Who will wrest Pak? July 25 the day to watch for
The Army has been open about its determination to keep the PML (N) out of power at all costs. Both the military and the higher Judiciary have indicated a preference for Imran Khan’s PTI

An air of the surreal surrounds the July 25 elections in Pakistan. Only the second time after an elected government lasted its full tenure, its credibility has become increasingly questionable after relentless persecution of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

Sharif has been besieged ever since the Panama case verdicts last year. The Supreme Court disqualified him for life under Article 62 &63, on a rather flimsy pretext. The Army took umbrage at his efforts to exercise real power. In his sensational May 12 interview to the Dawn newspaper, Nawaz berated the running of “a country…with two or three parallel governments, which had to stop”.  On July 6, the National Accountability (NAB) Court declared a ten-year imprisonment and pound 8 million fine on him in the Avenfield flats (London) ownership reference case. His daughter, Maryam was handed a seven-year imprisonment.

The National Assembly has 342 members. 272 are directly elected while 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for minorities are filled by proportional representation. Fresh delimitation of constituencies after the 2017 census leaves Punjab with 141 seats, Sindh 61 seats, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPk) 39  seats and Baluchistan 16 seats. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), though now merged with KP, will have 12 seats and the Islamabad Capital Area 3 seats. Whoever wins 137 directly elected seats can form the government.

The electorate is 105.96 million strong, out of a population of 207 million. 59.22million are male voters and 46.73 are females. Turn out in Pakistan’s elections is usually low, hovering around 45 per cent. In 2013, it increased to 53 per cent. 12,570 candidates are in the fray for both the National and Provincial Assembly contests, including 171 women. Nomination of candidates was marked by bitterness and dissent. Every major party gave tickets to so-called ‘electables’, who control semi-rural constituencies through ties of kinship (biradari), money and patronage. They are notorious for switching loyalty to the party enjoying blessings of the country’s all powerful military establishment.

This time, the Army has been open about its determination to keep the PML (N) out of power at all costs. Both the military and the higher Judiciary have indicated a preference for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik e Insaaf (PTI).

In his election campaign, Imran is making a pitch for a ‘Naya Pakistan’, which shall redress decay of administrative institutions. Muck- raking on questionable personal character traits in recent disclosures of ex-wife, Reham Khan and his third marriage to a purda-nashin cleric notwithstanding, his dogged pursuit of a one point anti-corruption agenda now stands redeemed and the Avenfield judgment has seemed a shot in the arm for PTI’s prospects.

In their election campaign, Nawaz and his daughter focused on his unfair ouster and the need to ‘honour the people’s vote’. However, their long absence in London, to be with the critically ill Kulsoom Nawaz, weakened the momentum of their campaign. Shahbaz Sharif, now elevated as party president, believes in a less confrontationist approach against the establishment but his electioneering, focussed on ‘good governance’ has been lacklustre.

Reacting to the Avenfield judgment, Nawaz Sharif once again lamented the attempt to derail democracy and promised to return to Pakistan to keep fighting against the ‘conspiracy of some judges and generals’. Maryam has now announced, they will both return on July 13. They will be arrested soon thereafter. The arrests could revive some sympathy but it may well be too late. The bringing in of son-in-law Captain (retd) Safdar even as he shouted pro – Mumtaz Qadri (killer of ex-Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer) slogans created quite an embarrassing furore for the NAB.

Recent opinion polls showed the PML (N) ahead of PTI but the gap was narrowing. Despite unsound legal presumptions, the NAB judgment has hit the morale of PML (N) supporters badly. The battle in Punjab may still be closely fought if PML (N) supporters recover from their morale setback and make a strong show of resistance against the Sharif family arrests. The dualism of approach between the brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz must not be allowed to create fissures in party unity.

PTI may have to contend with pro- PML (N) loyalties of the local bureaucracy in Punjab - revenue functionaries, provincial police and polling / presiding officers, fostered over decades through kinship ties and patronage. How they interpret anti- PML (N) or pro- PTI signals from the military and whether this can influence the outcome remains to be seen.

After the Sharifs, the anti-corruption noose could tighten against the Zardari / Bhutto family. In Sindh, anti-incumbency and a recently cobbled alliance of hostile feudals (Grand Democratic Alliance- GDA) may make it difficult for PPP to retain its rural vote bank of 35-40 seats. Despite this pressure, arch political maneuverer and former President, Asif Zardari is making much of his party’s indispensability in a hung parliament. Independents too could play king-maker.

KPk and Baluchistan could see mandates fractured between religious parties, ethnic nationalists and ‘electables’.

Though religious parties do not usually fare well in Pakistani elections, this time they may be ‘blessed’ by the ‘Deep State’. The Army believes in ‘mainstreaming’ them, ostensibly to white-wash their ‘terrorist’ smear. Hafiz Mohd Saeed’s Jamaat ud Daawa (JuD) has entered the fray under the ‘Allahu Akbar Tehrik (AAT)’ platform. In Punjab and Karachi, the Barelvi vote can veer towards the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) of Khadim Rizvi. A likely increase in vote share of the radical right will further reduce space for liberals in Pakistan’s civil society.

Despite a rather brazen, one-sided exercise, come July 25, the Army’s agenda of maintaining a democratic façade will have been achieved. Whichever civilian government emerges, especially one under Imran Khan will not be inclined to question the Army’s control over foreign and security policy. For India, dealing with Pakistan will be no different. The Army’s approach to counter-terrorism will continue to favour use of ‘selected’ proxies against us. We shall have to respond to these moves resolutely.

(The writer is former special secretary, RAW)