The foreboding political geography of Pakistan’s general election results

Pakistan results

Results are still coming in from Pakistan, but it’s become clear since Saturday that Nawaz Sharif and his party, had clearly won and will form the next government with Sharif leading a relatively strong government as Pakistan’s new prime minister. Pakistan Flag Icon

The clear result and the presence of a strong government is good news for Pakistan and it’s good news for the rest of the world (including India, the United States and others), which has a stake in Pakistan’s stability.  The problems that Sharif faces as Pakistan’s new leader are myriad — a floundering economy, a chronic energy crisis, and increasingly destabilizing attacks from the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban).  That’s in addition to touchy endemic questions about cooperation with Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders, ginger cross-border relations with India and the longstanding military alliance with the United States.

Amid that daunting agenda, it’s been easy to forget that keeping the nuclear-armed Pakistan united as one country is also a priority.  But a quick look at the electoral geography of Saturday’s election demonstrates that Sharif should keep national unity atop his ledger as well.

The most surprising aspect of the election may have been the failure of Imran Khan and his anti-corruption party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک), to make significant gains in Punjab province.  Though Punjab is essentially the PML-N’s heartland, and governing Punjab has been the Sharif family business for about three decades, Khan was expected to do better throughout urban Punjbab, especially in Lahore.  That turned out to have been wrong.  The PTI barely won as many seats as the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎), which lost three-fourths of its seats, including the seat of its outgoing prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.

But that’s one side of the more intriguing — and, I believe, more enduring — aspect of the Saturday’s result.

That’s the extent to which each of Pakistan’s four provinces essentially supported a different party.  See below a map of results from 2008’s election.  There are certainly regional strongholds, especially with the PML-N (shown below in blue) taking most of its strength in Punjab province.  But the PPP (shown below in red) won seats in all four provinces of the country, including in Punjab.  Likewise, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (پاکستان مسلم لیگ ق, or the PML-Q), which supported former military leader Pervez Musharraf throughout the 2000s (shown below in green), won strong support throughout the country.*


Now take a look at the election map of Saturday’s results from Pakistan’s Dawn:


The election map this time around isn’t nearly as messy — the PPP’s seats (shown in magenta) come nearly exclusively from Sindh province, the PML-N (shown in light blue) will form a government based almost exclusively on its strength in Punjab  and without any of the national support that the PPP commanded in 2008.  Khan’s PTI (shown in crimson), despite a handful of support in Sindh and Punjab, won most of its seats in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The PPP’s allied liberal Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM, متحدہ قومی موومنٹ) (shown in gray) won all of its seats in Karachi.  That isn’t surprising given that it’s long dominated city politics within Karachi and has virtually no footprint outside Karachi, but it serves as yet another discrete mini-province even within Sindh.

In Balochistan, which borders Iran to its east and Afghanistan to its north, Balochi nationalists, sympathetic independents, and the conservative Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (جمیعت علمائے اسلام‎) (shown in olive green) dominated.

But that’s not all — provincial elections were also held on Saturday to determine the composition of Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies, and there the contrast is even more striking:

  • The PML-N, likely under the leadership of Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, will continue to dominate Punjab’s provincial government, having won 212 of the assembly’s 279 seats.  The closest opponent was the PTI, which won just 18 seats.
  • The PPP will also continue to dominate Sindh’s local government, with 62 out of 118 seats.  Its ally, the Karachi-based MQM, won 37 seats, with no other parties winning close to double digits.
  • Khan’s PTI will have their first opportunity to govern in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it won 35 out of 95 seats, with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam at just 13 seats and the PLM-N at just 12 seats.
  • Though Balochistan’s local results are more fragmented, the Balochistan-based Pushtunkhwa Mili Awami Party and other nationalist allies also seem set to control the provincial assembly as well.

What does that mean for Pakistan’s future?

Mohammed Hanif, a correspondent for BBC Urdu put it as articulately as anyone yesterday:

Who needs a federation when you can have so much more fun doing things your own way. So in the post-election Pakistan, Khan will rule the north and shoot down American drones while discussing Scandinavian social welfare models with the Taliban. Sharif will rule in Punjab and the centre, try to do business with India and build more motorways all the while looking over his shoulder for generals looking at him. In the south, Bhutto’s decimated People’s party will keep ruling and keep saying that folks up north are stealing its water, destroying its social welfare programmes and secular legacy.

In some ways, that creates a marketplace of political approaches before the next set of elections. The PPP can sort out its leadership problem and regroup in Sindh.  Balochi nationalists will push for ever more local autonomy.  If the PTI can actually govern the seemingly ungovernable Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with its popularity — and Khan’s popularity — intact, it will bode well for his national political future.

But it’s crucial to keep in mind the artificiality of Pakistan.  Just in case you’ve forgotten, the name ‘Pakistan’ is itself an acronym of Punjab, Afghan province (part of today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Kashmir (never mind India’s claim), Sindh and Balochistan.  National identity was never strong to begin with — recall the 1971 war that led to the independence of East Pakistan, i.e., Bangladesh.  But national identity remains weak throughout the country even today, especially in Balochistan and in the northwestern regions along the Afghan border that so trouble U.S. policymakers.

So while Sharif will take power with a stronger government than the outgoing PPP government, it will nonetheless owe its power almost exclusively to one province, and for all the goodwill that Sharif will have upon taking office, Pakistan’s growing regionalism could heighten cracks in Pakistan’s nationhood. Sharif seems to understand that, and he has already visited Khan at his bedside (he’s recovering from injuries sustained from a fall at a campaign rally last week) to turn the page from campaign to governance.  But the fractures are real — the MQM leadership responded to vote fraud challenges in Karachi yesterday by suggesting Karachi could simply detach itself from the rest of the country.

At a time with so many other problems facing Pakistan, Saturday’s election demonstrated that national unity will remain as vital an issue as it has been since Pakistan’s creation.

* The PML-Q, which contested the 2013 elections in alliance with the PPP, was reduced from 54 seats to just two.  Musharraf’s new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) won just one seat, though it was boycotting the election in protest of Musharraf’s inability to run for office.

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