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Despite Imran being frontrunner, Pakistan polls won't be one-horse race

Imran Khan has a clear chance, but polls are likely to throw up a fractured mandate

PAKISTAN-POLITICS/SHARIF Stormy return: Sharif and Maryam on the Lahore-bound flight from Abu Dhabi on July 13 | Reuters

NAWAZ SHARIF’S HOMECOMING had all the drama that elections in Pakistan are known for—his ailing mother in a wheelchair, hoping to meet him; and workers out to prove their support for mian sahib. And there was the former prime minister and his daughter, clad in pristine white, surrendering themselves to the authorities. “It is the price you have to pay for a higher cause,” said a calm Sharif, surrounded by television cameras after his flight landed in Lahore on July 13.

Ahead of Sharif’s arrival, around 400 workers of his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had been arrested. There was a move to censor the live coverage of his speech and arrest. (Censorship has cast a shadow on the elections.) Still, the PML(N) lived up to its promise of holding a show of strength in Lahore—its sher wasn’t going away silently.

Sharif will, however, be confined to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, in a cell with an “unclean toilet”. Maryam, his daughter, has chosen to be an ordinary prisoner and not opt for better facilities. Any chance, however slim, of the duo being allowed to campaign for their party were dashed early that week. It was decided that an appeal against the conviction, filed in the Islamabad High Court, would only be heard after the polls. And his conviction would not be suspended for the time being.

The stage seems set for Imran Khan’s tabdeeli (change) and naya Pakistan. The former cricketer is emerging as the obvious choice in an election that is increasingly becoming predictable. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent, nonprofit organisation that has no links to the government or political parties, believes that there is “ample grounds to doubt” the “legitimacy” of the polls.

The HRCP has issued a statement expressing concern over the “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections”. “The parties are not getting equal opportunity,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the HRCP. “The PTI (Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) is the only adopted party of the establishment.”

PTI workers, however, dismiss the claim. “It is like an India-Pakistan match,” says Nauman Wazir Khattak, a PTI senator from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “The side that loses will talk about rigging.”

On the ascent: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf could emerge as the largest party, but may fall short of simple majority | Reuters On the ascent: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf could emerge as the largest party, but may fall short of simple majority | Reuters

No civilian government in Pakistan has ever lasted its term. But all civilian leaders hope that it will be different this time.

The Sharifs may still not be counted out of the race. “My opinion is that July 13 belonged to Nawaz Sharif,” said Hasan. “It was a good campaign, and Nawaz’s party is still popular in Punjab. Lahore decides the situation.”

Will popular support turn into votes? Records show that Pakistanis do not turn out in large numbers to caste their ballots. Polling hovers around 45 per cent. In 2013—an election that the PTI claims was rigged—it went up to 55 per cent. So, can the silent majority of Pakistan stage a counter coup?

So far, it seems that the verdict will be fractured. The PTI may emerge as the largest party, but it might fall short of simple majority. Religious parties that are trying to legitimise themselves by participating in the polls could easily bridge the deficit. But Khan, complicating matters, has ruled out being part of a coalition.

Punjab is still crucial to the numbers game. And it remains to be seen whether Khan would be able to make a dent in Sindh, the fortress of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Led ably by Bilawal Bhutto, who has spoken out eloquently against the ugliness of the poll campaign, the PPP may become the kingmaker. The hearing on a case of money laundering against Asif Ali Zardari will now take place only after the polls, which suggests that the PPP may have reached some sort of understanding with the establishment.

The only respite the Sharifs have got is that Justice Muhammad Bashir, who had sentenced them in the case related to the ownership of luxury apartments in London, has recused himself from hearing two graft cases against them. This, however, does not guarantee them a fair hearing.

If there is one thing that unites political parties, it is their opposition to the rather dodgy role of the judiciary in these elections. Early this month, the supreme court had placed Zardari and his sister on the “exit control list”, banning them from travelling abroad. Later, their names were taken off the list, and the hearing of the case against them postponed until elections were over. “I think this constitutes poll rigging,” said Khattak. “Zardari is accused of money laundering.”

The judiciary has been accused of zealously targeting Sharif. Mian Saqib Nisar, the current chief justice, is as powerful as Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry, the former chief justice whose dismissal by president Pervez Musharraf had sparked off a lawyers’ movement. Nisar later allowed Musharraf to contest the elections, and disqualified Sharif from parliament.

Nisar had also ordered that the security cover given to Haroon Bilour, leader of the Awami National Party, be withdrawn. Bilour was killed in a suicide attack in Peshawar on July 10. His father, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, was killed before the 2012 elections. Both of them were outspoken critics of the Taliban, which has considerable presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. (Imran Khan, on the other hand, wants the Taliban to join peace talks. And Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is now a stronghold of the PTI.)

As chief justice, Nisar has taken several decisions that has put him in direct conflict with the government. He has gone beyond his mandate to assume the powers of the executive, and has been openly critical of the PML(N). The Karachi Bar Association has questioned his conduct, accusing him of holding proceedings like a “reality show”. “By entering courtrooms with dozens of news cameras in tow, disrupting judicial proceedings and publicly humiliating judicial officers by tossing their mobile phones, the CJP undermined not only the dignity of the judges concerned, but his own office as well,” read a statement issued by the KBA.

There are rumours of faction feuds within the judiciary itself. Qazi Faez Isa of the supreme court recently found that his appointment as Baluchistan chief justice was legally challenged. He had written a dissenting note in the Panama Papers verdict disqualifying Sharif from parliament, suggesting that the same benchmark had not been applied in Khan’s case. Isa’s appointment was finally upheld, after lawyers took out protests.

The judiciary, as a whole, seems to be following a script. But as the polling day, July 25, draws near, the ball is in the people’s court. The elections will really be a test of democracy in a country where it is still to find its moorings.

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