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Pakistan Turns the Corner

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Cover Stories  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail
Pakistan-Turns-the-Corner

The forthcoming election is going to be a watershed in Pakistan’s political and constitutional history, setting a clear direction for the future of the country’s political trajectory.

History was created on March 16, 2013 when both the civilian government and the parliament completed a full five-year term in office - for the first time ever in Pakistan. The stage has now been set for a transition of power to another government through peaceful elections.

Perhaps the most refreshing feature of this election is that the army and the ISI are keeping themselves scrupulously aloof from the election process. Registered voters number over 86 million and the Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to run.

Wrestlers are warming up in their respective corners. The main contestants - PPP, PML (N), MQM and PTI - have presented their ambitious manifestos, each, promising the moon, as usual. Common pledges include healthcare, employment and education. PPP has tried to revive the “roti, kapra, makan” legend, promising low-cost houses for the poor and increasing minimum wage. New features include creating a new province in South Punjab and seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies for labor. Amazingly, the PPP manifesto is only in English. Others have issued their vision in both English and Urdu, announcing it almost privately and without much fanfare.

Because it was in power for five years, the PPP manifesto is under greater public scrutiny. There is general resentment with the PPP-led government’s failure to revive a slowing economy, curb the endemic corruption in government institutions, control sectarian killings and overcome persistent electricity breakdowns, sometimes of up to 18 hours a day. Moreover, with its nominal GDP growth of 3.7%, Pakistan is currently the weakest South Asian economy. To curb the energy crisis, PPP and PML (N) manifestos promise generating additional electricity of 12‚000MW and 10,000MW, respectively. However, on the foreign relations front, PPP remains silent.

The PML-N manifesto, for its part, emphasizes self-reliance and sovereignty. It pledges to double the rate of GDP growth from 3% in the last 5 years to over 6% in the next 5 years and accelerating the rate of industrial growth from 3 to 8 per cent per annum and agricultural growth to an average of 4% per annum.

The MQM, in its 22-point manifesto, besides dwelling on education, health and employment, adds the special feature of local government.

Standing in stark contrast to the “tried and tested” political parties, PTI’s manifesto is quite ambitious. It even adds a touch of frivolity with its promise of rooting out corruption within just 90 days! It promises to control load shedding within three years but does not spell out how, much like the PPP and PML (N). PTI also pledges a uniform education system, timely and affordable justice, discussing the defense budget in Parliament and turning Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state; but how all of this is to be achieved, the manifesto does not spell out. Improving ties with India and the US, getting Pakistan out of the US war on terror and stopping drone attacks are other such priorities on PTI’s agenda.

Most amazingly no one has yet touched the issue of how to bottle the genie of sectarian violence and resolve the Taliban issue. Within the first 10 days of April, more than 30 Pakistan troops and 50 Lashkar-e-Islam fighters were killed in pitched battles in the Tirah valley. The Taliban, allied with the LeI, were biding their time as the army pounded the LeI strongholds with gunship helicopters and ground troops.

Other parties in the field include PML (Q), ANP, JUI (F) and PML (F). Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which had boycotted the 2008 elections, is also contesting this time. Even Dr. A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, is running in alliance with the JI.

But the most controversial candidate is Pervez Musharraf. His nomination papers were rejected from Karachi, Kasur, Islamabad, and Chitral. Meanwhile, petitions accusing him of high treason were heard in the Supreme Court. However, the prayer to detain him was dismissed, because, the court perceived it as the petitioners’ intention to prevent him from election activities.

The scrutiny of nomination papers tickled onlookers to death as Returning Officers grilled the candidates about their knowledge and practice of Islam. Another ordeal was securing a clean chit from relevant institutions, including NAB, FBR and the State Bank, regarding tax payment, loan repayment and clean hands. Initially, such stalwarts as the famed columnist Ayaz Amir, ex-prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and ex-minister Faisal Saleh Hayat were disqualified, but later their papers were accepted on appeal. Dual nationality holders were screened out as well as those who produced fake degrees in 2002 and 2008 elections. Due to strict scrutiny of the nomination papers, the number of nomination papers filed has reduced considerably compared to the 2008 polls. Another interesting feature of the ensuing elections is that two women candidates filed nomination papers from tribal areas, which indicates that democracy is taking roots even in areas traditionally considered to be politically backward.

