By Prateek Joshi
The General Election in Pakistan is set to be held on Wednesday and the military’s game plan has gradually unravelled, with the latest example being the disqualification and life imprisonment of PML-N’s Hanif Abbasi, who was supposed to contest on a key constituency of Rawalpindi.
For Nawaz Sharif — an erstwhile poster boy of the military (when Benazir Bhutto was the common target), the year has been tough for him, as he faces life disqualification from holding public office and imprisonment. He has tried his best playing the victim card, but the massive media crackdown and the alleged forced defections of PML-N leaders make it difficult to conclude how the party will benefit from what Sharif termed as “sacrifices”.
While his fate seemed to be sealed with the emergence of both “Dawnleaks” and “Panamaleaks”, it took the military a calculated effort and sophistication to execute its plans to engineer the next mandate. In other words, the pre-poll engineering or what Sharif described as the role of “Khalai Makhlooq” (aliens) has been in progress, becoming visible since last year onwards. What is peculiar this time is the military’s quest to prop up multiple favourites simultaneously aiming at a “malleable majority” in the National Assembly, with these parties acting as both allies, as well as checks and balances against each other.
Imran Khan has witnessed a meteoric rise in popularity in the last few months if recent opinion polls are to be believed. The Gallup poll had shown PML-N in the leading spot (36 percent support as compared to PTI’s 24 percent) as late as in April. This tilted in favour of Imran Khan by July, when another poll showed 30 percent support for PTI and 27 percent to PML-N, even though the latter appears to be leading in Punjab (which alone accounts for 141 of the 272 National Assembly seats).
While tactical adjustments with the PTI may be coming out well for the time being, it does not seem that the military will be too enthused with PTI gaining a complete majority. Hence, it could be deduced that the PTI’s increasing challenge to the PML-N in Punjab could be checked by the newly-revived Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). A five-party alliance led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman faction) (JUI-F), the MMA seeks to regain its older mandate specifically in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where it ruled between 2002 and 2008. While PTI’s victory in the 2013 KP elections and its aggressive forays into religious parties’ strongholds gave them a reason to unite, the fact that JI and JUI-F still secured more votes than PTI in previous KP elections makes MMA a challenge for Imran.
What emerges then is that the ideal arrangement for the military happens to hinge on having PTI with the largest number of seats, but still short of a majority. The gap will expectedly be filled by allies like the newly-formed Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) in Sindh, the Junoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz (JPSM, a breakaway faction of PML-N dissidents in South Punjab) and the MMA (if the need arises) as neither PML-N nor PPP are expected lend support to Imran.
In Sindh (which has 61 seats), the Pir Pagara-led GDA may manage to win a handful of seats since the PPP still remains the only party with grassroot-level outreach in the province. In Urban Sindh (24 seats), where the Mohajirs face a tough choice between a fractured MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P) (led by Farooq Sattar) and the newly emerged Pak Sarzameen Party (led by former MQM leader Mustafa Kamal), the PPP, PTI and religious parties have seen this as an opportunity to exploit the situation. The massive crackdown on MQM by the security agencies in 2016 (and its subsequent bifurcation into MQM-London and MQM-P), followed by rampant infighting within the MQM-P opened space for other parties to have hopes in Karachi, open up additional room for the Barelvi parties Jamiat Ulema e Pakistan, which had an electoral presence in Karachi in the pre-MQM era.
In Balochistan (16 seats), the contest has become complicated with the emergence of the military-backed Balochistan Awami Party and MMA, which are expected to give a tough fight to the PML-N and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (the latter two parties being allies).
Nevertheless, a contingency plan is understood to be in the making if PTI is not able to gather the required support. This month, the Supreme Court took note of Asif Ali Zardari’s fake bank accounts case, but restrained the Federal Investigation Agency from pursuing investigation till elections. Though a remote possibility, there are reasons to believe that the case could be used by the agencies to arm-twist PPP to support Imran, given the larger goal of keeping PML-N out at any cost.
Coming back to the PML-N, besides the PTI factor, the other challenge to the party stems from sectarian pressure groups-turned-political parties, which have a popular following in Punjab. Barring a few pockets in Punjab and Karachi, their ability to win elections is under question, yet their nuisance value might play a deceive role in areas where PTI and PML-N would have cutthroat competition. Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (which would contest elections under the name of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party) — which had been in the news regarding last year’s protests in Islamabad over the election oath controversy — banks upon Barelvi vote bank in Punjab, which has traditionally voted for PML-N (and PPP to a lesser extent).
On the other hand, Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League, which would be contesting under the banner of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek is focusing on the voters of the Ahle Hadis sect, which constitute around five to 10 percent of the Pakistani population. The other sources of motivation include the philanthropic networks of the Saeed’s Falah-e-Insaniat foundation and Saeed’s image as a crusader for the Kashmir cause. Again, the Punjabi supporters of Saeed had thrown their weight behind the PML-N until the Punjab government imprisoned him under international pressure in 2017. These challenges notwithstanding, the PML-N continues to have a strong support in Punjab.
While it is still early to predict which party would with the highest number of seats, the emergent pattern in Pakistan’s political landscape has once again shown the military’s expertise at expeditiously propping up new parties and coalitions. It is yet to bee seen to what extent, the military’s quest right arithmetic is achieved.
The author is a research associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based public policy think tank