As Pakistan goes to the polls on May 11, pundits predict a coalition government headed by Nawaz Sharif or, if there is a surprise showing by the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, possibly putting Imran Khan in the driving seat.
Either way, after a gap of 14 years, Pakistan will be headed by a party with right-of-center credentials. This may be cause for worry for Pakistan’s neighbours, given the stance adopted by these two parties to terrorism and support of militant parties.
“Don’t believe what the image is telling you. Look at the on-ground realities,” warns Taj Haider, a former senator and office-bearer of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. Haider says that both the parties have tacitly supported the Tehreek-e-Taliban. There are also other causes for worry.
There are those who insist that both parties will change tack when they come to power. At the same time, given the platform on which they have come to power, this may be easier said than done. Both parties, for one, have strong links with extremists.
Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party is a member of the Pakistan Difa Council, a collection of right-wing parties and organisations whose agenda includes the continuation of hostilities in Indian Kashmir as well as against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The PDC includes such parties as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and the Jesh-e-Muhammad and is headed by a former ISI chief, Hamid Gul.
In the same vein, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party has deep links with the Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamat party, formerly known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. The ASWJ party, which is linked to the Jesh-e-Muhammad and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has been in the forefront on attacks of the Shia population in the country, warns Shahid Husain, a local journalist. At the same time, the outfit has helped Sharif get votes in areas where the rival Pakistan Peoples Party was once strong. In Jhang, for example, where Abida Husain, a Shia landlord of the PPP would be elected, now the ASWJ wins seats. The same is true of nearby constituencies.
Despite this, of the two, analysts say Sharif’s PML-N emerges as the more moderate. In Sharif’s previous tenure, relations with India improved but took a nose dive following the Kargil debacle. Sharif blames Musharraf for this adventure. Musharraf, in reply, says that Sharif was on board. There may be a lesson here, say observers.
“Being pro-trade, Sharif is more pragmatic,” concedes Talat Masood, a defence analyst, who warns that the problem will be whether Sharif will be able to keep saner elements of the army on board.
The same cannot be said for Imran Khan, whose closest advisor currently is Dr Shirin Mazari, who is seen to be close to the hard-line elements in the military. Mazari, who has also worked as a newspaper editor of The Nation, was sacked because she was seen by the publisher to be too extremist for even this right-wing paper.
It is foreign policy where the change will be most obvious, says Masood. Nawaz Sharif’s chief foreign policy advisor is Akram Zaki, a former ambassador to China and retired foreign secretary. Zaki is a moderate and has always supported better relations with India.
Political analysts say that if Imran Khan does make it to the PM’s post, he will have to change his stance on a number of key issues which he has taken during the elections, primarily his opposition to the drone strikes. “Imran Khan has made drone strikes into his rallying cry but he attacks Zardari for the policy,” says Masood, adding “but this is the military’s policy and not Zardari’s. He will have to sit down with the military and sort this out.” The chances are that the army will prevail.
There are predictions of relations with the US, Iran, Afghanistan and India deteriorating if Imran Khan comes to power. This will affect the economic prospects, they add.
On the home front, things can be more worrisome. Taj Haider warns that the country can implode if both parties continue to support militant outfits, who in turn attack minorities as well as Muslims of different sects. In the past, such outfits were allowed a free hand under the Zia, Musharraf and even Sharif and they proliferated.
Now, with their presence enhanced and numbers strengthened, it is likely that these outfits will be more active. Analysts say that the government may look the other way to attacks in Kashmir as well as Afghanistan using the country as a base for operations in exchange for peace at home. In addition, targeting of minorities would mean many more seeking asylum in Iran and India.
While many hope that with right-of-center parties coming to power, the issue of terrorism and extremism may be settled, there are chances that the opposite may happen. In that scenario, the meltdown of Pakistan would become imminent, warn observers.