In the midst of all this, Balochistan remains the problem province. Sardar Akhtar Mengal, chief of his own faction of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) and a former chief minister of the province, has said that the BNP could pull out of the contest if the law and order situation in the province did not improve. He has spoken of tortured, mangled bodies still turning up in towns all over Balochistan and has lamented the fact that the Baloch people continue to go missing. Interim chief minister of the province, Nawab Ghaus Baksh Barozai recently announced the possibility of traveling overseas to speak with Baloch separatist leaders in self-exile, such as the Khan of Kalat, Brahamdagh Bugti, Hyrbyair Marri and others. He has also been contacting key Baloch leaders at home, in a bid to hold elections smoothly.

So far, political power under elected governments has alternated between the PML (N) and PPP. The latter has always enjoyed popular support in Sindh and rural Punjab, while urban Punjab has been the hub of PML-N. The outcomes of elections in Balochistan and KP have been varied. But this time both face a formidable contestant in Imran Khan’s PTI. The crowd he pulled on March 23 at Lahore, the power base of Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N), sent alarm bells ringing for both the PPP and PML (N). The rise of PTI as a third major force on Pakistan’s political stage has made the electoral environment more competitive.

According to the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) survey, PTI is still the second most popular political party in Pakistan after PML-N, despite a 6% decrease in its public ratings in the last six months. The 2013 elections will, therefore, be a three-way contest unlike the two-way fights between the PPP and PML-N in the past. The urban, upper middle class supports PTI in Punjab and KP and the party remains deeply popular with young people.

Out of 86.1 million registered voters, 47 percent or approximately 39 million people are between the age of 18 and 35. According to NADRA out of these 39 million, around 30 million are newly listed in the electoral rolls. Their overwhelming number can be a game changer, tilting the balance in PTI’s favor.

Meanwhile, terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and especially Taliban (TTP) have threatened to disrupt the elections through intimidation and assassinations. Their avowed targets include President Zardari, his son and PPP chairman, Bilawal and other leaders of the PPP, besides ANP and MQM. This has robbed the campaign of the usual hoopla of rallies and meetings associated with elections. Accordingly, the ANP has abandoned the plan of holding public meetings in Karachi. It has removed its banners, closed its offices in the city and has resorted to door-to-door visits to canvass votes. Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto remain under tight security not daring to come out in the open to address public meetings. So scared are they that on the occasion of ZA Bhutto’s death anniversary, for the first time, there was no usual crowd at Garhi Khuda Baksh on April 4. Unfortunately, the MQM’s election candidate, Fakhrul Islam, who was running for the Sindh Assembly PS 47 seat has become the first victim of a Taliban attack. He was gunned down in Hyderabad on April 11 during an election corner meeting. This incident will undoubtedly force the MQM to re-consider how to run their election campaign.

On the other hand, the Taliban have promised not to disrupt the campaigns of Imran Khan’s PTI or Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N). The same goes for other “rightist’ parties like JI, JUI (F) et al.

Opinion polls seem to indicate a contest between the right and left parties. One set that includes PPP, MQM and ANP represents the left and advocates for social freedoms and liberties, peace with India, stronger relations with the U.S. and curbs on the army’s power. The other comprising PTI, PML (N), JI, JUI (F) etc., represents the right. It is anti-US and anti-India though Nawaz Sharif invited India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1999 to Pakistan.

Which direction the country’s politics take will, however, be decided on May 11, 2013, should elections be held as per schedule. It is imperative for Pakistan’s future that they do. 


S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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