The moment you step out of Lahore airport you are greeted by hundreds of gigantic banners with smiling portraits of Imran Khan, former cricketer and candidate for prime minister in the Pakistani general election being held today, July 25.
Imran’s election symbol, a cricket bat, is also omnipresent in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. You can clearly tell that Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party is going to give Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party a tough time in its political stronghold.
Today, Pakistan votes to elect members to its National Assembly, or lower house, similar to India’s Lok Sabha. In recent general elections, the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)—founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and currently headed by his grandson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of former PM late Benazir Bhutto—have taken turns to rule Pakistan. This time around, opinion polls have placed the PPP third and suggest the main contest is between the PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI. This waning influence of the PPP is not least due to the demise of Benazir Bhutto, which changed the political scenario in Pakistan. In the last general elections, after her death, the PPP had won more seats than the PTI, despite the PTI winning more total votes than PPP. In 2013, the PPP’s seats made it the main Opposition party in the NA. It may not be able to reclaim that position in 2018.
Imran Khan has made big gains in the past five years, and in 2018, a historic election result is possible. For the first time in decades, Pakistan could have a PM who is neither from PPP or PML-N. While many surveys place PML-N ahead, some place PTI in first position, requiring support of allies to form the government under Imran Khan’s leadership.
Pakistan’s National Assembly has total 342 seats, of which 272 are directly elected and the other 70 are reserved for women and minorities. Among Pakistan’s four provinces—Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)— Punjab is the largest and it’s influence in Pakistan’s national politics is similar to that played by the Hindi belt states in India like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and others, which account for over 40% of the Lok Sabha’s 543 MPs. Of the 272 elected members in Pakistan’s NA, more than half are elected from Punjab alone. Then comes the coastal state Sindh, which sends 61 members to the NA. KPK sends 39 members. The other province of Balochistan and federally-administered regions have only a symbolic presence in the National Assembly.
It is difficult to even find election banners for the PPP in Lahore, which is all but finished in Punjab province. The PPP is expected to only put up a token fight, mainly in its stronghold of Sindh. Many winnable PPP candidates switched loyalties to the PTI before the election. The formation of the new political outfit Grand Democratic Alliance, comprising five political parties in Sindh, will further dent PPP votes. One consolation for PPP is the plight of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The MQM was a force to reckon with in Sindh, but the division within the MQM is good news for PPP and PTI. However, it is the PTI which will gain from this more than the PPP in Sindh, as it has better prospects elsewhere in the country.
Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has its base in Punjab, which sends nearly 55% of members to the NA. Till the time of Benazir vs Nawaz, Punjab always backed Nawaz Sharif. But now, with the contest poised between Nawaz and Imran, a different sentiment of regionalism stoked by Imran may affect this poll. It is being strongly speculated that the PTI will create a separate southern Punjab state, which will ensure future support to the PTI. Bhutto family scion Bilawal too has campaigned in southern Punjab and demanded it be carved out as a separate state. So the voting pattern in southern Punjab may vary from that of the rest of the state, to the worry of Nawaz’s PML-N. Another headache for PML-N is, as in Sindh, many winnable candidates have switched loyalties to PTI.
With Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam behind bars, Nawaz disqualified from prime minister-ship and a number of PML-N candidates disqualified by the courts on corruption charges, the mood in Lahore is quite sombre. PML-N fears the corruption charges will have an impact on voters and the PTI will directly gain. However, the health of Nawaz Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz, currently undergoing treatment in London, and imprisonment of Nawaz’s daughter Maryam will bring some sympathy votes for PML-N.
While Imran has more support in Punjab’s big cities, Sharif definitely rules the rural hinterland and small towns. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who introduced massive development schemes, is a popular politician in Punjab—but not so with PTI's young supporters. "Shahbaz only built roads. There are no jobs, the inflation is uncontrollable and there is no sense of direction," said Faisal, a lawyer by profession.
But Nawaz has his diehard loyalists. "Imran Khan is backed by the military. He is not cut out to be a prime minister. He doesn't even have a personality or the calm demeanour required to be a PM," said Arif, a chef based in Lahore. “Sharif was brave enough to return to Pakistan, knowing that he would be incarcerated,” Arif continued. Arif added he believes the “generals” and Sharif can have a “patch up” sometime soon.
KPK and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are smaller states which have long grievances with the mainstream parties, PML-N and PPP, which they accuse of ignoring their interests at the cost of Punjab and Sindh. Imran Khan is expected to gain in these regions. Several surveys have showed that the performance of the PTI Government in KPK has earned the satisfaction of the people, and ensured that it will be the first party to win the province twice in a row. In all likelihood, KPK and FATA will largely support the PTI.
Geographically the largest and most mineral rich state Baluchistan has a meager 16 seats in the NA. Balochistan Awami Party, the new party created by defectors from PML-N and PML-Q, is expected to perform well and throw its weight behind PTI in a post-poll scenario of hung House, which looks like imminent.
Pre-poll surveys have also indicated that neither of the two front-runners will be able to muster a clear majority in the elections. In post-poll scenario, the PTI or PLM-N will require support of the smaller parties like MMA, AML, ANP, BAP, PML-Q, PSP and others to form the government. These parties can be expected to bargain to the maximum for extending support. We cannot also rule out the possibility that in order to stop Imran Khan, the PML-N and PPP may come together to form a coalition government.
The manifestoes of most parties find space for burning issues like unemployment and water crisis. Interestingly, among major parties, only Imran Khan is yet to release his manifesto. There have been speculations in the days before voting that embarrassing revelations from Imran Khan’s second wife Reham Khan’s book may have some impact on his electoral fortunes, but this is unlikely to affect the final outcome.
While Pakistan's major political parties are vying for power, hardline religious parties are gaining strength. Many voters don't have much faith in the democratic process, as the ruling elite has not delivered much in the past seven decades. And this may be leading to a frightening trend of voters increasingly looking toward extremist parties for relief. A number of religious parties, including some banned outfits, are contesting elections despite international concerns about their participation. These groups are cashing in on political divisions and the power struggle between the PML-N and the military. "I am going to vote for Khadim Hussain Rizvi," said Abdul Nasir, a rickshaw driver. Rizvi heads the Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), which gained prominence last year after hundreds of its activists paralysed Islamabad over the PML-N government's alleged involvement in changing a "finality of prophet” oath. "Pakistan is an Islamic country and it should have an Islamic government," Nasir continued. "Rizvi will deal with all these corrupt politicians, who are Western agents."
The election campaign has already become quite controversial and violent. A number of contestants have been killed in terrorist attacks and an "Islamic-State"-claimed suicide bombing in Mastung, Balochistan, earlier this month, turned out to be one of the biggest militant assaults in Pakistan's history. Also, people fear the worst is yet to come; that the July 25 vote will not resolve Pakistan's impending crises.
Pakistan votes today. Early results will start coming in by 8 pm, and final results are likely to be out by 2 am on July 26.