Assessment of Recent Pakistani Elections

Commentary | May 16, 2013

Writing for The News International, EWI Board Member Ikram Sehgal discusses the outcome of Pakistan’s recent elections. He states that despite continued challenges to voters, this past election was the best electoral exercise conducted in Pakistan’s history.

More than 150 lost their lives in the run-up to the elections and on election day itself, scores were injured. Despite fear and intimidation, by lining up to vote the populace signalled their readiness to be stakeholders in the destiny of the nation and willing to confront the challenges. PTI’s Chairman Imran Khan made an emotional appeal to the people to go out and vote for change. Vote for change it certainly is, the ruling coalition parties that have driven Pakistan literally into the ground are now an “endangered species”, but the voters played safe, favouring the steady experience of Mian Nawaz Sharif instead of the charismatic Imran Khan.

What both military and civil regimes could not do to the PPP founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari and his shadowy Merlin operating from the Presidency have managed to do in the space of five years of misrule. For lining their own pockets, they have sacrificed the great national party, marginalizing it into mostly a regional status. Zardari’s nuisance value will remain, he will keep on playing the “Sindh Card” but the writing is on the wall. The strong second place showing of PML (F) allied with nationalists in interior Sindh ensures that even in the Sindh rural areas politically life will be tough for the party in the future.

It is important to rid the country of the aberration blighting the Presidency. The 18th Amendment was made into a joke, the government was mismanaged from the Presidency over a puppet PM put into place by Zardari, the Constitution now works in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s favour. Mian Nawaz Sharif can let Zardari finish his term in August or impeach him, alongwith PTI he has the necessary numbers to do so. While Mian Sahib is inclined to let him finish his term, why is our future PM being so magnanimous, will justice be served by letting Zardari go without retrieving the billions he has secreted abroad? Or is the Swiss case the symbolic price of our democracy? It gives truth to Imran Khan’s insinuations of PPP and PML (N) being hand in glove! Removed of his Presidential immunity, Zardari and his close associates in white collar crime can be put on the ECL to start with. Zardari’s close aides must not be allowed to exit Pakistan, these people have harmed the country beyond measure. People like former Interior Minister Rahman Malik should be a virtual mine of knowledge. Given the right “incentives” they will talk nineteen to the dozen to save their skins.

A cursory look at the voting figures will show that Imran Khan’s Tsunami touched landfall in KPK but only parts of Punjab. Despite giving PML (N) the nod, the calculations went astray because the visible enthusiasm in the streets indicated a surge for PTI, true in KPK but not in Punjab. Conversely the PML (N)’s measure of popularity in the Punjab was quite wrong, taking 40 more NA seats than projected. Dozens of races were close, PTI was not too far behind in second place in many contests. The “first past the post system” is flawed, winner takes all but is that true representation of the stakeholders in a democracy? After all, more than 100% is a bit thick with indications of ballot stuffing, interference in women polling stations, etc PTI asked for re-counting in 25 NA seats. PML (N) is so far ahead, they can afford voting irregularities to be examined. A few adjustments notwithstanding, Mian Sahib won the elections fair and square. Remember 1977, PPP had clearly won the elections, less than two dozen seats were rigged but the entire electoral exercise became a subject of doubt and controversy. The PML (N) destroyed PPP and PML (Q) in the Punjab and PTI put paid to ANP in KPK. Calculations were that ANP would be left with 4 NA seats in KPK, even stalwarts like Asfandyar Wali Khan and Ghulam Mohammad Bilour suffered stinging defeats.

Bagging a significant number of independents, PML (N) will have a working majority to form a government without other partners. A good sign is that MQM’s Altaf Hussain immediately called to congratulate the PML (N) chief on his victory. While PML (N) does not need MQM according to the seat count, it is always useful to have MQM on board, Karachi being crucial for any Federal Government. PPP has the numbers to align with MQM for the Sindh Provincial Government, MQM may have a vital role to play in political détente.

Visiting Beijing, one was struck by the priorities for China set out by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, “upholding social fairness and justice, improving the policy environment for development and providing high quality public service.” The last can only become true in Pakistan when the blatant discrimination between the District Management Group (DMG) and the Provincial Civil Services (PCS) is removed. Mian Nawaz Sharif has his work cut out, despite our manpower and material resources the country is in an economic mess. Why not imitate the Chinese priorities for economic reforms on an urgent basis i.e. reduce administrative redundancy, empower the private sector and open up more to the world?

Waiting for more than four hours because the ballot boxes did not arrive, once the process started, it was smooth in our polling station in NA-250. The elections were not flawless, no elections in Pakistan ever are. Yet this was the best electoral exercise conducted in Pakistan’s history. Besides knowing clearly for the first time in my life in which location to vote, thanks to NADRA’s electronic message system, my name on the voter list was easily ascertained. Each page had ten voters with their photographs, that is no mean achievement! If the polling staff did not arrive in time, that was not the ECP’s fault, the Caretaker Government was derelict in their administrative responsibility, moreover local law and order is their subject. ECP staff deserve kudos for performing despite our 85 years old media-grandstanding Chief Election Commissioner. While ECP’s nominated members will take all the glory for a job well done, the real kudos must be reserved for Mr Ishtiak, Secretary ECP and the ECP rank and file.

The PML (N) forms the Federal Government, and the government in the Punjab, PPP in Sindh and PTI should be able to do it in KPK. Balochistan will probably have a PML (N) supported government. While PTI will get on-hands experience of governing in KPK, it needs the full support of the Federal Government because the ongoing battle to eliminate terrorism is centered in KPK. It was tremendous to see Mian Nawaz Sharif reach out pragmatically to Imran Khan by visiting him in his hospital bed. It maybe too much to hope for but should PTI become part of the Federal government it would confirm that Pakistan’s interests and Mian Nawaz Sharif’s are one and same.

Having proved himself politically at the polls, Mian Nawaz Sharif has shown, at least initially, that he is well on his way to becoming the political statesman this country badly needs.

Ikram Sehgal is a security analyst and chairman of PATHFINDER GROUP.

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