Home Features Election Omens

Election Omens

by Khaled Ahmed

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Ahead of the polls on July 25, a look at the various factors at play in this year’s general elections

On July 11, barely a fortnight prior to Pakistan’s 2018 general elections, a suicide-bomber in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, got close to Awami National Party (ANP) leader Barrister Haroon Bilour and detonated himself, killing Bilour and 13 of his partymen. Six years ago another suicide bomber had killed his father, senior ANP leader Bashir Ahmed Bilour, as part of a policy to remove the party from the election campaign of the 2013 polls. Embattled and threatened, the ANP and a similarly targeted Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) were prevented from actively participating in the democratic process. Five years later, not much seems to have changed. Once again some “external force” appears to be acting to ensure victory for the freely campaigning Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which ruled the province until the government was dissolved after completing its tenure earlier this year.

While Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was still reeling from the deadly attack, the militants struck again—this time targeting an election rally in Mastung, Balochistan, leaving at least 149 people dead; the second-deadliest attack ever recorded in Pakistan. That same day, ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif landed in Pakistan to offer himself up for arrest in accordance with an Islamabad National Accountability Bureau court ruling that sentenced him, in absentia, to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine. His daughter, Maryam, was similarly sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment and son-in-law Muhammad Safdar to one year. All three were found guilty of being unable to prove how they obtained the GBP10 million needed to purchase four luxury flats—since combined into one big apartment complex—in London. The court handed down the sentences despite its own admission that the prosecution had failed to pin anything on them.

What does this mean for the coming elections on July 25?

Nawaz Sharif has made much of his party’s ability to agitate—preferably violently—against the outrage of his imprisonment in the run-up, and then to vote reactively in his favor to send a clear signal to the same deep state that Sharif alleges has ousted him from power and sent him to jail. His brother Shahbaz Sharif, elevated to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s leadership after Nawaz’s removal, is supposed to lead the pro-Sharif agitation culminating in a return to power for the PMLN, with Shahbaz as prime minister.

Breaking of ranks

Unfortunately for Shahbaz, he has not been accepted as a leader of the PMLN by party bigwigs who are wary of his brash governance style of hogging the limelight with handpicked bureaucrats—as witnessed in Punjab province during his years as chief minister. Additionally, while Shahbaz seems to be leading the party for his elder brother, there is no doubt that he is well aware that the former prime minister will be out of politics for at least 10 years. As such, Shahbaz has to shift his focus to the prime ministership while leaving his groomed-for-the-job son Hamza to run Punjab. But, even after a decade of relatively good governance, will Punjab be easily won?

Imran Khan’s PTI has emerged as the biggest challenger to the PMLN’s hegemony in Punjab. There are clear signs that it will not only retain its government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but will also challenge the PMLN’s vote-bank in Punjab. Pre-poll results show the two rivals almost neck-and-neck with a crucial percentage of “undecided” voters who might edge the PTI to victory. There have been revolts in the PMLN’s Punjab stronghold that can’t be ignored. Its South Punjab leaders have broken free and joined the PTI saying they will create a new South Punjab province in hopes of capturing local votes in what is called the Seraiki Belt.

Over all this hangs the miasma of intrigue: someone is targeting the parties that have made up the bipartisan system of Pakistan’s democracy over the past decades. After the conviction of PMLN’s Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari of PPP too is being “eliminated” for money-laundering through the judicial process. Zahid Husain, writing in daily Dawn on Aug. 11, observed:

“First it was Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and now the noose is tightening around former president Asif Ali Zardari. The plot is getting thicker. It is all happening in the name of accountability, providing convenient cover to what many describe as a creeping ‘judicial martial law.’ The dramatic development just a few weeks before general elections has raised questions about the polls proceeding smoothly.”


