Pakistan Elections 2018

Pakistan heads to the polls on July 25th. I happen to be in the middle of a move, so I have not been posting much but a short note on the election is certainly due. Back in 2013 Pakistan had its first peaceful democratic transfer of power and it looked like some sort of democracy was finally taking root, with the military still exercising disproportionate influence but with an elected government running most of the country according to its own priorities. Unfortunately, the trend line has since reversed and done so in spectacular fashion. There are many theories about why this particular reversal happened, with some people blaming the party in power (the nominally right of center PMLN) and others the overweening ambitions of GHQ (*General Headquarters. The army). Whatever the triggers, it seems that at some point the army high command decided that it could not coexist with Mian Nawaz Sharif and his politically ambitious daughter (Maryam Nawaz Sharif) and for the last year and a half the army, primarily acting through its intelligence agencies (for the rough stuff) and ISPR (the PR wing of the army, now expanded into a vast public relations operation with a serving general in charge) has been on a crusade against the PMLN in general and Mian Nawaz Sharif (MNS) and his daughter in particular.

The operation has not gone according to plan; it seems clear that the army expected that MNS would give up the fight easily and the PMLN (a party once put together with the help of the army and including many professional turncoats) in any case will get the hint and push him out and replace him with his more cooperative younger brother (Mian Shahbaz Sharif, MSS). But MNS has refused to back down and most of the party has chosen to stand by him. The army has been forced to resort to more and more blatant attempts at political engineering but every escalation has been met by even more stubborn and public resistance from MNS, culminating in his return to the country after being sentenced to a long prison term in a corruption case where legal norms were openly flouted and the fairness of the judiciary was seriously compromised. Multiple national and international observers have already commented on the kind of tactics being used to corner the PMLN and to give an unfair advantage to Imran Khan’s PTI and I won’t go into those details (see links for more on that), but this level of blatant military intervention has also stiffened the resistance of the PMLN and seems to have energized their supporters. At the same time, the combination of 24/7 one-sided propaganda in the Pakistani media and the behind the scenes pressures applied by intelligence agencies has not been without effect, with several candidates disqualified, others induced to switch sides and all facing the possibility of more engineering on election day. The end result is that there is great uncertainty on the eve of the election. Polls generally indicate a close contest, but the unknown unknowns make any guess hazardous.

That said, it is the job of pundits to make predictions, so I will make mine. We will see how it turns out tomorrow.

  1. No single party will win a majority.
  2. IF voting is mostly fair then PMLN will still emerge as the single biggest national party, with a majority in the Punjab provincial assembly and single largest bloc in the National assembly (around 70 seats).  This assumes a combination of two factors: the army being somewhat overconfident and allowing voting to proceed (in the expectation that PTI will win a plurality; this overconfidence is possible because the middle levels of the officer corps are genuine PTI supporters and in that echo-chamber it looks like a PTI win is coming) AND local factors (observers, party machinery, experience) making it hard to blatantly rig the election in Punjab.
  3. The army is too deeply committed to back off now, so even a plurality will not be enough to form the next government. Instead the army will cobble together PTI, various smaller parties and turncoats to create a non-PMLN government at the center.
  4. The resulting governments  (provincial as well as national) will be ineffective and will lack legitimacy. The army believes (in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary) that a “remote-controlled” civilian government is the best way to run the country. They get to make all the crucial decisions while politicians are kept busy with patronage and corruption (all kept within reasonable bounds because “the army will be watching”). With PMLN and other “traitors” out of the way, the path to prosperity with Chinese characteristics will be wide open. In reality, the outcome will be a worthless dyarchy, with real power in GHQ the politicians main job will be finding ways to make money and to do so before GHQ changes the government. Meanwhile the army will come up with shortlists of “talented” people to run all the “National Security Sensitive” ministries and by some sort of magic all the talented people will turn out to be relatives and friends of senior generals, with a smattering of imported bankers and ex-IMF types to season the brew. The whole thing will more or less work as long as China is still investing in their most allied ally, but once the Han comrades start demanding repayment the shit will hit the fan. After negotiating bailouts with Beijing the army will eventually come up with a truly original idea: new elections. And I am not even ruling out the possibility that next time around all the invisibles (and the very visible ISPR) could be promoting Maryam Nawaz Sharif as the new savior (unlikely, yes, but not out of the question), where the cycle will begin again. And so it goes..
  5. For a few years there was a real hope that power will flow through routine democratic politics but since GHQ has shot down that balloon well and good, the next issue will inevitably be politics within the army. With the army chief and the ISI chief holding such power, these positions are inevitably going be the focus of national and international intrigue. We have already seen an ISI chief (Rizwan Akhtar) dismissed because he intrigued against the incoming chief. More such shenanigans are inevitable. The army’s problem is that it is not the communist party of China, it is a continuation of the British Indian army and is not designed to rule the country. That has not stopped them from doing so, but it means there are no formal (and absolutely no transparent) institutional mechanisms for handling internal and external politics. Naturally, such mechanisms have evolved to some extent, but they are inefficient and opaque and the person who happens to sit in the chief’s chair has overwhelming power in the system. Since promotion to senior ranks follows the “keep your mouth shut, except to agree with your seniors” formula, the holders of that office tend to be in the Raheel Sharif and Bajwa mode (mediocrities, mostly followers of the corps commander consensus, liable to be manipulated by those more intelligent than they are) there is low probability of wild adventures, but trapped within the PMA worldview and always aware of their own intellectual and moral inferiority (and hence likely to compound every stupidity to avoid being exposed) they are quite capable of gradually finding their way to stupendous disasters (see 1971 for details). The system is set up for failure.
  6. The people can still cause an upset on July 25th. There could be a PMLN wave that will overcome all engineering attempts and there could be a PTI sweep if the turnout is kept low and PMLN supporters stay home. We will find out tomorrow. But irrespective of the results, the army is unlikely to back down and the end result will still be a remote controlled government (whether one led by the PTI and therefore already integrated into ISPR or led by a defanged PMLN that has agreed to cooperate with GHQ).
  7. The real “unknown unknown” in this whole scenario is China. Historically we have always assumed that the US has its tentacles deep in Pakistani officialdom and by using their “agents of influence” as well as carrots (aid, bribery etc) and sticks (IMF, sanctions) they “manage” Pakistan even if they don’t fully control it. Now, with the US in relative decline and China ascendant (at least in Pakistan), the question becomes “how will China manage its client?”. And the short answer is, we have no clue. On general principles we know that Chinese officialdom is very professional and whoever is involved in managing Pakistan will have spent quality time learning about their ward and all decisions will be taken after “due diligence” and will not operate on the “Inshallah-Mashallah” frequency.  But as with all things, “garbage in, garbage out”; what is their source of information and how good is their analysis? At least an amateur observer has no way of knowing this. Maybe they have figured it out, but we have no way of knowing. Plus the US is by no means out of the picture. Between these two and their local agents, we may be heading into unknown territory.
  8. I would love to be proven wrong, with Pakistan holding free and fair elections and the outcome leading to a stable democratic government which actually delivers for the people of Pakistan. But at this moment I would rate that as a rather remote possibility.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

