Uzair Younus on Pakistan's upcoming elections

Looking Ahead

We are now entering the final third of what has so far been a sensational election campaign season in Pakistan. As July 25 draws near, all those with a stake in Pakistan’s future, including democratic and non-democratic forces, are geared up for a fight.

Reinforcing the fact that it suffers from an attention deficit disorder, the electronic media is frenetically swinging from one scandal to another, struggling to balance between its dual mandate of informing the public while meeting financial goals through higher ratings. The focus, however, is on the present — handing out tickets, keeping the party together, discussing the latest slip-up by a leader — and few, if any, are paying attention to the fact the real struggle begins the day after the elections.

As elections draw nearer, one will hear outlandish claims of a ‘clean sweep’ from all and sundry, but there are two plausible outcomes. One is that the PML-N, despite having fewer elected representatives in parliament than 2013, forms a government once again. This outcome is possible if the electorate, particularly in Punjab, is relatively content with the party’s performance. The alternative is that the opposition, led by the PTI and PPP, cobbles together a weak coalition government, leaving a sizeable number of raucous PML-N legislators on the opposition benches. This outcome occurs if the PML-N’s development message is undercut by corruption proceedings and growing power outages.

A victory by the PML-N, no matter how razor-thin, will be portrayed by its leadership as a popular rejection of the agenda put forth by its opponents and will also give credence to Nawaz Sharif’s slogan of ‘vote ko izzat do’. The three-time prime minister can be expected to double down on his demand that elected governments be respected by other institutions and be given more space to create national security and foreign policy. The PML-N, aggrieved at the way in which the party has been pressured, could pursue constitutional reforms, push yet again for retired Gen Musharraf’s treason trial, and seek to carve out more space for the civilian leadership.

In such a scenario, the party’s opponents, while defeated at the hands of the voters, will seek to pressure the PML-N very early on. Pursuing constitutional reforms may set parliament on a collision course with the Supreme Court. Pursuing Musharraf’s trial while seeking a greater civilian role in the strategic affairs of the country will rattle the establishment’s cage. Finally, the PML-N has a poor track record of empowering parliament when in power — Nawaz Sharif attended only six out of 102 National Assembly sessions in 2017, his last year in power — and this could once again leave the party isolated during testing times.

The emergence of a coalition government, led by the PPP and PTI, creates its own set of challenges. For starters, the PML-N would most surely argue that the elections were rigged, particularly in Punjab where they have already voiced their concerns about the caretaker setup. Its boisterous protests in parliament as a sizeable opposition party could paralyse the legislative agenda of the newly elected government.

Should the PML-N’s leadership believe that systemic rigging was conducted to steal its mandate, it may decide to hold a long march to Islamabad that ends, in an ironic reversal of roles, with a dharna that paralyses the country for weeks on end. The establishment and judiciary could respond to further isolate the PML-N, continuing the institutional confrontation that Pakistan has seen throughout 2018.

If the PML-N comes to power, its claims of setting Pakistan on the right economic course will be laid bare, creating an opening for its opponents to undermine the party from the outset. On the other hand, a government that does not include the PML-N will immediately face a restive public keen to see ‘tabdeeli.’

The kicker in this scenario will be the state of the country’s economy, which is already facing a moment of reckoning. Foreign debt obligations, declining reserves, and rising oil prices and interest rates, are beginning to expose the crumbling foundations of Pakistan’s economic recovery. The newly elected government, led by whichever party, will have to contend with the IMF, seek additional funding from Pakistan’s patron China and other friendly countries, and keep at bay the Trump administration which will surely use Pakistan’s economic weakness as leverage in seeking a settlement of the Afghan problem.

Pakistan, like other transitional democracies, is facing growing pains. The problem that is unique to this country is the fact that elites across institutions have consistently failed to agree on a set of norms under which they operate. This failure stems from the fact they suffer from a form of collective amnesia that renders them unable to learn from history, sending the country stumbling from one crisis to another.

The writer is a South Asia analyst at Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2018