The much-delayed and agonised passage of the 24th Constitutional Amendment means that 2018 will most likely witness the third election of Pakistan’s ongoing phase of democratisation.
Existing academic literature is in agreement on the significance of free and fair elections, followed by peaceful transfers of power, in making procedural democracy the “only game in town”. Some political scientists go further and posit that a minimum of two such transfers are required to reduce the likelihood of the system falling apart.
In 70 years of statehood to date, the 2013 polls remain Pakistan’s only moderately successful democratic transfer of power. I say moderately because while voter participation was the highest in nearly four decades and the incumbent (PPP) accepted the results immediately, reservations of one major party (PTI) partially delegitimised the process with a segment of the electorate. One outcome of this conflict, the new Elections Act, 2017, aims to address procedural shortcomings of the electoral system. This provides hope that at least some of the underlying flaws from past polls will not be present in 2018.
Nevertheless, events from 2017 in particular have introduced new complications for the 2018 polls that go well beyond procedural disagreements. These challenges are now fairly apparent: the consensus over civilian-led continuity forged between the PML(N) and the PPP in 2007 is increasingly irrelevant given how the composition of political actors has changed in the last five years. What matters more now are the stakes involved and the level of personalised bitterness between the PML(N) and the PTI in Punjab, which raise the threat of election-related violence and subsequent de-legitimisation of results at a scale not seen since 1977.
Seasoned observers of Pakistani politics are in agreement that the level of polarisation between leaders of the two parties (and, consequently, their supporters) has raised the chances of a systemic breakdown in 2018.
On the other hand, the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif also opens up a small and wholly inadvertent window of opportunity for democratic progress. Prior to the Panama Papers leak, the PML(N) appeared to enjoy a position of unprecedented political strength for a civilian government. There were frequent predictions that the party was looking ahead to another five, if not 10, years in power at the Centre, and at least two decades in Punjab, ultimately giving rise to complacency and a new kind of civilian authoritarianism.
Leaving aside the obvious shortcomings of political predictions, Nawaz Sharif’s exit from electoral politics has changed the landscape confronting his party by rendering it far more competitive.
Finally, the 2018 election also marks a major turning point for the organisation and future of Pakistan’s weak political parties. Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification brought the back-burner issue of leadership transition in the PML(N) to the front, leading to Shahbaz Sharif’s muted elevation as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. If he wins now, he’ll have a few years to remodel the party’s core personnel and future trajectory from a position of strength, thus ensuring its continuity over the next decade or so. On the other hand, a loss may bring back the risk of dissent and factionalism.
The PML(N) is not alone in facing a difficult future ahead of and beyond the 2018 polls. For the PTI, this election marks the second of two chances — the first being in 2013 — of obtaining power at the Centre in its current shape. On the other hand, the PTI’s overt reliance on Imran Khan’s personality and powerful local candidates, and its repeated sidelining of core, ideologically motivated middle-class activists in actual party organisational work leaves it with no clear-cut mechanism. If the PTI manages a victory in 2018, it gives the party a few years to figure out an appropriate way to sustain itself in the future. Conversely, however, another loss at the polls will almost certainly expedite this problem of transition, as the chances of a 72-year-old leading the party in 2023 are (and, frankly, should be) slim.
Recent commentary has shed considerable attention on Pakistan’s systemic downslide in 2017, and the reassertion of the military and judiciary in the political sphere. These institutional tussles remind us of the fragility of the country’s political system.
By arrangement with Dawn