36 thoughts on “Pakistan Elections 2018”

    1. So far I have not seen Army personnel names on the internet, deeply involved in this engineering. This is kinda strange. It needs to happen

        1. The Pakistani deep state isn’t nearly as effective as the Turkish one.

          Turkey is order of magnitudes more efficient than Pakistan – a bit sad really..

  1. Regardless of the outcome from the election, Pakistan, in particular Sindh, is headed for political instability. This is the result of long term demographic changes, and not specific actions of the involved players.

    Christopher Jaffrelot mentioned how the national emergence of the PPP and the elevation of Zulfikar Bhutto to the position of PM played a major role in getting Sindhis to identify with the Pakistani state. Since then, Sindhis have been major players, with the Bhuttos forming the anti-PML (hence anti-Punjab) pole of the Pakistani political landscape, giving Sindhis the status of leaders of this coalition.

    The emergence of the PTI and a conservative Pashtun party, with a base in KPK (which has a rapidly increasing population) and substantial inroads in urban Sindh (migrant Pashtuns, Muhajirs ?), has changed the equations. Bhuttos have been a marginal force in this year’s campaign, and chances of a Sindhi PM look remote in the near future.

    Either the Sindhi Muslims will fold up and accept their fate, or we could see a serious conflagration.

    1. The PPP has not been allowed to campaign freely in this election. Their “great white hope” is a young man named Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has never held any elected office before, simply becoming party co-chairman after his mother was assassinated. He says some sensible things but mostly his campaign revolves around “I will uphold the vision of my mother and grandfather”. Hardly inspiring stuff. In the meanwhile, everyone knows that Asif Ali Zardari really calls the shots in the PPP. This is no longer the party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or even of Benazir.

      The PPP doesn’t really care what happens at the national level as long as they can rule Sindh. If they are not ruling Sindh, then they are going to be unhappy. But I am willing to bet that they will still form a government in their fiefdom.

      The contest for Islamabad always runs through Punjab and that is going to be PML-N vs. PTI. The PPP is basically dead in Punjab. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it is the Zardari party and has nothing to do with the Bhuttos anymore (other than the middle name of the heir apparent).

      1. It’s because Bilawal is no Fati..
        there is an atavistic urge for female leaders in south Asian dynasties
        Though the two British Queens (Victoria & Elizabeth II) have probably contributed most to constitutionalism in the last two centuries because of ineffectualism..

        1. Well, the PPP inheritance goes from ZAB to Benazir to Bilawal. Benazir didn’t want Murtaza to take over her party (which according to Fatima Bhutto is why Zardari had him killed).

          Fatima Bhutto is smart not to want to get involved in Pakistani politics. For Bilawal, it’s the family business and I don’t think he could opt out even if he wanted to.

          1. Fatima i feel wants to be the Pakistani Arundhati Roy, but she still( me thinks) is afraid to make the jump.

          2. Pakistan can have no Arundhati Roy-
            Let one Pakistan intellectual say something against God, Prophet or Quran and he’ll be publicly decapitated.

