Pakistan’s general elections, scheduled for July 25, 2018, will be set against a backdrop of increasing polarization between the nation’s political parties and the institutions of the deep state – the army, security forces and judiciary – as well as individuals such as the deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was arrested, along with his daughter, upon his return to Pakistan on July 13, 2018, having been charged with corruption and sentenced in absentia by a Pakistani court. Given this polarization, how might the prominent political parties fare in the upcoming elections, and what will the resultant political landscape?
Pakistan Muslim League (PML)
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party (PML-N) has for some time enjoyed widespread support in the most populous province of the country, the Punjab. In 2013 the party won a huge majority of the province’s seats in the National Assembly, securing 188 out of 342 and an overwhelming majority in the Provincial Assembly. The PML-N proceeded to form the Punjab government, led by Shahbaz Sharif, the youngest brother of Nawaz Sharif – who was deposed by the Supreme Court in July 2017 for failing to disclose the full extent of his wealth before taking office.
All indicators are that the PML-N will achieve a convincing lead in the upcoming elections, with most forecasts predicting that the party will win the majority of the Punjab Province’s 148 National Assembly seats and form a ruling coalition. This would provide Nawaz Sharif with an opportunity to claim that the people had chosen him and his party despite the “conspiracy” against him pursued by the security and military institutions and the “allegations” of his political rivals.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, has been the key opponent of the PML-N for the past five years. Khan, however, is facing severe criticism from within his party for taking decisions unilaterally and embroiling the party in various confrontations with unknown consequences. In addition, the PTI faces an external crisis following its split with Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JIP), which has since joined other like-minded religious groups and parties. This will undermine the PTI’s electoral viability in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (Peshawar). Khan may achieve a minor lead in the Sind and Punjab provinces, but this will not be sufficient to affect the Pakistan People’s Party government in Sind or the domination of Shahbaz Sharif over the Punjab government, and will not provide Khan with the majority of seats needed to form the next government.
In addition, Khan does not enjoy the trust or support of the military, despite his success in pressing dissidents from Nawaz Sharif’s party and others to join him in a coalition following the elections. Nevertheless, Khan’s support for the annexation of the tribal regions by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – which occurred at the end of May 2018 – may garner support from their representatives in the national and provincial assemblies.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal, suffers from internal division. The bi-lateral leadership of the Party, its lack of support outside Sind province and inability connect with the party’s grassroots have all contributed to its declining popularity. Furthermore, the failure of the Sind government to implement effective development programs may also reduce the party’s seats in provincial and national assemblies. Nevertheless, current forecasts predict that the PPP will maintain power in Sind province albeit with fewer seats. This will oblige the party to form an alliance with fellow parties in the province, including the Mohajir Qaumi Movement.
Thus far, the PPP has failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough in the Punjab, reducing the party’s ability to win sufficient seats in the province, which accounts for more than 50% of the seats in the National Assembly. The PPP’s position in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (Peshawar) is also in decline, and the party has failed to reach out to its grassroots or to attract notable figures capable of generating meaningful electoral support.
An alliance of religious parties
This alliance consists of six groups. Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led by Fazlur Rehman, is one of the most prominent. Rehman remains close to Nawaz Sharif and a fierce opponent of Imran Khan’s party – which denied him office in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. However, Sharif has yet to form an alliance with Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam in the province owing to Sharif’s intention that the next prime minister be from his party and not Rehman’s, which opposed the annexation of Pakistan’s tribal regions to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This may deny Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam some support in the tribal regions, especially among the new generation in the region who oppose the “Taliban Pakistan” because they consider it to be the brainchild of religious schools sponsored by Rehman.
The other prominent group in this alliance is Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, a political entity that resembles the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. It was a participant in the Peshawar government with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – led by Imran Khan – before it withdrew to join the coalition of religious parties. It is unlikely that the group will achieve any significant victories in the upcoming elections due to its dwindling popular support – particularly within Islamic circles – as well as its leader, Siraj ul Haq, who is widely regarded as being weak.
Awami Nationalist Party
Following its failure in the last elections, this party has become active once again in Khyber province and is likely to win a number of seats here and in Baluchistan, as well as two seats in Karachi owing to the support of ethnic Pashtuns. The party has expressed sympathy for the new Pashtun rights movement, but has not yet officially adopted its cause. It has relied heavily on this movement, and on the integration of the tribal areas into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to win seats in the national and provincial assemblies.
The military had suggested that the party establish an alliance with Imran Khan in the upcoming elections, but it would only agree on the condition that the military supported the election of its candidates to the provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; that offer was declined by the military.
Political parties in Baluchistan
Baluchistan is the only province in which no single party is able to achieve a majority in the provincial assembly. Therefore, political parties here tend to form coalition governments. It is likely that allies of Imran Khan and the PPP (whose candidate was elected as Senate Chairman last March) will win the majority of seats in the next national parliament. However, tribal divisions between the two sides represent “a ticking bomb” that may go off at any point.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan have their own supporters in the province, as does the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami party which enjoys the support of Pashtun voters who account for nearly half of the population there.
The Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami party is considered a close ally of Nawaz Sharif owing to their mutual desire to achieve electoral gains based on the benefits that the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and Gwadar port development would offer the population in that province. The party also seeks to invest in its alliance with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl and a number of Baluchistan parties.
At present, it appears that Sharif’s party may win the majority of seats in the National Assembly, which will make it possible for him to form a government in Islamabad with a number of other parties. While Sharif aims to guarantee victory for his party in the upcoming elections in the Punjab province, he also seeks to see a government loyal to him take control in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. He will also aim to establish a presence for his party and his allies in Sindh province, where the PPP would form a coalition government that may win the support of Sharif, despite the disputes between the two sides that were evident in their statements. However, that support is conditional on the PPP’s willingness to form a less aggressive opposition front in the National Assembly in Islamabad.
Imran Khan’s party may make significant headway during the elections in the Punjab province and win some seats in the National Assembly, taking advantage of the dissidents within Sharif’s party and the large number of independent candidates who may win seats in the parliament. However, the party is not likely to win the majority of seats, and therefore with the help of the military and security apparatus will seek an alliance with independent MPs and other small parties from various provinces to achieve a parliamentary majority that prevents Sharif’s party coming to power. Should Khan fail, Pakistan may face severe turmoil due to allegations of electoral fraud, in a similar situation to that of 2014.
Should Sharif’s party succeed in forming a parliamentary majority by forging alliances, it may also produce tension in the country. Nawaz Sharif – rather than his party – will aim to stir up dissent by criticizing the military and the security apparatus. He will argue that he is proceeding with his agenda with the support of the people of Pakistan; i.e., to tame the military and place it under the control of the civilian authorities, as Erdogan has in Turkey. He would do so without due consideration for the different situations that prevail in each country, and the status of the military in Pakistan; despite periodic disagreement, many people and parties in Pakistan still view the military as the only guarantor of the country’s security and future.
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