Volume 22 Issue 7, July 2018


Pakistan’s parliamentary elections are slated for July 25 with plenty of debate, healthy and at most times not, around whether the elections will be delayed or will even take place to begin with.

From a technical and organizational standpoint, it appears that the Election Commission of Pakistan is more prepared this time around to conduct elections. Most development bodies assessing governance and technicality indicators are concluding that elections in 2018 will likely be better managed, technically sound and more organized, thereby assessing a larger environment of peace, continuity and stability as opposed to 2013.

On policy assessment indicators, the reality is very much the opposite. Despite some technical successes, the political environment is far more fragile, uncertain and unstable in 2018 as opposed to the 2013 elections. The biggest political party, the PML-N is essentially decapitated and there is little in way of continuity. With Nawaz on the public sidelines and Shahbaz desperately attempting to gain ground nationally, things are not looking particularly healthy for the struggling party. Shahbaz’s recent misplaced comments on Karachi aside, on mere deliverance the younger Sharif has much to show for himself. As Chief Minister of Pakistan’s biggest and, as most people would argue, ‘most important’ province, Shahbaz has delivered. However, Karachi politics are a beast of their own. Balochistan appears to be foreign territory to the current leading PML-N candidate and the merger of FATA will KPK even further for a man with little understanding or experience outside Punjab.

For Imran Khan’s dithering and confused PTI, there is little to say other than the party, regardless of how it performs, has resigned itself to launching a protest if it does not secure an outright majority – an expectation that is less of a fact and more of a pipedream. Mulling over controversial candidates like Orya Maqbool provides significant insight into the lack of direction, understanding and commitment that Khan’s PTI has for the country. PTI is unlikely to secure a majority and more likely will build questionable alliances with undesirable actors to get the one thing it Khan has so desperately wanted – winning. There is not much to say about a party whose sole public strategy, as stated on the official PTI twitter account, is to defeat PML-N. Though the tweet was later deleted, unfortunately for PTI the damage had already been done. It is also evident that Khan already considers himself Prime Minister-in-waiting as evidenced by the PTI’s issuance of the 100 day agenda – a strategic plan that is usually issued by a newly ushered in head of state after he assumes office, not before.

Adding to this mix of Pakistan’s leading, but struggling, parties is the dangerous cocktail of religious parties that have sprung up. Radical Islamic groups such as Khadim Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasul Allah (TLYRA) are registered with the ECP to campaign on the single issue of blasphemy law protection in the election season. The Milli Muslim League (MML) is the political front for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa whose political campaigning is ideologically linked to Hafiz Saeed. Though the ECP has refused to register the group, which is also newly included in the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, the MML has vowed to field close to 200 of its candidates as independents. Most recently, the lifting of the ban against Ludhianvi’s Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) upon the directives of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority has raised a plethora of concerns. The group and its leader will be able to contest elections and is also a former alliance-maker with the PML-N in the centre. The revived MMA, under the leadership of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is not likely to issue controversial statement but is likely to have a strong showing in KPK though less throughout the country.

It is unlikely that extremist or religious groups will secure a majority. Perhaps that is not even the agenda. Religious groups this time around are expected to serve as strong pressure groups with the power to dent the vote bank of leading and struggling mainstream parties, thereby not ensuring a majority but carving out a space for influence. If overt alliances are not made, then given the street power of extremist and religious parties, most traditional strongholds are likely to pander to the right and incorporate that narrative into their campaigning in order to ensure a strong vote bank.

A public quelling of the TLYRA November anti-blasphemy protest by an army brokered deal has many analysts criticizing the army for allowing the rise of many undesirable elements in an attempt to prevent the PML-N from securing victory. The removal of Ludhianvi from the terrorist list but the dismissal of PMlL(N)’s former privatization minister, Daniyal Aziz, has only fuelled the rumours. While the move may work in the interim, the long-term implications of this, if true, will be detrimental to the future of Pakistan. On the other hand, Imran Khan with his manic campaigning is already giving PML(N) a run for its money and is likely to call foul if he does not secure the highest seat of civilian power, regardless of any state interference.
The arrival of the EU Election Observation Mission is likely to usher in greater accountability. With much said and made about the upcoming elections, it is likely that they will take place on time. With accusations about pre-poll rigging already ripe, there are fewer questions regarding the timing of the elections and more about their acceptability which, at this point, seems weak given the nature of both leading parties.

The writer is a policy analyst based in Islamabad. She writes on issues of international conflict.  
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