Pakistan’s Electoral Fray: Between Promises And Predicaments – Analysis


Amid reports of bomb blasts in Balochistan and Karachi, Pakistan is all set for the 12th general elections, scheduled for February 8. However, heightened concerns persist regarding transparency and fairness in the electoral process, set against the backdrop of political, economic, and security challenges. Anxieties and fears loom over the undeniable influence of various entities—including the military establishment, civil bureaucracy, and religious leaders—on the political landscape, raising apprehensions of manipulation and undue interference.

The electoral scenario is further complicated by controversies, including perceived political unfairness towards former prime minister Imran Khan and his party. Widespread unemployment and inflation, particularly impacting the predominantly youthful voter base, contribute to the predicaments facing the Pakistani political landscape.

In the midst of persistent domestic challenges, leaders from the major political parties presented manifestos and delivered speeches that, at times, lacked clarity, sincerity, and wisdom. Their discussions often centred around scrutinizing the actions of their predecessors. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), having faced expulsion through a vote of no confidence two years ago, strategically found itself hampered, limiting its active participation in the electoral race. Over time, the PTI became marginalized, falling short of public expectations and drawing disapproval from the military, particularly due to its attacks against military installations. Simultaneously, opinion polls indicated the likelihood of a hung assembly and the possibility of emerging a fragile and manipulated government. Observers also say that the stage is being set for the return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. 

The current electoral landscape is characterized by the dominance of two major parties: the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), led by Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. There are other minor or regional parties also in the mix. In contrast, the PTI, once the largest party in the previous elections, finds itself in a precarious situation. Due to a controversial Supreme Court ruling, the PTI is compelled to field its candidates as independents, having been stripped of its electoral symbol in the run-up to the elections. This development has significantly altered the electoral dynamics, presenting challenges for the PTI, led by Imran Khan, as it strives to maintain its political standing without its customary party symbol. The prelude to the polls has witnessed Imran Khan facing jail sentences in multiple cases. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, who had previously faced incarceration and lived in exile, has returned as a prominent contender. Against the background of alarming economic challenges, Pakistan is also facing increased armed faction attacks, internal violence, and heightened tensions with neighbouring countries. These factors set the stage for a critical and closely watched electoral process.

The main concern is that the elections may result in the formation of a weak and potentially rigged government. Such a government could be characterized by a lack of comprehensive ideas and competent teams, leading to heavy reliance on the security establishment and elite interests. The prospect of insufficient focus on critical issues and governance deficit raises concerns about the effectiveness and responsiveness of the elected leadership.

As Pakistan gears up for the election, a staggering 128.5 million voters are set to determine the next government. The province of Punjab, wielding considerable influence with 73.2 million voters, holds the key to shaping the national outcome. In the electoral arena, 5,113 candidates vie for 266 general seats, marking a historic moment with a record 313 female contenders seeking seats in the National Assembly. 

Electoral Arithmetic and Changing Dynamics 

Several factors are anticipated to define the election dynamics. Foremost among these is the critical parameter of voter turnout, historically averaging around 52%. This metric not only gauges political engagement but also serves as a barometer for the perceived fairness of the polls. The youth demographic, a potential game-changer with 57 million registered voters aged 18 to 35, presents a breathtaking dimension. While previous elections witnessed subdued participation among young voters, recent surveys suggest a major upswing, with 70% expressing a keen interest in casting their votes. It is also important to note the entry of over 23.5 million new voters since 2018, constituting a significant 18% of the electorate. This surge introduces an element of unpredictability, particularly as these new voters, predominantly young, remain susceptible to last-minute canvassing efforts.

A major aspect highlighted by political commentators is the shifting landscape of marginal constituencies. In the 2018 elections, over 100 National Assembly seats were secured by a plurality rather than a majority of votes. Among these, 87 seats witnessed a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes, and 26 seats hung in the balance with a margin of under 2,000 votes. The influence of these marginal constituencies, primarily located in Punjab, could exercise considerable sway over the overall election results.

On top of all, the Election Commission of Pakistan designated 50% of the 90,675 polling stations as ‘sensitive’ or ‘highly sensitive,’ emphasizing security alarms, as we have witnessed in Balochistan and Karachi. This raises questions about the potential risks posed to the election’s legitimacy and integrity, particularly in areas where security concerns loom large. As the nation approaches this critical moment, the convergence of these factors profiles the scenario of an election marked by probable turning points and uncertainties.

Representation Problematic  

Political observers also noted another critical challenge: the question of electoral representation. They emphasize that winning parties frequently mirror only a fraction of registered voters, warranting urgent reforms. A major proposition on the table is the introduction of compulsory voting as a mechanism to ensure a more accurate reflection of the people’s will in the democratic process. Over the past 53 years, six out of 11 general elections have witnessed an average voter turnout of approximately 45 percent, signalling that more than half of eligible voters abstain from expressing their preferences. This substantial non-participation further deepens the non-representative nature of election outcomes.

A major contributor to this challenge lies in the electoral system inherited from the Westminster model in 1947. The persistently low voter turnout aggravates the problem, with victorious parties often representing only a small minority of the entire electorate. For instance, the 2018 elections provide glaring examples where prominent parties like PTI, PML-N, and PPP asserted to represent the entire population, despite commanding a significantly smaller share of the total registered votes. This prompts crucial questions regarding the legitimacy of parties claiming to represent the vast population of Pakistan, especially considering prevailing socio-economic disparities and a substantial portion of the populace living below the poverty line. The call for urgent reforms gains attention as political stakeholders are aware of the imperative of a more inclusive and representative democratic process.

