by Omar Ali
The May 11th elections in Pakistan represented the first time that a civilian regime completed its term in office and held elections in which power will be transferred democratically to a new civilian regime. In a country where the security establishment has a long history of throwing out elected regimes and manipulating results, this in itself was an important landmark. For this (and for very little else, unfortunately) we can thank President Zardari and his coalition building skills and stubborn determination.
In the short election campaign the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan captured the imagination of the newly educated and elite classes but it did not have the time (and/or the ability) to catch up with the pre-poll favorite, the PMLN. The superior and far more detailed groundwork done by the PMLN while it ruled Punjab for 5 years, its stronger slate of candidates, its relatively energetic performance in the Punjab government, and Mian Nawaz Sharif’s improved reputation, (along with a PPP collapse) led to a PMLN landslide in Punjab. This has practically given the PMLN a simple majority in the national assembly in spite of having only a handful of seats outside Punjab. The newcomer PTI will form a coalition government in KP; PPP, with or without MQM, will rule again in Sindh; and Balochistan remains a unique case, completely outside the national mainstream.
With daily bombings by the Taliban keeping a check on the ANP, PPP and (to some extent) the MQM, and with an insurgency and its frequently vicious suppression going on in Balochistan, traditional campaigning was mostly confined to Punjab. There, an almost millenarian excitement took hold of the middle class in the course of the PTI campaign; This phenomenon was most visible on social media and in the better neighborhoods of urban centers. Meeting each other at coffee spots and snack bars and pushing “like” buttons on each other’s facebook pages, the newly energized middle class supporters of Imran Khan managed to convince themselves that a complete root and branch renovation of Pakistan under brand new leadership was on the cards.
Never mind that Imran Khan’s had not told anyone how the great 90 day transformation would be carried out in terms of actual mechanics and workable solutions. Or that Imran Khan’s actual candidates (in a parliamentary system, constituency politics matters) were a motley collection of turncoats, inexperienced youngsters, Islamists (a good number made their bones in the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, student wing of the Jamat Islami and not known for handling opponents with kidgloves),
NGO stars and not-so-clean real estate manipulators was ignored. Unaware that this excitement had not really reached all voters, these newly politicized young people were taken aback when results did not match expectations and loudly complained about electoral rigging. But there is no indication that there was any nation-wide systematic manipulation by the establishemnt of the sort that has happened regularly in past elections. Small-scale local rigging did take place (and possibly some late-night administrative shenanigans did take place in Punjab once trends became clear) but compared to most past elections, this one was relatively clean in Punjab. Since most PTI voters were not involved in past elections, they don’t have any benchmark with which to compare this election and remain convinced that they were robbed. But given the fact that PMLN has probably won fair and square on most seats and even PTI enthusiasts have little concrete proof of extensive rigging, these protests will fade soon in Punjab.
The same cannot be said of Karachi; there, the MQM has been accused of extrensive ballot-stuffing and other irregularities. While PTI did not make any serious campaign effort in the MQM strongholds, they did put up a strong campaign in NA250, where a lot of the super-elite lives. When the election commission failed to conduct a fair election even in that seat the PTI broke a longstanding Karachi taboo and openly protested against the MQM. MQM chief Altaf Hussain made a threatening speech from London in response and on Saturday a prominent member of the PTI women’s wing was shot dead in an apparent target killing.
While no one has claimed responsibility and the police (as usual) have no leads, Imran Khan made the unusual move of publicly holding Altaf Hussain responsible for this murder. The resulting confrontation between the PTI and the MQM has raised the hopes of all those in the country who think the MQM needs to be cut down to size and its mafia-like hold on Karachi has to be defanged. But that may be easier said than done. More on this later. .
