argument is often made that the worsening economic crisis in Pakistan is a direct result of the political instability and elections are the only recipe for bringing political stability in the country. This may not turn out to be the case.

First, even if Khan’s PTI wins elections in the two provinces – Punjab and KP- it will mark the start of a new and even more bitter confrontation between the centre ruled by the rival party PDM and the two provinces ruled by PTI. Khan did not sacrifice his party’s governments in the two provinces merely to get the same governments back; he did so to reclaim the national government. As long as he is not able to succeed in becoming PM again, he is most likely to continue in agitation mode with only extremely remote possibilities of political stability returning to the country.

PTI may be in a relatively comfortable position to win provincial elections in KP, but competition with rivals in Punjab may be quite hard and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) may even get a thin plurality of seats in the Punjab Assembly like it had done in the 2018 general election.

Despite the fact that PML-N had emerged as the largest party in the Punjab Assembly in 2018, it could not form its government because PTI, aided by the powerful military establishment and deft politicking by Jehangir Tareen, was able to win over larger numbers of independent candidates and form a government in Punjab. This time neither Jehangir Tareen is with PTI, nor the establishment seems to be weighing in for them and therefore there is an almost equal possibility that PTI will not be able to form a government in Punjab.

If this happens, even through a fair election, all hell is likely to break loose and one can imagine PTI blaming ECP, the federal government, caretaker Punjab government and the military for perceived or real election rigging like it did after the 2013 General Election.

The agitation so apprehended may continue and merge into the election campaign for the National Assembly which will start soon after it completes its 5-year term in August this year. A long period of instability may therefore ensue even if the two provincial elections take place on time.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat

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