As Pakistan’s polls approach in May, there is still no clear favourite emerging as to who will form the next government.
Different polls have given both the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party a chance at forming the next government.
A poll by the Heinrich Boll Foundation gave the PPP an edge based on ethnic voting trends and household income levels. However this reading now seems to changing as a recent poll by PILDAT, an Islamabad-based electoral watch, and Gallup Pakistan gives an edge to the PML-N.
It is being increasingly said now that unlike previously assumed, the new prime minister may well be Mian Nawaz Sharif, two times prime minister of Pakistan and leader of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz).
Part of the reason is the poor performance of the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party led by President Asif Ali Zardari. And the other, more significant element, say analysts, is that Mian Nawaz Sharif seems to have made his peace with the country’s military high command and is now willing to play ball with them.
After his ouster by a military coup led by General Musharraf in 1999, Sharif has never had direct links with the army high command, say insiders. All attempts at reconciliation and compromise have been thwarted by Sharif, which is possibly one reason why the PPP government was able to complete its five-year term.
“There were many opportunities for the army to engineer a takeover. First, there was the long march to Islamabad that reinstated the Chief Justice, then there was the Osama raid and the subsequent Memogate scandal but in all instances, Sharif supported the political government and did not give in to military overtures,” comments Dr Hasan Askari, a political science professor.
However, the PML-N does have traditional links with the military which were reactivated ahead of the May elections. For one, it enjoys support of many religious entities which also include militant organisations based in Punjab. These organisations form a core support group for the party against the PPP’s candidates, who are mostly from the land-owning families. These entities are controlled largely by the ISI.
Also, the exit of Musharraf and his re-entry into Pakistan after a four-year exile was brokered by the Saudis but only with the consent of both Sharif and the military. The Saudis are now playing a role in brokering better relations between Sharif, who spent his four-year exile at a palace in Saudi Arabia, and the military high command.
If an understanding is reached, and indications are that it is, Sharif may well head a broad based coalition government at the Centre. Already he has entered into political alliances with nationalist parties in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, areas where his party has traditionally had a weak showing, and prospects in KP and northern parts of the country look promising.
Out of 342 seats, 272 will be contested in May, of which any party or political alliance has to secure 172 to form a government. In the previous parliament, the PPP had 94 seats but alongwith its coalition allies formed the government on the back of seats in excess of 190.
This time, things may be different. The PML-N party, which secured 71 seats in the previous election may have a more impressive showing this time round. If the PML-N secures over 90 as predicted, the tables may be turned and after political bargaining and concessions, may well be in a position to form the government.
But the main challenge for his party will come from his province, Punjab, where the Tehreek-e-Insaf party of Imran Khan is seen to be making inroads. It is this party and not the PPP which the Sharif brothers consider a bigger threat.
Imran Khan may take away votes from the Sharifs, given that of the 90 million voters going to the polls this time round, 40 million will be first timers. And for these youngsters, Imran Khan seems to hold more promise than the older parties.
To make matters more complicated, caretaker chief minister in Punjab, Najam Sethi, in a meeting with Imran Khan, assured that he would entirely reshuffle the Punjab bureaucracy ahead of the elections. These were officers that the PML-N party had carefully chosen and appointed for the polls.
Apart from the military and the religious parties, the PML-N also has the business community on its side. Tired of a reeling economy and successive power crises, traders all across Punjab and other parts of the country have poured in money for the Sharif party campaign.
Traditionally the PPP has had the support of the agriculture community while the PML-N gets the blessings of the country’s businessmen and traders who see the party as pro-business. This helps the party immensely as both funds and support at the grassroot level is gained.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the party will have a smooth sailing. While in Punjab the party faces Imran Khan’s challenge, on the national front, the PPP still will give it a tough fight. In the past, it was the PPP that would stand alone and fight against the PML-N and its allies. This time, the PPP has two significant allies — the ANP from KP province and the MQM in Sindh. They are both strong regional parties whose support can make or break a government.
Then there is of course the manner in which the elections are held.
While the judiciary is favourably inclined to Sharif given the party’s role in the reinstatement of the chief justice, the Chief Election Commissioner is a fiercely independent person who would not broker the kind of politics that has been played in the past.
Employment ahead of elections was stopped as were postings and transfers. Funds allocated to constituencies and seen as political bribes have been blocked. More important, from April 1, a strict scrutiny process begins under which the Election Commission is expected to disqualify a number of candidates on the basis of fake educational certificates, incorrect asset declarations, evidence of corruption or being seen in contempt of court.
In the final analysis, what remains to be seen now is who will be in the running and what alliances will be made around the polls. Possibly these two factors will play as great a role in the election of a new government as would the number of votes polled at the polls and the seats won in parliament.