Pakistan’s unpredictable election
With Pakistan’s twelfth general election only a day away, there are two views about what might happen in the poll. The most common view is that the result can already be predicted with Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) likely to emerge as the victor. The other view is that electoral dynamics are always unpredictable which make it hard to forecast the outcome.
While PML-N may be the front runner in the election a number of factors inject uncertainty into the outcome. The first has to do with how Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) will fare at the ballot box in the face of the restrictions and hurdles placed in its electoral path. Several polls have shown PML-N and PTI neck-to-neck in the national contest. With almost all its top leaders incarcerated, PTI has been severely disadvantaged in the campaign. It has been prevented from holding rallies, even corner meetings. Another big blow to the party’s electoral chances was being deprived by the Election Commission of the election symbol of the cricket bat – the way voters usually identify parties on the ballot paper. This has forced party candidates to run as independents. The question is whether all these obstacles will deter and discourage PTI supporters to show up to vote or will supporters instead show defiance and turn out in large numbers in a ‘sympathy wave.’
Overall voter turnout is in any case an unpredictable factor. It could be a key indicator of how free, fair and inclusive voters will deem the election to be. Turnout in previous elections has ranged between 51pc (2018), 53pc (2013), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). Low turnouts in the country’s electoral history have usually been an indicator of people believing their vote would make no difference as they perceived the outcome to be ‘predetermined.’ A very low turnout on February 8 could undermine the legitimacy of the election outcome.
Also uncertain is how many young voters will show up on election day. Young voters constitute 44% of the electorate – 57 million out of the total electorate of 128.5 million. This makes the youth vote potentially a decisive factor. In past elections turnout among young voters has been low – a third of the overall turnout in the last election in 2018. But the latest opinion polls show that young voters are now determined to vote. A youth survey conducted by IPSOS for Voice of America showed that 70 pc of respondents said they will vote on February 8. If they do show up in sufficiently large numbers it would benefit parties with a strong youth base and produce upsets in many constituencies by the defeat of so-called ‘electables’ (locally influential candidates).
Beyond the unpredictable factors that can shape the electoral outcome, uncertainties after the election will present a host of challenges. This includes forming a stable coalition government if no party secures a majority.
Another factor contributing to unpredictability are the four-way contests in many constituencies between PML-N, PTI, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the new Istehkam -e Pakistan Party (IPP), especially on marginal seats. In as many as a hundred constituencies of the National Assembly, the winning candidate secured a plurality, not majority of votes in the last election. Most of these were in the battleground province of Punjab, which determines the election outcome. Such narrow-win margins in a large number of constituencies make the result there unpredictable and likely to produce surprises.
What is also uncertain is who the country’s greater urbanization will advantage. The urban-rural balance has in the past tilted in favour of the countryside and reinforced traditional political allegiances and the position of older parties. But greater urbanisation is reshaping the landscape. Although urban Pakistan is still underrepresented, many rural constituencies now have urban features. This shift is most evident in Punjab. In the 144 national constituencies of the province, more than half are now either urban or ‘mixed’ with significant urban features. This is loosening older alignments and changing voting preferences, making electoral outcomes harder to predict.
An aspect of the election which would produce post-election uncertainty is how regionalised the result will turn out to be in the provincial assembly poll. With the PPP expected to retain its provincial stronghold, Sindh, PML-N likely to secure Punjab and PTI able to win in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, three of Pakistan’s four provinces would be run by different parties. How this would impact governance will then be a key question for after the election.
Beyond the unpredictable factors that can shape the electoral outcome, uncertainties after the election will present a host of challenges. This includes forming a stable coalition government if no party secures a majority. These challenges will have to be surmounted if Pakistan is to embark on a path of political stability.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha