Ten questions for Pakistan’s May 11 general election



Pakistan’s voters choose a new government tomorrow in what will be the first set of elections that follows the completion of a full five-year term by a civilian government.

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Here are ten open questions to keep in mind throughout Saturday’s election and in the hours and days following the election.

Will violence seriously mar Saturday’s election?  

Given that the election campaign has become increasingly violent, with a growing number of bomb and other attacks coming from the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ — the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, تحریک طالبان پاکستان), the incumbent party of president Asif Ali Zardari, the leftist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎) and other parties have forced to run subdued campaigns without the kind of large-scale rallies that typically figure in campaign season, even in chaotic Pakistan.  Pakistan’s military has deployed police and other security personnel throughout the country, but will the Pakistani Taliban allow voting to take place in a peaceful environment?  Given that its leaders have condemned democracy as incompatible with Islamic teachings, it seems unlikely that the Pakistani Taliban won’t attempt some disruption, though the excitement around the second openly competitive election in five years may well lead to record turnout.

Will Imran Khan and the PTI finally win serious support?

For years, the longstanding paradigm of Pakistani civilian politics has pitted the more leftist PPP, dominated by the Bhutto family (Zardari is the widower of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto) against the more conservative Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N, اکستان مسلم لیگ ن) of Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister in the 1990s.  But this time around, voters have given a more enduring look to Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned-philanthropist-turned-politican, the charismatic leader of the nationalist, anti-corruption Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک).  Khan has drawn together a very mixed coalition of supporters — including elements of the military, former supporters of Pervez Musharraf, the former military leader of Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 and radical Islamists in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who applaud his stance in opposition to U.S. drone strikes.  But his core supporters include many urban dwellers and younger voters — that’s not insignificant considering that around 60% of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 30.  Polls show that his party is either tied or running slightly behind the PML-N and Sharif.  Given that the party’s won just one seat in Pakistan’s National Assembly since its foundation in 1996, however, Khan is on the precipice of his biggest success in nearly two decades of politics.

How will Pakistan’s armed forces respond to the result?

The military, led by army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani, has remained behind the scenes since the end of the Musharraf era, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a role to play in Pakistani politics.  Kayani is undoubtedly the most important figure in the country today, and he’ll remain so until a new government is elected, which will have the task of appointing a replacement for Kayani, who steps down in November 2013.  Sharif, who remains the favorite to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, has a shaky relationship with the military — Musharraf, after all, was appointed army chief of staff by Sharif before he ousted him in a coup 14 years ago.  Although Sharif has pledged to appoint as Kayani’s successor the highest-ranking army official to help depoliticize the decision, he’s also called for open talks with the Pakistani Taliban over the country’s deteriorating security situation, a stance that is sure to make top military officials wary.  Together with the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence network, the military retains a significant amount of control over security and foreign policy.

What will the result mean for Afghanistan, India and Iran?

It’s a time of transition throughout the region.  Iran, which remains economically crippled by U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear program, is set to elect a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June.  In Afghanistan, U.S. troops are set to leave the country at the end of the year, and a new president will be selected in April 2014 elections — if he’s true to his word, 12-year incumbent Hamid Karzai will not run for reelection.  In India, parliamentary elections before May 2014 will determine the next government in what increasingly seems like a showdown between Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

If Pakistan has a strong, stable government that’s able to ignite economic growth, boost investment, tackle corruption, and de-escalate sectarian violence in the coming months, it will make the transitions in each of Pakistan’s neighbors much smoother.  If not, Pakistani Taliban combatants could well contribute to massive destabilization in Afghanistan or ignite further tensions with India along the border of the contested province of Kashmir.

In short, if Pakistan unravels after the election, it could well take down at least Afghanistan with it, an obvious cause of global concern, and it could seriously jeopardize the tense peace with India as well.

Will Pakistan’s economy perk up with a new government?

Sharif has repeated called for economic reform, much like he did when he was first prime minister in the early 1990s.  Khan and the PTI have called for similar reforms, but have emphasized an anti-corruption approach over either explicitly leftist or rightist economic reforms.  It’s hard to overstate how broken Pakistan’s economy is — there’s widespread poverty, lack of access to health care, education, housing, security, and even basics like water and electricity, in light of an energy crisis that’s become increasingly severe over the term of the outgoing PPP-led government.  Foreign investors who aren’t terrified of Pakistan’s shaky security situation are often defeated by stifling regulation and nationalist sentiment that’s wary of outsiders.  GDP growth has steadily declined since even the Musharraf era, and widespread unemployment is a problem, especially among Pakistan’s youth.

It’s not clear that any government could swoop in and clean up the mess that currently exists, but if the next government makes even limited progress in improving the economic outlook, it will be a major success.

Can Khan break the Sharif family’s lock on Punjab province?

Punjab province — the heartland of Pakistan with around 54% of its population — is the key to winning the election.  Of the 272 National Assembly seats up for election on Saturday, fully 148 of them are up for grabs in Punjab.  The PPP won the 2008 elections in part because it made inroads into southern Punjab.  But with the PPP now extremely unpopular and with its ally, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (پاکستان مسلم لیگ ق, or the PML-Q), which formerly supported Musharraf in the 2000s, set for extreme losses, Punjab was set to be dominated by the PML-N — Sharif got his political start here and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, is currently running for reelection as chief minister in Punjab.  But since the beginning of the campaign, the PTI has clawed its way into competition with its strength in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, and Islamabad, the country’s capital, to the point where the race in Pakistan’s most populous province is now essentially a race between Khan and the Sharif family.

