Pakistan’s ruling coalition has indicated its intention to hold general elections when Parliament’s term ends in mid-August. Although a date for the polls has not yet been announced, uncertainty about whether elections would be held on time should now come to an end. Political parties represented in the coalition government are at present focused on who should be in the caretaker government, which has to be installed when Parliament is dissolved, as this is a constitutional requirement. The interim government is expected to be neutral but it is to be seen whether it meets this test, deemed necessary for it to supervise elections in a fair and non-partisan manner.
Meanwhile speculation grows about whether opposition leader Imran Khan will be barred from contesting, following his possible conviction in any one of the multiple legal cases against him. Already his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has seen an exodus of leaders and former legislators, which has reduced it to a shadow of its former self. Khan has sought to signal that he is unfazed by this and that his party will still be able to garner more votes than any other party. But the loss of many so-called electables from his disintegrating party puts it at an electoral disadvantage.
Many defectors from PTI have joined the new party launched by Jahangir Khan Tareen. But it is uncertain whether Istehkam-e-Pakistan will emerge as an important political force. In past elections, including by-elections, voters have punished those seen as turncoats or deserters who switch from one party to another. For example, in the by-elections held last year almost all the PTI lawmakers in Punjab who had crossed party lines failed to get re-elected. True, some political figures enjoy individual or personal support in a constituency but whether they can withstand competition from party-backed candidates is yet to be seen.
There are other uncertainties that have been injected into electoral politics. How will PML-N fare given the fraught economic situation and cost-of-living-crisis that will likely weigh negatively on the incumbent? Its share of the vote in its stronghold, Punjab, has been eroding over the years. From a high of 57 percent of the popular vote polled in Punjab in 1997 (in the national assembly election), the party got 47 percent in the 2013 election and 35 percent in 2018, although it still secured a large number of seats in the last election. So, the question is whether PML-N can regain its former electoral strength in the battleground province which determines the outcome of general elections. Will Mian Nawaz Sharif’s return to the country, expected in coming months, be able to galvanize the party’s former vote bank?
Pakistan’s political stability depends on whether the election is seen as free and fair by the people.
The Pakistan People’s Party is now a regional party. Perhaps one of the certainties of the election is that it will comfortably hold on to its stronghold of Sindh as there are no serious challengers there. But despite its party leader’s efforts to win over some PTI defectors from south Punjab, the PPP is unlikely to make appreciable gains in the province. In the 2018 election it could win only 6 NA seats from Punjab which has a total of 148 directly elected seats. This underlined its lack of support in the province, which it has also paid little attention to in recent years.
Another question relates to new voters. 20 million new voters have been added to the electoral rolls in the past five years since 2018. That’s a significant 16 percent of the electorate. Which party will be able to appeal to them and garner their support? The bulk of new voters are of course young people. In fact, the youth vote can be consequential to the election outcome. Of the current size of the electorate of about 126 million, over 56 million are between the ages of 18 and 35 – which is around 45 percent of the electorate. The youth vote can therefore be a game changer provided the young turn up to cast the ballot. In the past their turnout has been significantly lower than the average voter turnout. Although PTI has an advantage over other parties in its appeal to youth, whether this translates into young voters showing up at the ballot box, especially if Khan is disqualified, is an indeterminate factor.
Political parties have not started gearing up for the election. Therefore, electioneering has yet to get into swing. What voters will expect to see is the various contenders outlining their position on key challenges and issues facing the country. No political leader has thus far offered any policy vision for the future; nor how their party would address the country’s imposing challenges. They have remained preoccupied in the political war against their opponents and discrediting one another. This has made their public messaging vague or even muddled on policy issues. How much this will change as elections near would be important to watch.
Perhaps the most important question about the upcoming election will be about its fairness and credibility. It is disconcerting that in a recent Gallup-Pakistan opinion survey, only a quarter of Pakistanis expressed confidence in the fairness of the coming elections. Pakistan’s political stability depends on whether the election is seen as free and fair by the people. If the election is perceived to lack credibility it will plunge the country into even greater turmoil than it has witnessed in the past year or so.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha