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Pakistan Elections: Making Sense of the Mandate

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 13, 2013

    In a sense, the elections results in Pakistan can be seen as a series of ‘tsunamis’ (to use the PTI chief Imran Khan’s evocative phrase). The tsunami started in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the PTI performed remarkably well and is likely to form the next provincial government, albeit with the support of independents and perhaps Jamaat Islami and a few other smaller parties. By the time the tsunami crossed the Indus into Punjab, the PTI gave way to the PMLN which swept everything in its path, winning close to a two-third majority in the provincial assembly and a vast majority of the National Assembly seats. But the PMLN tsunami lost steam when it reached Sindh, where the PPP took over and swept the rural constituency to win most National Assembly seats and also cross the half-way mark on its own in the provincial assembly. Karachi once again saw a MQM tsunami, though this time it wasn’t as devastating as the 2008 one that saw MQM win 18 of the 20 seats in the financial capital of Pakistan. Crossing into Balochistan, the tsunami receded until it reached the Pashtun belt where the Pashtun nationalist PKMAP of Mehmood Khan Achakzai swept aside the opposition by winning 9 seats in the provincial assembly. While the PKMAP performance might not prima facie appear very impressive in Balochistan’s fractious and fragmented politics, it is nothing short of a tsunami.

    These tsunamis have also proved devastating for some of the big political players. The two biggest losers are the ANP and PPP, with the former being practically wiped out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the latter in both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Some of the big names of both these parties, including Asfandyar Wali Khan, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Qamaruzzaman Kaira, Manzoor Wattoo, Ghulam Bilour, have lost the elections. The PPP which used to deride the PMLN as a GT Road party has itself been reduced to a Sindhi party, and that too only in pockets of the province. Surely, this is not the Sindh card that President Asif Zardari wanted to play. Also swept aside in Punjab was the PTI, what with stalwarts like former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi not managing to win from any of the three seats he was contesting. Clearly the very vocal and very visible campaign of the PTI, especially in Punjab, was just hype. Another big loser has been the Baloch Nationalist Akhtar Mengal of BNP-M. His gamble failed, putting a big question mark over his political future. Carping and complaining about the lack of transparency is hardly going to help him recover lost ground and prestige. He has fallen between two stools; on one hand he is seen as a Quisling by the Baloch separatists and on the other, he is a spent force to mainstream politicians both in Balochistan and Pakistan.

    The slogan of ‘change’ has also been drowned by the PMLN tsunami. While there is going to be a change in government, this wasn’t quite the change that the sloganeers had in mind. What they were aiming for was a change in the system, or a mandate against the forces of status quo. But the verdict is quite clearly in favour of the status quo. Perhaps if Imran Khan had emerged as the single largest party, the mandate could have been construed as a revolution through the ballot. Nawaz Sharif’s victory in Punjab and the PPP’s victory in Sindh, however, means that the traditional dynamics of politics at the constituency level – Biradari linkages, Dharra (group) networks, thana-kutchery, candidate’s family and personal influence – has won the day. In other words, the party that was more adept at election management scored over the party that was banking upon the ‘josh’ and ‘junoon’ of its young cadre to swamp the opposition. How the supporters of PTI and ‘change’ handle the low after the high of the charged campaign is something that will decide whether the PTI remains a force to reckon with or merely a flash in the pan, or ,if you will, a tsunami that comes and goes without leaving any lasting impact.

    Another important outcome of the 2013 elections is the sort of ethnic divide that the results have manifested. While clear mandates have been given in at least three of the four provinces, the nature of these mandates is somewhat divisive. In NWFP, it is a vote for seeking accommodation with Taliban and restoring peace, as also an anti-American vote (quite similar to the mandates given in 2002 to the religious parties’ alliance, MMA, and in 2008 to ANP and PPP). In Punjab, it is a vote for a party which is seen as a protector of the Punjabi interests and Punjab’s dominance over the federation. In Sindh, it is a vote in favour of a party that is seen to be the upholder of Sindhi interests (notwithstanding Asif Zardari’s backing over backward to accommodate the MQM in the last five years). This means that unlike the 2008 polls when there was at least one pan-Pakistan political party – the PPP – this time all the parties are more or less either a single province party with little or no presence in other provinces. The PPP is limited to Sindh, the PTI has no presence in Sindh and Balochistan, the PMLN is practically non-existent in Sindh and so on. This factor will become important because the government in Islamabad will have no power in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where PPP (either alone or in a coalition with MQM) and PTI (with the support of independents, and perhaps Jamaat Islami and a couple of small parties) will be forming their governments. Given the shift in the balance of power in terms of resource availability and allocation between the centre and provinces after the National Finance Commission award, the federal government will have to tread carefully in matters of Centre-Province relations.

    Finally, the federal government will have to tread a very difficult path, one strewn with mines and traps, to manage, if not solve, the monumental problems that confront the Pakistani state and society. Apart from things like pulling the economy out of the hole and solving the crippling energy crisis, there are very difficult decisions to be made on the issue of internal security, terrorism, law and order, and strategic threats and challenges that are likely to unfold with the drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Foreign policy issues like relations with US, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and of course Afghanistan will also require deftness and foresight on the part of the new leadership. Although Nawaz Sharif has both mellowed and matured during the last few years, he will have to play the role of a statesman if he has to have any chance in bringing Pakistan back from the brink. Of course, if he expends his energies in settling old scores (for instance with Gen Pervez Musharraf) or holding yet another accountability exercise (read political victimisation) of his predecessors, then all bets are off. The choice before Nawaz Sharif is clear: he can either go all out to demolish his already defeated opponents or he can use his energy in rebuilding his devastated country. He cannot do both. How he handles civil-military relations and the relations between the executive and the judicial branch of state will also determine the future not just of Nawaz Sharif 3.0 but also of Pakistan itself.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.