Tipping the balance for Imran Khan

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It seems all over bar the shouting, as Pakistan goes to the polls on July 25 in anything but a level playing field manipulated to benefit Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI).

This is only the second time a democratically elected civilian government lasted its full tenure. If a transition occurred smoothly to the next elected civilian government peacefully, it would have marked a significant step forward in the country’s stuttering progress towards democracy. Instead, institutions of State, both the Army and the judiciary, have played a blatantly onesided role, going all out to ensure that the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), PML(N), is prevented from doing well.

The National Assembly has 342 members – 272 are directly elected, while 60 reserved seats for women and 10 for minorities are filled by proportional representation. Fresh delimitation of constituencies after the 2017 census leaves Punjab with 141 seats, Sindh 61 seats, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) 39 seats and Baluchistan 16 seats. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), though now merged with KP, will have 12 seats and the Islamabad Capital Area three seats. Winning 137 directly elected seats becomes crucial for forming a government.

As many as 12,570 candidates are in the fray for elections to the National and four Provincial Assemblies. The electorate is 105.96 million strong, out of a population of 207 million – 59.22 million are male voters and 46.73 million are females. Turn out in Pakistan’s elections has remained low, hovering around 45 per cent. In 2013, it increased to 53 per cent. Nomination of candidates was marked by bitterness and dissent. Every major party gave tickets to so-called ‘electables’ who control semi-rural constituencies through ties of kinship (biradari), money and patronage. They are notorious for switching loyalty to the party enjoying blessings of the country’s all powerful military establishment.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now in Adiala jail after a National Accountability (NAB) court ruled (July 6) both him and his daughter Maryam guilty for having acquired the Avenfield flats in London through ostensibly corrupt means. Though appeals against this order have been admitted in the High Court, hearings have been deferred till after the elections and bail has not been given. The Supreme Court had earlier held Nawaz unfit to hold office under Art 62 and 63 and disqualified him for life, deeming him neither ‘sadiq’ (honest) nor ‘ameen’ (truthful) for not disclosing a company retainership (‘iqama’).

In a highly unusual development, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court made bold to lament before the Rawalpindi District Bar (July 20) about blatant interference and manipulation by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in functioning of the judiciary. The Army has reacted with typical righteousness of the sinning cat who seeks repentance after killing a hundred rats (“sau choohe maar billi hajj ko chali”).

The Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) sought an enquiry into these allegations (July 22). In a denial which deluded no one, Chief Justice Sadiq Nisar promptly observed there was neither pressure nor any bias in the behaviour of higher and lesser courts.

In their election campaign, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter focused on his unfair ouster and the need to ‘honour the people’s vote’. However, their long absence in London, to be with the critically ill Kulsoom Nawaz, weakened the PML(N) campaign. Reacting to the Avenfield judgement, Nawaz again complained about the ‘conspiracy of some judges and generals’ to derail democracy. Though their return to the country on July 13 rejuvenated dispirited cadres, huge protesting crowds on the streets of Lahore could not be sustained in the face of unprecedented security measures by the Punjab caretaker administration.

In his election campaign, Imran is making a pitch for a ‘Naya Pakistan’, which shall redress decay of administrative institutions. His dogged pursuit of a one point anti-corruption agenda stands redeemed. Muck-raking on questionable personal character traits, made in recent disclosures of ex-wife Reham Khan, including those pertaining to habitual drug abuse, do not seem to have deterred his fans within the establishment!
With all the controversy surrounding the military’s machinations, the battle in Punjab may still be closely fought if PML(N) supporters make a strong show of resistance against the Sharif family arrests. Former Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif now leads the PML(N).

Though acknowledging that his party has backs to the wall, he has stopped short of openly confronting the Army. PTI may have to contend with pro-PML(N) loyalties of the local bureaucracy in Punjab – revenue functionaries, provincial police and polling / presiding officers, fostered over decades through kinship ties and patronage. How they interpret anti- PML(N) or pro- PTI signals from the military remains to be seen. Violence targeted at selected candidates of political parties has resurfaced suddenly, negating the Army’s claims of having put the scourge of terrorism to rest.

In a controlled outcome, the PTI may be able to win between 80-90 of the 141directly elected seats from Punjab, with PML(N) being put down to below 70. The People’s Party (PPP) could muster between 25-30 seats, mainly from Sindh, remaining a player in a hung parliament scenario. Independents with the ‘Jeep’ symbol may number around 25. They too could play a vital role in supporting a fragile coalition, with Imran at the helm.

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