The army’s onslaught on Sharif led to defections and a drift of some ‘electables’ to Imran Khan who is viewed as the army’s favourite.
Will the forthcoming national elections in Pakistan be free and fair, and truly reflect the will of the people? Or are they being manipulated by the army in partnership with the judiciary? These are the real questions, beyond the mechanics of the polling exercise scheduled nationwide for July 25.
Pakistan’s Punjab province comprehensively controls the country’s polity. If a party dominates Punjab it rules the country. Of the National Assembly’s 342 seats, 183 are allotted to the province. Under Nawaz Sharif’s leadership the PML(N) swept Punjab winning 126 of the 148 seats for which direct elections were held for the National Assembly in the 2013 elections. 60 seats in the chamber were reserved for women and 10 for the minorities. These were elected through proportionate representation on the basis of the performance of parties. Consequently, the PML(N) secured 34 women seats in Punjab. Consequently, Nawaz Sharif emerged as the decisive winner; the stage was set for an army-Sharif confrontation. It unfolded over the next four years, for Sharif wished to rule in accordance with the constitution and the army refused to cede space on the country’s security and foreign policies, including its India policy.
Notwithstanding its protestations, the army is determined to avoid a 2013 repeat: it does not want the PML(N) to win the election and nor does it wish any party to gain decisive control over Pakistan’s politics. The Pakistani courts are not on all fours with the army’s agenda but went after Nawaz Sharif in a dubious manner. They ensured that he could not only not hold any political office he cannot even head his party. His conviction in a corruption case flowing from the Panama Papers is part of the design to render him powerless. Sharif has shown admirable fighting spirit to return to Pakistan and jail along with his daughter and political heir Maryam. The question is if his political shahadat will attract sufficient support in Punjab to put paid to the army’s objectives.
The army’s onslaught on Sharif led to defections and a drift of some ‘electables’ to Imran Khan who is viewed as the army’s favourite. This will improve his prospects in Punjab while he is expected to hold to his Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa bastion. Over the past few days there has been no major groundswell of support for the PML(N) since Sharif’s return. However, in central and northern Punjab there have been some signs of anti Pathan sentiment. Will that silently send the Punjabi voter towards Sharif? These are imponderables. Still most Pakistani observers believe that Imran Khan will manage to be so close to a majority that he will become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. In any event, if no party is able to go through on its own, the army will ensure that a coalition supporting Imran will emerge.
Khan wants to build a ‘naya’ Pakistan. His election manifesto spells out an ambitious programme of economic revival, eliminating corruption, combating terrorism, improving health and education facilities. He will have to contend with the power brokers who have joined him. It will not be easy to bring in the extensive structural change that is required to take Pakistan on a progressive path especially as Khan is soft on the religious parties, that are wedded to taking Pakistan backward in time in the name of religious purity.
Khan also wishes to improve ties with India but his manifesto repeats the old tired positions on India-Pakistan ties, including on J&K. It reflects the army’s views and there is no doubt that the former cricket captain will not be able to be his own man in the areas that the army considers its fiefdom.
All in all, after these polls, in Pakistan it will be more of the same.
(Vivek Katju is a former Ambassador to Afghanistan and a Pakistan expert)