Promises and Predicaments 

The manifestos of the three major political parties in Pakistan—PTI, PML-N, and PPP—reflect a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. PTI’s manifesto stands out as the most comprehensive, yet it leans heavily on religious ideology, lacking clear policies. PML-N’s manifesto, on the other hand, is the shortest, offering limited in-depth analysis and predominantly focusing on sectoral promises. PPP’s manifesto faces criticism for presenting weak economic ideas, and committing to ambitious goals without providing clear strategies. Notably, all three major parties fall short in addressing the root causes of pressing issues such as insecurity, terrorism, and the grievances of the Baloch population. Civilian supremacy and constitutional reforms receive limited attention across the board. While smaller leftist parties contribute detailed analyses of inequities, their impact remains constrained by resource constraints, limiting their influence in the broader political landscape. 

It would be interesting to see the stance and strategies of these three major parties concerning key issues of foreign and domestic policy. The PML-N manifesto outlines its foreign policy measures, emphasizing the establishment of stable relations with India. The document advocates for holding the SAARC Summit in Islamabad as a crucial step toward regional cooperation. It highlights the need for sustained diplomatic dialogue between India and Pakistan, with a focus on resolving disputes, especially in Jammu and Kashmir. The manifesto acknowledges Pakistan’s perspective on Kashmir, stating that normalization with India is contingent on reversing unilateral measures taken on August 5, 2019. In addition to relations with India, the PML-N manifesto discusses collaboration with neighbouring countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India on cross-border transportation projects. 

The PML-N manifesto suggests the shift towards a geo-economic focus in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Emphasizing connectivity, trade, investment, and climate change partnerships, the manifesto aims to protect the rights of the Pakistani diaspora and counteract increasing Islamophobia. It also advocates for peaceful resolutions to international disputes, particularly in Kashmir, expressing solidarity with “oppressed populations” in Kashmir, Palestine, and the Rohingyas. The manifesto promotes a regional approach against extremism and xenophobia, aiming for shared prosperity through geo-economics. It commits to strengthening relationships with various powers and Islamic countries for mutually beneficial economic partnerships.

The PPP manifesto highlights the party’s commitment to reinvigorating Pakistan’s foreign policy by adopting a new strategic framework, utilizing smart and soft power tools, and leveraging digital communication trends. The plan focuses on reviving the country’s public diplomacy, cultural capital, and diplomatic outreach to position Pakistan as a dynamic soft power nation. In the context of the Kashmir conflict, the PPP asserts the root causes lie in decades of political repression and the denial of the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination. The party stands by Kashmiris in their pursuit of voting rights and rejects military or unilateral solutions. While advocating for conflict resolution, the PPP is open to constructive dialogue with India, contingent on safeguarding the rights of Kashmiris as per UN resolutions.

On the international stage, Pakistan, being the second-largest and only nuclear-armed OIC member, aims to address policy challenges within the Muslim Ummah, combat terrorism, radicalization, and Islamophobia, and address crises in Kashmir and Palestine. The manifesto also emphasizes regional cooperation to tackle climate change, manage environmental challenges, and promote trans-regional energy and infrastructure projects.

In terms of legislation, the PPP pledges to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws, protect human rights defenders, establish a support project for terrorism victims, and set up a Minorities Commission to safeguard the rights of non-Muslim minorities. The party commits to implementing constitutional articles related to religious freedom, non-discrimination in educational institutions, and protection of minority rights. On the economic front, the PPP takes credit for its role in placing Pakistan as a key player in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, specifically the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The party acknowledges the need to protect CPEC from external threats, including terrorism and hostile elements.  

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) put across a comprehensive vision for the nation, known as ‘Riyasat-i-Madina,’ in its manifesto. The party commits to significant reforms, including changes to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), transparent judicial selections, and direct elections for the Prime Minister to reduce vested interests. PTI also proposes shorter terms for the National Assembly and Senate, advocates for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to address historical issues, and reaffirms voting rights for overseas Pakistanis.

The PTI’s foreign policy manifesto emphasizes the importance of aligning with Pakistan’s Islamic identity. It promises a ‘Pakistan First’ approach, prioritizing the nation’s global interests and advocating for the oppressed in Kashmir and Palestine. The party aims to strengthen relations with Muslim countries and its strategic ally, China. The foreign policy vision includes distancing from past agreements that haven’t served Pakistan’s interests, utilizing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for justice advocacy, and championing the rights of Kashmiris and Palestinians. It is noteworthy that the PTI manifesto is silent on engaging India albeit references to championing the cause of J&K. 

Thus, despite robust promises and plans, the people of Pakistan generally feel disheartened by the hypocrisy of these parties. The frustration arises because the parties talk about big goals but don’t engage in meaningful discussions about how they plan to achieve them. Given Pakistan’s current economic situation and the strict IMF guidelines, it seems unrealistic for any party to fulfill their promises. The impending elections in Pakistan cast a shadow of uncertainty. The looming question is whether this will translate into a lower turnout or manifest as a silent protest vote in favour of PTI-aligned candidates. Complicating the electoral landscape is a severe economic crisis characterized by nearly 30 percent inflation, a sharply devalued currency, and the expiration of a $3 billion IMF bailout deal, coinciding with the assumption of office by a new government. Widely regarded as a referendum on the military’s role in politics, these elections unfold in a society marked by deep polarization and an air of uncertainty about the future. The outcomes carry profound implications for Pakistan’s political terrain and its relationship with the military establishment.

The litmus test for democracy in any nation lies in the influence exerted by civil society and the key institutions that run the system through the principle of checks and balances. In the context of Pakistan, unpredictable forces hold sway over civil society, and the role of the judiciary, as the guardian of the Constitution, remains uncertain. The situation as it emerges shows that the military is likely to assume a decisive role in shaping the trajectory of Pakistan’s praetorian state even if political forces are able to run a civilian government. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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