In terms of government formation, the post-election landscape seems more or less clear. PMLN will form governments in Punjab and at the center. PTI will form an islamist-leaning coalition in KP and will get a chance to show what their promises of radical change mean in practice. There will be a weak coalition of doubtful legitimacy in Balochistan, where the army will continue to call the shots. In Sindh, the PPP will form the government and most likely will take MQM along for the sake of peace. But what happens after that? A few guesses from a distant observer:
- The rigging allegations in Punjab will come to nothing. PMLN will rule unchallenged for now. Barring any sudden deterioration in the security situation, they will push ahead with many development projects. They also need to improve law and order and to avoid administrative high-handedness, but given their record, may not do as well in these areas. The inevitable result will be that even if they are able to retain the loyalty of most voters, there will be resentments and complaints that will create openings for opposition parties. PTI and PPP will now have to struggle to define one of them as the main opposition. PTI may look like it has the advantage right now, but PPP is not without strengths. IF it recasts itself as a left-of-center social democratic party and does some creative politicking on behalf of poor people (instead of having Manzoor Wattoo hunt for “electables”) it will not face real competition for that space from the Paknationalist-middle class focus of the PTI. Whether it can actually do so under current leadership is an open question. PTI may settle into the role of main opposition (and therefore have a reasonable chance in the next election) but their problem is their broad but shallow coalition and its millenarian tendencies. While this kind of vague and image-heavy nationalist and religious revivalism can be an advantage in a one-time go for broke effort, this quasi-religious mission is not the best formula for long term electoral success. We will have to wait and see if PTI matures into a real party or remains a one-hit wonder.
- Imran Khan’s provincial government in KP will face the Taliban problem from day one and will be unable to solve it. Some people think the security establishment wanted this regime in KP so that they can better manage their dealings with “good” and “bad” Taliban as the American effort in Afghanistan winds down. But even if they did make such plans, it doesnt mean their plans will lead where they want. They will be unable to control the bad taliban and will be unable to decisively separate the good taliban from them. And if the plan for Afghanistan is for “our taliban” to take over smoothly once the Americans leave, then that too is not going to happen. In the end, the security services will have to fight both the good and the bad taliban on behalf of the Pakistani elite. They may not want to do so, but they will not have a choice in this matter. There may be relative peace for a few months as negotiations proceed, but war will inevitably follow. The Jihadist project is not compatible with globalized capitalist economy and when push comes to shove, the Pakistani elite will pick global capitalism over Jihad. The days when both were on offer from the same American shop are over.
- While the PTI regime in KP will not be able to deliver on its promise of peace, they still have the chance to show some improvement in governance and corruption. That will require Imran Khan to appoint good people (like he did in Shaukat Khanum hospital) and then let them work unencumbered by various crackpot ideas about jirgas, Scandinavian Islam and elected police officials. And it will require smooth cooperation between the Jamat Islami and PTI without accepting all of Jamat’s own collection of crackpot Islamist ideas. These are big challenges, but if PTI can stay away from some of their own impractical or dangerous talking points (they dont have to abandon them in public, just ignore them in practice), then they may deliver improved administration and become a real party with a long-term future.
- Karachi is a migraine for all concerned. First of all, we should be clear that there is no question of PTI “taking on” the MQM in Karachi on its own. PTI has no armed operatives and no mafia-skills. They can collect everyone’s sympathy and still get nowhere. The only way this confrontation tilts towards PTI is if the state is willing to fight MQM on their behalf. But that has issues of its own. The police and judiciary in Karachi is currently politicized, corrupt and ineffective. They will not be able to do this job on their own. This means that if there is a confrontation between the state and MQM, the army and its intelligence agencies will be involved or MQM will win. And the “agency” way of “getting it done” in Pakistan usually involves causing a split in the targeted party (e.g. by engineering a revolt in the party or maybe even getting Altaf Hussain arrested in London in connection with the killing of Imran Farooq ), setting off a turf-war on the streets, and then using extra-judicial executions and disappearances to manage the resulting violence. They have no other script. But these are inherently risky operations and the intelligence agencies have such a long and convoluted history of meddling in Karachi that by now even they dont know who will fight who on whose behalf. Since neither the PMLN nor the army, can afford a risky operation in Karachi while busy fighting Taliban, its probalby not going to happen in the near future. Even if they do try it, it will not be the quick restoration of law and order so desired by many who are currently sick of the MQM. It will be chaotic, it will be violent, and it will not end soon. And given rumors of links with British intelligence and the “international community”, Altaf Hussain may not have run out of options yet. So the more likely scenario is that PTI’s more elite followers will be permitted to openly challenge the MQM in some areas (a big change in itself) but there will be no grand operation and no sudden restoration of rule of law in Karachi. IF Nawaz Sharif and the army prove to be miracles of far-sightedness and maturity, then maybe in a few more years MQM will be pushed towards either becoming a more normal political party, or be defanged by careful use of improved law-enforcement in Karachi. All that without alienating Mohajirs as a community or carrying out extensive kill-and-dump operations and crudely executed gang-on-gang manipulations. One can always hope, but there is no quick fix.