Who will win Sindh province?

South of Punjab, the PPP hopes that it will retain its tradition strength in Sindh province, the second-most populous province in Pakistan, where 61 seats are up for election.  Its coalition ally, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM, متحدہ قومی موومنٹ) is somewhat of a mix between a liberal, anti-Taliban political party and Karachi-based patronage machine, but it is likely to win many of the seats in Karachi nonetheless.  Faced with a leaderless (and Bhutto-less) campaign and forced to wage a campaign behind closed doors due to the violent atmosphere, the PPP seems poised to lose many of its seats.  But it must hold onto the core of its support in Sindh province, especially among farmers in the rural parts of the province, if it hopes to keep from collapsing.

How will Musharraf (and the judiciary) respond?

Although he hoped to return triumphantly to Pakistan earlier this spring to run for office, Musharraf has spent much of the campaign sidelined with legal problems, and he currently remains on house arrest in relation to one of three serious cases against him — the charges include treason against the state in 2007 for dismissing Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as chief justice as well as failure to provide sufficient protection to Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in a bomb blast in December 2007 when she returned to Pakistan from exile to contest the February 2008 elections.  In the Zardari era, Chaudhry has emboldened Pakistan’s judiciary — it’s been tenacious in upholding charges even against Zardari and it showed no fear in ruling that Yousuf Raza Gillani, Pakistan’s prime minister from 2008 to 2012, was retroactively disqualified from office for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into Zardari.  So the disposal of Musharraf will be a delicate issue for the next government, and it will be even more delicate if Musharraf tries to hang onto a public profile.  The judiciary will want to pursue actions against Musharraf at full speed, and the army will want to engineer a face-saving way for Musharraf to return to exile.  It will be even more difficult if Sharif, who left office the last time imprisoned by Musharraf, ultimately has to make the decision.

Who will emerge as the real leader of the PPP following the election?

Zardari, as Pakistan’s head of state, cannot openly lead the PPP’s election campaign — and he’s so unpopular at this point that it wouldn’t do much help anyway.  He’s apparently interested in seeking reelection as president (elected indirectly by a vote of Pakistan’s parliament) when his own term ends in September 2013.  Given that he transferred many of the constitutional powers of the presidency to the prime minister in order to avoid impeachment and removal in 2010, the role will be more ceremonial than powerful.  Outgoing prime minister and former water minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was very nearly disqualified from running in the election, due to corruption charges, and he was already little more than a placeholder to begin with.  And Zardari’s son, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, is just 24 years old — too young to contest the 2013 elections.  Though Bilawal is the chairman of the PPP, he’s not been incredibly active on the campaign trail, and news reports claim that he’s fled the country until after the election due to threats against his life.  But until Bilawal is willing or able to mature into a credible party leader, the PPP needs to find a leader around which it can coalesce — whether it’s part of the next government or not.  One option could be Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a popular figure from the left wing of the party who led the successful 2008 campaign.

Will the Pakistani Taliban respect the result?

Sharif and Khan both have reputations as more sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban than the incumbent PPP or the Pakistani military.  As noted above, if Sharif’s PLM-N or Khan’s PTI emerge as the largest bloc in Pakistan’s National Assembly after Saturday, that alone could go a long way to encouraging dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban.  Even if many of the Pakistani Taliban’s leaders denounce the elections, having a friendlier government could well reduce the tensions that have escalated prior to the election.

Which coalition possibilities will emerge?

With 342 seats in the National Assembly and 70 of them reserved for women and religious minorities, it’s going to be difficult for any single party to win an absolute majority of 172 seats to form a government.  That will be especially true if, as expected, the PML-N, the PTI and the PPP each win enough seats to deny any party a path to a clear majority.  In addition, several smaller parties are expected to win a handful of seats.

The MQM will take its share of Karachi-based seats, and the PLM-Q, under its president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, will hope to hold on to at least some of its seats as well, and both of those parties are likely to back the PPP for any coalition government.  The Awami National Party (ANP, عوامی نيشنل پارٹی‎), the largest Pahstun party, has supported the PPP in the past and, like the PPP, has been subject to attacks from the Pakistani Taliban in retribution for its pro-U.S., anti-Taliban positions.  The Balochistan National Party (بلوچستان نيشنل پارٹی) is also looking to pick up some seats in Balochistan, the sparsely populated province in the southwest of the country that borders Iran.  Finally, Pakistan’s Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (جمیعت علمائے اسلام‎), hopes to improve its standing.

What that means is likely a weeks-long session of discussion over a coalition, and if the PML-N (together with the Islamists and the Balochi nationalists), the PPP (together with the PML-Q and the MQM) and the PTI remain the three largest blocs, all eyes will be on Khan to decide who will be part of Pakistan’s next government — and indeed, he may well find himself with enough strength to dictate that he’ll become Pakistan’s prime minister.

An irredeemably hung parliament, however, could result in the production of a weak coalition — an outcome the military might well prefer — or another round of elections.

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