It's taken more than 65 turbulent years — but in May Pakistanis go to the polls in the first democratic transition in the country's turbulent and bloody history. It will also be the first time a civilian government has served a full term.
But the most likely result is another messy hung parliament without a clear mandate for any particular party. The country’s military and intelligence agencies, which have ruled for half the country's history and overshadowed civilian rule for the rest are, at least, set to play a diminished role.
Whatever the outcome, the process will be typically chaotic — worryingly so for an unstable nation with nuclear weapons.
Whoever wins inherits a country that is not quite a failed state, but is certainly a “messy” one. Pakistan does not have full control of its territory — especially in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. It cannot reliably deliver basic public services, is wracked by rampant corruption and has a shambolic record of national leadership.
The front-runner is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), according to polling by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI).
Sharif was ousted in a military coup in 1999 by former military chief General Pervez Musharraf, who has just returned from self-imposed exile in Dubai and London to stand in the election.
But after five years in the wilderness, Musharraf has no popular support base and is struggling to reinvent himself in a country that has moved on in his absence and where the political power of the military-intelligence bloc is rapidly fading.
The next government takes over a nuclear arsenal with a questionable command and control structure. As recently as 2001, Pakistan and India came close to a nuclear war.
The IRI polling found 32 per cent of those polled said they would vote for PML-N in the May election, compared with 28 per cent in mid last year.
In contrast, the popularity of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto’s corruption-tainted widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, remained steady at just 14 per cent.
In between is cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Support for Khan’s party fell back to 18 per cent from 24 per cent. Khan is drawing massive crowds, especially in his home state of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous.
He could yet emerge as a kingmaker in the coalition government that will emerge after the 11 May election.
IRI’s findings are largely mirrored by those of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), an independent think-tank, in its Political Weather Forecast (pdf) for the election last month.
However, the PILDAT-Gallup Pakistan survey, conducted last month, after the IRI poll, put PPP and PTI level at 16 per cent and 15.5 per cent each.
The PPP has a dismal record on security, social issues and the economy. Under its rule, Pakistan’s relations with neighboring Afghanistan and India and one-time staunch ally the United States have withered. At the same time, religious extremism and militancy and sectarian violence — mainly against minority Hazara Shias — have increased and the country is the base for al Qaeda and other jihadist movements.
Regardless, Pakistan is on a path – if a slow, wandering and unsteady one — towards democratisation. Never since it was created by Britain partitioning its Indian empire in 1947 has a democratically elected parliament run its full five-year term in Pakistan.
Its military and politicians seem to be learning to get along with each other. And remember, this is a nation which only had its first general election in 1970. In a sign of political maturity, a caretaker prime minister, 83-year-old retired judge Mir Hazar Khan Khoso and approved by the government and the opposition, has been installed to oversee the run-up to the new government. He will appoint a small caretaker cabinet to run the country under a strict set of conditions until the new government takes over.
This means Zardari and the PPP will not have the advantage incumbents normally have in elections. While Sharif’s PML-N may well win the most seats, he is also generally viewed as arrogant and may have trouble bringing allies on board.
The deciding factor in forming Pakistan’s next government will not be so much who wins the most seats as who can forge the strongest alliances to form a stable coalition government.
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