- PMLN will try to get off to a smooth start with the army. They are not suicidal and they have matured enough to avoid hasty confrontations. But at the same time, they know they have to get the army under civilian control in the long run. And the army knows that too. IF leadership on both sides is very mature, they can learn to share power as well as real-estate and mining profits. It would be a miracle, but why not pray for miracles? This one is needed more than most in Pakistan. Given the past records of both parties, there are grounds for being pessimistic, but after minimal deliberation, I am going to make an optimistic prediction: I predict that Nawaz Sharif will not face another military coup. There will be strains and stresses, but the civilian government will remain in place and will slowly increase its control over the armed forces.
- Relations with India will improve under Nawaz Sharif. There will be no grand deal to solve all problems but trade and travel (and “optics”) will be normalized quickly. Nawaz Sharif understands the economic benefits of normalization and the army is starting to realize that in this war of a thousand cuts with India, we have mostly cut ourselves. There will be resistance and setbacks but progress will continue. People believe the army will re-energize the Kashmir Jihad or launch a new Mumbai-style attack, but I dont think the great powers (including China) are in any such mood. Without their tacit approval, the risks are too high. The PTI, led by chief spokesperson Shireen Mazari, may parrot the traditional paknationalist line on this issue, but as long as Nawaz Sharif is delivering better governance and economic performance, the public will remain unimpressed with “betrayal of Kashmir” and other slogans of the “defense of Pakistan council”.
- Nothing much will change in Balochistan. This is sad and undesirable, but that does seem the most likely scenario. The Baloch separatists are too few to actually pull the province out of Pakistani hands by force (unless assisted in a big way by NATO, which doesn’t seem likely to me). At the same time, the army and its agencies operate almost exclusively on the kill-and-dump frequency, with no sign of finesse or any desire to compromise. Transitioning to full civilian rule seems very difficult and will be a Nawaz Sharif miracle if it happens. It probably wont.
- ANP has been mauled in KP, but this does not have to be the end. As the Taliban continue their violent ways and the “play both sides” strategy falls apart, there will be an opening again for a Pakhtoon nationalist progressive voice. Of course, if the Talibs win (which cannot happen unless the Pakistani state has allowed it to happen) this will have to be movement led from abroad for a while, but even in that case, public support for the ANP will only increase with time. They will need to be available to take advantage of that.
All in all, the elections are a step forward. People voted in large numbers, proving once again that the Taliban propaganda against this “heathen system of government” is not getting much traction. The Zardari regime, for all its faults, managed to get Pakistan to this point and deserves appreciation for this achievement. The rigging allegations and various administrative irregularities have dented the image of this election but a more energetic and forceful elections commissioner next time can repair credibility in the heartland without a big problem. Miracles of various sizes (see above) may be needed in Karachi and Balochistan. Miracles will also be needed to bring the war with the Taliban and the war with India to simultaneous closure. If the PMLN can deliver a more capable regime and restore the economy (doable) and some of the miracles happen, we may be in a much happier place by 2018. If not, we may still hope for more of the same. The one thing we cannot afford is a revolution (Islamic, PTI-Paknationalist or Marxist-Leninist..the last is not on the cards but comrades are still around and appreciate the plug). We dodged a bullet this time and with luck we may get away next time as well.