There are other ominous developments threatening to pare down the heretofore-solid PMLN votebank. The “soft Islam” of the shrines dotting central Punjab always helped the PMLN to power, but much of this support was yanked away by the deep state on the basis of the “blasphemy” allegedly committed by the PMLN in amending the text of the oath of office taken by new entrants to Parliament. According to one researcher, the custodians of 64 shrines in the 598 across Punjab are directly involved in politics, usually on the side of PMLN.

One “soft Islam” cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has mysteriously acquired the kind of wealth his Barelvi sect is not supposed to possess and launched his Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasul Allah (TLYRA) as the third powerful contender vying for seats in Punjab. His followers are aggressive and one of them nearly killed Nawaz Sharif’s interior minister Ahsan Iqbal with a bullet to his stomach. The element of violence therefore can’t be ruled out in Punjab when foul language favored by TLYRA and PTI often hits a crescendo. The same powerful clans of the custodians of Barelvi shrines that used to support the PMLN have now started responding to anti-PMLN signals, angrily declaring themselves out of the “blaspheming party.”

Before the 2013 elections, the PMLN had solved the problem of its thin presence in South Punjab by controversially linking up with the madrassa-based terror outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba, officially banned in Pakistan for targeting Shia Muslims as its article of faith. The ban had forced the group into the shadows, benefiting the PMLN, which was now the official recipient of its vote-bank due to a “secret handshake” agreement. This year, the jihadi militia has been given free reign by the caretaker government to contest the elections as the “mainstreamed” Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ), which is expected to repossess its votes on the basis of its powerful chain of madrassas in the south. This will surely dent PMLN’s electoral chances in the region.

The PMLN may also struggle to fight off the PTI in Punjab this time because of the “mainstreaming” of another terrorist organization, Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaatud Dawa. The group, accused of planning and perpetrating the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, will take part in the polls as the Milli Muslim League (MML), said to have emerged as the most well-funded entity in the country. The caretaker administration does not appear too worried that this mainstreaming could be cited by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as a valid reason to take Pakistan off the “gray-list” and impose sanctions on it, making it difficult to conduct business and attract investors. The injection of these powerful new forces, immeasurably more powerful and influential than the traditional Jamaat-e-Islami, appears to independent observers as a deliberate tilting of the electoral field against the PMLN.

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Dying dynasties

Multiple surveys, released in the past month, have claimed Imran Khan’s PTI is well-entrenched in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and could gain enough seats to form the provincial government without having to resort to a coalition. The party is also likely to form the Punjab government through a coalition—traditionally a recipe for poor governance. Imran Khan has already adopted an appeasement policy with Labaik supporters by accepting Pakistan’s blasphemy law, an earlier condemnation of which had earned him Rivzi’s wrath and an epithet of “kutta” (dog). He has also started referring to the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat controversy as a means to deride the PMLN. His relationship with the Deobandis of Sipah, or ASWJ, is expected to be “normal” because of his indirectly perceived supportive stance toward the Taliban and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government’s financial support to the great Deobandi madrassa of Nowshehra.

With Khan’s rise, the 2018 polls could finally put an end to the two main surviving political dynasties of Pakistan, the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris. Because of the danger it faces in Punjab and the long imprisonment of Nawaz Sharif, the PMLN will likely be pushed into the marginalization suffered by the other clan-based Punjabi party, the PMLQ of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. This development parallels the slow demise of the secular Gandhi dynasty in India, where Hindutva is increasingly making Nehru’s constitution irrelevant; and also Bangladesh where one dynasty, that of pro-Pakistan Khaleda Zia, has finally been ousted from the political field. Given the recent actions taken against the PPP leadership by the caretaker administration in Sindh, the Bhutto-Zardari dynasty, too, appears on the brink of crisis.

