By Zahid Hussain
Pakistan is set to go to polls in less than two weeks amid hope and apprehension about the outcome that will determine the future political course of the troubled nation. After a lacklustre start the election campaign has finally picked up with all major political parties battling out at the hustings. But the concerns about its fairness have tainted the entire electoral process. This is not a very reassuring prospect for democratic transition in the country.
After much delay, the polls will be held on February 8 with more than 125 million voters going to elect their representatives. The forthcoming elections after a long period of political instability have assumed much greater importance for the country that has alternated between long periods of military rule and unstable elected civilian dispensations.
While there is a hope that a strong elected civilian government will be able to bring much needed political stability, there are also looming fears that a controversial mandate could push the country deeper into chaos derailing the entire democratic process. The growing perception of an uneven playing field has been reinforced by the disqualification of the incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan and several other members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
That has virtually marginalized one of Pakistan’s largest political parties and has put the legitimacy of the upcoming elections into question. The party was dealt a further blow when it was deprived of its election symbol — the cricket bat. Consequently, PTI ticket-holders will now have to contest the polls as independent candidates, thus putting a major electoral contender in an extremely disadvantageous position.
Yet, such punitive actions have not diminished the PTI’s popular support base as is evident from opinion polls. Behind bars, the former prime minister remains the most formidable political force. But with all odds stacked against the party that was ousted from power in Aril 2022, it stands little chance of returning to power in what’s widely perceived as “managed” elections.
With the PTI having been contained, the field is now left open for the other two main political parties- the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP). While the PML(N) led by Nawaz Sharif, former three-time prime minister has a stronghold in the country’s biggest and most powerful province of Punjab, the PPP-led Bilawal Bhutto, the young former foreign minister and scion of one of the country’s most powerful political dynasties, dominates the second biggest province of Sindh.
Nawaz Sharif who was removed from power after being convicted on corruption charges by the country’s apex court in 2017 midway through his third term appears self-assured of a fourth stint in the top office with his main opponent having been removed from the contest. Sharif returned to the country after spending four years in self-exile in London a few months back following reports of a deal with the country’s powerful security establishment.
His conviction was dropped by the courts in record time. The apex court’s ruling last month striking down his lifetime disqualification has cleared the way for him to run for elections. It is the third time Sharif has been lifted out of disgrace to become the main contender for the coveted office. With its strong electoral support base in Punjab, the party stands a better chance than its rival PPP, of returning to power. The perceived support from the military has further strengthened its position.
Sharif is now busy building a future ruling coalition. He is also leading his party’s election campaign promising to restore political stability, put the economy back on track and improve relations with India and other neighboring countries. But rhetoric aside, the party has yet to come out with any concrete program to deal with the enormous challenges faced by the country. Sharif’s entire narrative is built around its unenviable performance during his previous rules.
While promising to bring change in the country’s political culture and strengthening democracy, the PML-N has failed to alter its ways in a fast-changing sociopolitical environment. In fact, dynastic politics have strengthened in the PML-N, with the party leadership fully dominated by members of the Sharif family. There is no induction of outside or young blood in the ranks of the party.
A major question however, is whether a government coming to power in a controversial election could end the growing political polarization, unite a deeply divided nation and establish civilian control over the state. With the security establishment so deeply entrenched in every sphere of power, the elections are not likely to consolidate civilian supremacy, and will likely lead to another era of hybrid rule with the civilian administration playing second fiddle. All this does not bode well for the country and for its people looking for real change in the status quo.
Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain