Pakistan elections : The provincial turn / Punjab’s winner, Pakistan’s ruler

[ Daily News and Analysis, 13 May 2013; Kashmir Reader, 2 Jul 2013 ]

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan held its elections on 11th May. The results till now have unequivocally pointed to the big winner of the election – the party of the Sharif brothers, the Pakistan Muslim League (Noon). They will possibly come very close to majority – there is a slim possibility of an outright majority too. In any case, the significant number of free-floating independents will ensure the majority for PML(N). There is no doubt that they will form the next federal government in Pakistan. Mian Nawaz of Raiwind is back in the saddle again. Having been removed in a coup and sent to exile after brokering a ‘abstinence from politics’ agreement, this is no small achievement for Mian Nawaz Sharif. The other big achievement is of broader import – this is the first time in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that an elected government has completed a full-term followed by an election that is all set to return a different party to power. While there have been major irregularities in Karachi city, in addition to the significant boycotts in parts of Balochistan, no electoral party has come out and claimed that the elections over-all were completely illegitimate. One can hope that there will be a peaceful transition of government. The continuance of any representative institution is a hit, however small, to the clout of undemocratic institutions like the armed forces.

There is certain narrative in the Indian Union about the ‘intrinsically undemocratic’ character of Pakistan’s polity. This is based on the long periods of army rule that Pakistan has endured. What is glossed over in such smug ideas is that the people of Pakistan have removed armed dictatorships through mass movements – not once, not twice, but thrice. That is even more true for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The Indian Union was formed by a transfer of power in 1947. A lengthy dictatorship was averted in the 70s not due to some internal mass movement that laid siege to the Indira Congress government. The dictatorship, also known as the Emergency, was a calculated move on the part of the Panditain. It is the holding of the 1977 elections that turned out to be an unfortunate gamble for her. If anything, one needs to learn from across the Radcliffe line the ABCs of removing dictatorships.

However embedded in these results is another phenomenon. To understand that, one needs to know that  Punjab province (West Punjab) has 148 seats in the national assembly, out of a total of 272. This simply means that it is possible for a party to dominate the province of Punjab and go on to form the federal government. This is precisely what has happened in Pakistan. The PML-N, the party that will form the next governmental, is a marginal or inconsequential factor in the 3 other major provinces – Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. During the early results, Mian Nawaz stepped out of his palace to declare that ‘The Nation has given me another chance to serve it.” He would have been accurate, if West Punjab was the nation it was talking about. The imminent party-of-power PML-N is simply a non-factor in Sindh, the second largest province. The erstwhile government party, the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) has essentially been reduced to a party of rural Sindh while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) ambition could not expand beyond the towns of Sindh. The PPPP’s decline shows that families, even those with ‘martyrs’,  cannot indefinitely bank on the reverence for the dead. The MQM might as well change its name back to Mojahir Qaumi Movement. The absence of the muttahid nation is written all over the results and is the embedded subtext of the election, veiled by the numerical dominance of Punjab province. Significant parts of Balochistan went to the elections in a Kashmir-like situation with wide-spread election boycotts by forces fighting for an independent Balochistan. Worse still, the Pakistani state does not have a National Conference. Thus the representativeness of results from that province is questionable. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the campaign saw the killing of scores of leaders and activists of the secular- Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party by righteous soldiers of religion. Parties perceived to be soft on the Taliban, urbane (Imran Khan’s PTI) or traditional (JUI-F) have excelled. Terror works.

The results show that the political field of Pakistan is now dominated by a collection of regionally strong currents. An analogous scenario in the Indian Union would be if say, a mainly north-India based party like the BJP, could win a majority in parliament if it happened to completely dominate the region. The over-centralized government at Delhi is ill-equipped to deal with such an eventuality. Fortunately, Pakistan is well prepared – having already democratized its constitution by transferring a lot of power to the provincial governments. In spite of ‘elder brother’ attitudes, the Indian Union has a thing or two to learn from Pakistan.

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Filed under Democracy, Federalism, Pakistan, Polity

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