Yet the PPP in Sindh may not meet the same fate as the PMLN in Punjab. Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari have been virtually ousted from Karachi, which in turn is being punished by the dynasty through a squeeze of development funds. In other cities, too, people are reacting to neglect by moving closer to Khan’s PTI and the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM). While the MQM has lost its clout through fragmentation, the PPP has not made any inroads into the urban votebank. In the coming election, the Bhutto-Zardaris may not do as well in the province as in the past, but unlike the Sharifs in Punjab, they will not fade away because the feudal landlords in Sindh with captive vote-banks will continue to back it in return for impunity and exemption in Karachi, where their families live.

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Horrors of hung assemblies

If there is an upset in Punjab, a government ruled solely by the PTI is expected to be punitive, given Imran Khan’s proclivity to what many in Pakistan refer to as “accountability.” He is also expected to work toward his goal of ‘Naya Pakistan’ by abandoning infrastructure projects in favor of education and health. While this may sound positive, improvements to social sectors without sustained support to infrastructure can actually hurt citizens rather than improve their lives—as can be seen in Sindh.

As Dawn editorialized: “The PTI manifesto for elections 2018, much like the rallying refrain of the party leader these days, is loudly calling for drastic change. The main slogans of ‘the road to a new Pakistan’ are justice and humanity, building on the 2013 document whose salient points stressed education and health, as forms of social justice.”

Any reform to the education sector—which means funding state-owned schools in a kind of opposition to private-sector schools—will be counter-productive unless the syllabi radicalizing youth are changed. Questions concerning violence will also have to be answered since most of the party-based brawls begin with the use of extreme language on social media.

If Punjab is crucial to ruling Pakistan but ends up getting a coalition government, its developmental fate is sealed because of the opposing directions in which the parties will pull it. Infrastructure will suffer and there will be disenchantment among the masses. Cynicism is already high because of the growing realization that an “electable” politician who spends at least Rs. 20,000,000 on his election campaign often spends the next five years in power compensating himself with corruption of Rs. 100,000,000. If Punjab goes the way of Sindh and suffers at the hands of extractive politicians and a defensive administration facing an overly activist judiciary, the province is expected to spend the next five years losing its governance ranking.

or hung minds?

With Pakistan’s traditionally mainstream parties, the PMLN and PPP, trying to survive corruption cases against their leaders, chances are that the 2018 elections will deliver a hung Parliament in Islamabad. If that happens, will a coalition government suit Pakistan? Given past experience and the general Manichean trend of thinking in opposites, lack of reconciliation and cooperation will characterize the post-2018 governance in Pakistan.

Given the crises emanating from its natural environment, Pakistan’s ability to survive will be marred by its lack of consensus on a common developmental program. The world outside too poses new challenges that Pakistan is ill-prepared to understand objectively. Its strategic culture and foreign policy will require an overhaul that its largely conservative politicians will not be able to provide. The 2018 elections are taking place in an environment that Pakistan has not begun to understand and, given the nature of its leadership, political as well institutional, is not likely to respond to it without hurting itself.

Ex-Inspector General of Police Tariq Khosa summed up the pre-poll situation in a recent column for daily Dawn: “Pakistan must stop harboring a massive insecurity complex. As a nuclear state with the world’s sixth largest Army, we should be confident and end our garrison-state mentality and constant worrying about survival. Rather, we should be a trading nation that takes advantage of its geographic location for economic prosperity. There is no doubt in my mind that the relevant stakeholders in the state security establishment have finally undertaken to end support for erstwhile militant jihadi groups that was given on account of some strategic compulsions that are counterproductive in the present milieu. The time for proxies is over; being blacklisted by FATF would result in international isolation, sanctions and the stigma of a pariah state.”

Whether or not Pakistan’s political and institutional leadership can appreciate these factors and work together to overcome them will determine whether the next five years will be a time of progress—or the much-feared regression that analysts warn is just around the corner.

From the July 21 – 28, 2018 issue

Related Articles

1 comment

I Ahmed July 24, 2018 - 1:12 am

Interesting times ahead for Pakistan with not one but potentially several previously chained Frankenstein’s monsters and an assassin cult being unleashed.


Leave a Comment