Election dynamics, deals and curbs


Election dynamics, deals and curbs

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With general elections in Pakistan announced for February 8, 2024 electioneering by political parties has got off to a somewhat slow start. This may reflect persisting uncertainty about whether the polls will be held on time, even though any postponement appears exceedingly unlikely. But there is understandable uncertainty on whether the incarcerated political leader Imran Khan’s party will be allowed to contest the election unhindered.

With almost all top leaders of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) in jail facing different charges and many mid-ranking figures and activists detained in a renewed wave of arrests, it is unclear if the party will have a free run in the election. A PTI spokesman has claimed the party is not allowed to engage in political activities anywhere, and media coverage of most of its leaders, including Imran Khan, is prohibited. It is unable to even hold corner meetings without being disrupted by the police. That urged PTI to recently submit a list of obstacles to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which it said would constrain its ability to freely conduct its election campaign. The party has also decided to legally challenge Khan’s disqualification by the ECP. For its part, the ECP has demanded that PTI hold internal elections within 20 days or lose the cricket bat as its election symbol – an unusual move.

As for the other two major parties, the PPP has been lashing out at its former ally in the previous coalition government, PML-N. PPP leader Bilawal Zardari Bhutto has taken aim at PML-N on a number of counts – for becoming the establishment’s ‘favorite’, being stuck in “politics of the past” and for being responsible for record inflation in the country – dubbing it the “Inflation League.” He has complained more than once of the lack of a level playing field for the election and insinuated that the polls are being “fixed” in favor of PML-N. He has also ridiculed PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s fourth bid for prime ministership and suggested ‘veteran’ politicians should now retire from the contest. PML-N leaders have responded with restraint and attributed Bilawal’s broadsides to little more than frustration. 

So far, negative campaigning and election alliances have been the focus of activity by the major parties. They have yet to roll out their programs and manifestos or spell out their positions on key issues except in the most general of way and in platitudes.

- Maleeha Lodhi

In recent weeks PML-N leaders have been engaged in what they do best – deal making and forging seat-adjustment arrangements with other parties. This took Nawaz Sharif to Quetta to enlist leaders of the Balochistan Awami Party and meet leaders of other parties in the province. His outreach helped to secure the support of over a dozen influential political figures – so-called electables. He also reached out to MQM and concluded an agreement on seat adjustment and an election alliance with it in Sindh. Similarly, a meeting with JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rahman led to a seat-sharing deal in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. All this is in anticipation of the strong likelihood that the election will not produce a majority for any party and partners will be needed for a coalition government. PML-N’s electoral support is in any case mostly limited to Punjab.

Election outcomes in Pakistan as elsewhere are always difficult to predict and it is far too early to say how the country’s twelfth general election will play out. But if its outcome – whatever it might be – is to have legitimacy, it must be inclusive and seen to be free and fair. The credibility of elections will be crucial as a controversial or disputed poll will only undermine political stability in the country. As will any impression that the establishment has backed one or other party.

So far, negative campaigning and election alliances have been the focus of activity by the major parties. They have yet to roll out their programs and manifestos or spell out their positions on key issues except in the most general of way and in platitudes. At a time when Pakistan confronts a sea of challenges, the expectation from political leaders is that they specify how they will address these. Voters would want participants in the electoral race to offer solutions to the country’s problems especially how economic recovery is to be achieved. At the very least political leaders should lay out a road map of where they plan to take the country. This is especially important given how pervasive pessimism is among the people today. A recent opinion poll conducted by Ipsos found 88 percent of people surveyed felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Not surprisingly, economic issues dominated their worries about the country’s future. 

So far, the newish Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party led by Jahangir Khan Tareen, has made an effort to address some economic issues and articulate its stand in a few areas. But consisting mostly of deserters from PTI, its electoral strength has yet to be tested; voters have in the past usually punished candidates who switch parties. So, it’s the three major parties that the electorate will be watching, to see whether they have policy answers to Pakistan’s problems and are able to present coherent, implementable programs to deal with the country’s multiple crises. 

The make-or-break factor consequential for Pakistan’s stability will be how free and fair the election is. If the election lacks inclusiveness and credibility, it can mire Pakistan in political turmoil and set the country back, both politically and economically.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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