Given the coverage Pakistan’s election campaign one may be forgiven for believing that these elections were about one set of issues, and one alone: the role of Islam in statecraft and the country’s struggles with terrorism. Militant groups had strategically targeted the three supposedly liberal parties that had been a part of the previous coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). This created an environment of fear in which these parties struggled to hold large public rallies in the run-up to the elections.
In sharp contrast, Pakistan’s right-leaning parties – especially the Pakistan Muslim League headed by former premier Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan – were able to campaign relatively openly and hold large gatherings without the threat of terrorist attacks. Liberal critics characterised this as an attempt to tilt the playing field in favour of those parties that are likely to adopt a softer stance on terrorism.
There is no denying that selective terrorist attacks distorted the electioneering process, but it had minimal effect on the outcome. Pakistanis came out to vote in unprecedented numbers despite the threat of large-scale terrorism which fortunately did not materialise. And it appears that they largely voted on the issues of economy and governance, to the extent that issues were relevant to their choice. The former ruling parties were penalised for their woeful economic performance, chronic mal-administration, cronyism and corruption.
The two major beneficiaries of the swing were the PTI in the north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the PML-N in Punjab. The high voter turnout reflects the political engagement of young voters and segments of the urban population who had previously remained disillusioned and disengaged with electoral process. This is a positive development for the prospects of continuing democratisation in Pakistan.
However, it is also evident that a substantial portion of the electorate voted according to the demands of patronage-oriented politics. The PML-N had been particularly effective in putting together a candidate list dominated by “electables” in Punjab – that is, individuals who can claim considerable support independent of party affiliation based on local patronage and kinship (biraderi) networks – and appears to have reaped the benefits of traditional politics.
The PML-N’s overwhelming victory in Punjab, the largest and most populous province which accounts for 148 out of a total of 272 National Assembly seats, has seen it emerge with the possibility of forming a stable government at the federal level. The party is also set to complete a smooth transition to its second successive provincial government in the province.
The timing of the elections also creates the possibility that the incoming federal government will have better working relationships with the other power centres in Pakistan’s state. President Zardari’s term expires in September and given the hammering received by his party at the polls, he is likely be replaced by a PML-N nominee.
The Army Chief and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are also set to retire by the end of the year. While the previous government managed reasonable terms with the outgoing Army Chief, it had a particularly fractious relationship with the Supreme Court over various cases of corruption.
While the Supreme Court is not likely to roll back much of the jurisprudential developments of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s tenure, the absence of a Chief Justice with the popular legitimacy he enjoyed will invariably compel the court to grant greater space to an elected government.
Despite the possibilities of forming a stable federal government and the provincial administration in Punjab, the PML-N is likely to face a number of difficult challenges the most significant of which will of course be the economic ones. With a budget just around the corner, the PML-N government will have to quickly come to terms with managing a national economy suffocated by enormous debt-servicing and defence expenditures burdens.
Tough choices on reforms designed to broaden the tax base, including the documentation of a massive informal economy and imposition of agricultural income tax, can only be deferred at the cost of increasing international debt and continued dependence on foreign aid. The government will also have to find ways to fund desperately needed infrastructure projects in order to end a crippling energy crisis.
Managing Pakistan’s relationship with the US is going to be a difficult affair as the US seeks to devise a less than dishonourable exit from Afghanistan in the coming years. The new government will have to deal not only with US expectations, but also find ways to work with a military establishment which has historically enjoyed a sway over foreign and national security policymaking.
The PML-N will have to absorb considerable public pressures in the process. In particular, it will have to wage a bruising battle of wits with Imran Khan’s PTI which explicitly campaigned on the promise of redefining the terms of partnership in the war in Afghanistan and ending US drone strikes in Pakistan.
Provincialisation of politics
Other facets of foreign and domestic policy which might lead to friction between the military and the new government include the fate of General Musharraf, currently under trial on a number of criminal charges, and the military operation in Balochistan. There is no love lost between the incoming Prime Minister and the former military dictator who dismissed Nawaz Sharif’s last government in a coup in 1999. However, the military will be wary of a high profile prosecution of its former head, involving potential allegations that other senior members of the armed forces were involved in the various actions that are the subject of charges against General Musharraf.
A whole host of provincial headaches await the new government in Islamabad. In the aftermath of this election all of Pakistan’s parties have been rendered provincial or regional institutions. While the PML-N may form the federal government because of overwhelming support in Punjab, it has little presence in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. As a result it will have to deal with provincial governments led by other parties as well as a Senate, the upper house of Parliament, in which the PML-N will probably lack a majority throughout its tenure.
As issues of violence in the metropolis of Karachi, terrorism and drone strikes in the tribal areas of the north-west region, military operation in Balochistan and the demands for the creation of new provinces regain centre stage, the new national government will have to come to terms with working within a federal system in which power is no longer centralised.
The fragmentation of the mandate along provincial lines is not necessarily as bad as some commentators are speculating. To give credit where it is due, one big achievement of the previous PPP government was instituting important constitutional amendments which transferred important powers to the provinces.
The provincialisation of politics thus creates interesting prospects for a competitive federalism in which the parties heading different provincial governments have an incentive to implement policies and styles of governance that may enable them to regain lost ground in the rest of the country by the time of the next elections.
The PTI in particular has the opportunity to implement its campaign promises of instituting justice sector reform, meritocracy in government recruitment and depoliticisation of the bureaucracy and the police if it manages to form the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as appears likely.
The PTI has also brought to the table demands of social justice, universal education and health, undoing of the public-private divide in the provision of basic services, and creation of elected local governments. If Imran Khan’s party makes any strides in furthering this agenda in the terrorism-hit province, where the Pakistani state is presently under the greatest stress, the PML-N government will be under enormous political pressure to match such a performance.
Moeen Cheema is a lecturer in law at the Australian National University’s College of Law, specialising in the contextualised history of the law and courts in postcolonial Pakistan.
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