            That is why India and Pakistan cannot be compared; there is a black hole no Pakistan dares to wade into (even I want to retrospectively as Holy & PBUH to what I’ve written above, a Pavlovian reflex).

          3. Very few Pakistanis will say anything against Allah. Nor should they necessarily. That is not the test of liberalism.

            But just as Arundhati Roy questions India’s Kashmir policy, Muhammad Hanif questions Pakistan’s Balochistan policy. We also have our intellectuals who question the State’s idea of nationalism.

          4. “Very few Pakistanis will say anything against Allah. Nor should they necessarily. That is not the test of liberalism.”

            The test of liberalism is not what you say about Allah. It is, what your public reaction is, when somebody says something about Allah.

          5. “Muhammad Hanif questions Pakistan’s Balochistan policy. ”

            Hanif is a interesting case since he is ex-PAF and a punjabi. PAF guys seem a bit more relaxed and professional out of all 3 wings, probably due to Asghar Khan mentorship in early years.

          6. I don’t think being anti-religious is the test of liberalism. That is secular fundamentalism.

            Liberalism, to me, is keeping religion out of politics and arguing that all citizens should have equal rights, by virtue of their citizenship in the State, no matter what religion they happen to profess.

            It is a reality that any Pakistani politician, no matter how liberal, will have to pay some sort of lip service to Islam. That is if they want to get elected.

          7. Liberalism come from liberty, of which liberty to criticize all ideas, including religion and yes, Islam.

            I always say that Islam is a very powerful ideology because it unequivocally reserves the right to criticize and condemn all other religions and ideologies (liberalism, communism) but it vigorously opposes other people’s right to criticize Islam. Such a great strength! When you only want to play opponent-less football, you win handsomely every time ofcourse.

  2. Thanks for such a penetrating analysis! You add tremendous value to the blog. I do not have more than superficial knowledge of Pak politics but I have developed a tremendous dislike for Imran Khan. I can understand corrupt, patrimonial politicians, they are just normal human beings. However, I do not think people who see themselves as ‘Messiah of the Nation’ in waiting but compromise and prostitute themselves to every powerful groups and populist causes, are normal human beings.

        1. What does that have to do with him being Prime Minister?

          They are legally married. If she has his child, that’s between them.

  3. Yes, penetrating, but somewhat gloomy. Intra-national or inter-ethnic contest for power does fuel politics, but efforts at self-aggrandizement by politicians can lead to some good, too. Gaining an advantage by doing good can be one pathway to power for politicians. Bhutto, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf all rode in as the awaited messiahs (doctrine of necessity was the mantra.) Who knows? Imran Khan might fit the bill this time, whether GHQ welcomes him or not.

  4. the basic function of a civilian government in Pakistan is to serve as whipping for Pakistan Army’s failure . The army takes all the credit – and resources – while civilian govt is responsible for all failures. that is the ‘allocation of responsibilities’ set in the polity for the last 50 and it will only continue. Only wars which the army can win is against it’s own people.

    1. The Army runs security policy and foreign policy. They have always done so. The only difference is that now they don’t want to rule directly, but through a pliant civilian face.

  5. The best thing about this election is the new term “agriculture” department. Hoping that meme writer dont give up on that

  6. It seems that each province of Pakistan will be ruled by its own political party. This is a trend that continues from 2013. One can argue that Pakistan is essentially four different countries that really don’t like each other. The country is only being held together by Pakistan Army and by Islam. That and the fact that if it disintegrates it will be a major humanitarian disaster.

    As things stand right now, PTI will rule in Islamabad and in KPK, PPP has won in Sindh and doesn’t need any allies, PML-N is ahead in Punjab (just barely) and will try to form a government in Lahore, and the Baloch parties will rule in Balochistan. Of course, PTI would like to form a government in Punjab, the country’s heartland and most important province. There is almost no point in ruling from Islamabad if someone else is ruling in Lahore. But PML-N should be allowed to rule in their own bastion. Otherwise, it will be really unfair.

    1. I think it’s the Pakistan vs. Provinces; late medieval French politics ..

      PTI is Pakistan with Army patronage
      There will need to be a Grand Coalition of the Provincial Parties where each seat is regulated (PM goes to largest party etc).

      Does Pakistan do FPTP; if so tactical voting where PPP and PML help each other out.. politics is about evolving various strategies.

      1. For a number of years both parties have realised that the Army is a bigger threat to them than they are to each other. Ideally they should make a coalition.

        1. They should make a coalition. I think PPP, PML-N and independents could have a majority in the National Assembly. But the public would be very upset if PTI is not allowed to form a government.

          PPP is happy that they get to rule in Sindh and PML-N at this point just wants to rule Punjab.

          1. The generals obviously wouldn’t have it as it would defeat the purpose of all the pre-poll engineering.

            But we also have to face the fact that many many people did vote for Prime Minister Imran Khan. PTI is far ahead in KPK and did really well in Punjab as well.

            Punjab Assembly was a very close contest. 127 seats for PML-N and 123 seats for PTI. The real battle now is about who will form the government in Lahore.

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