August 9, 2013

Pakistan’s political picture

The emerging contours of post-election politics in Pakistan raise the potential for sharper political conflicts should the PML-N push its formal powers past their contestable limits.

On May 11, Pakistan’s national parliamentary elections swept the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) back into power for the third time. The PML-N victory — secured in a broadly competitive contest that recorded the highest level of Pakistani voter turnout in decades — was resounding, as it received close to double the national vote share of its next closest competitor, and secured an absolute majority in parliament after the dust from independent candidates’ post-election bandwagon-hopping settled.


Success at the polls was echoed this past week with the election by the new parliament and provincial assemblies of the PML-N’s nominee for the Pakistani presidency. President-elect Mamnoon Hussain, a Karachi businessman who briefly served as Sindh governor in 1999, possesses no independent political support base of his own and assumes an office whose formal powers have largely been curtailed to the ceremonial and procedural. PML-N party chief Nawaz Sharif now appears to enjoy a position of comparative political stability and consolidated authority that his recent predecessors in the prime minister’s office could only dream of.

The PML-N’s position comes at the expense of a divided political opposition. The previous Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP)- led government ultimately survived through compromise and concession with both elected and unelected challengers in order to complete its five-year term in office. But consumed as it was by the demands of coalition politics, the PPP limped across the electoral finish line under the weight of a stagnating economy, its representation at the national level reduced to its traditional Sindhi stronghold and a holdover plurality in the senate.

Imran Khan’s upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) dominated much of the pre-election media landscape and fired the passions of a contingent of new voters, but the party’s ability to translate that into significant electoral wins was ultimately confined to Khyber Paktunkhwa province. Khan himself was sidelined for weeks after sustaining neck and back injuries sustained during a rally in April, depriving the party of its standard bearer in the final weeks of the campaign and in the immediate aftermath of the vote. After divisive intra-party elections in April, gaps within the party organisation are still evident, notably between the new Khyber Paktunkhwa administration headed by chief minister Pervaiz Khattak and some of the party’s more ideological elements.

Approximately three months out from the elections, with the annual summer and Ramazan- induced political lull approaching an end, the limits of the Sharif government’s mandate are beginning to show, however, as opposition parties have begun to find their footing. After Pakistan’s Supreme Court accepted a PML-N petition to move up the date for the presidential vote by a week (overriding the initial Pakistan Election Commission-issued schedule) the PPP responded with a protest boycott in the assemblies. Although the outcome of the vote was never in doubt, the PPP’s secretary general Latif Khosa accused the court of colluding with the PML-N to interfere in the presidential contest.

The PTI’s supporters were principally drawn from the urban educated classes, many of whom had in the past shown little interest in advancing their interests through electoral politics. Although this cohort may form only a small fraction of the overall population, should Imran Khan manage to retain its support, it has the potential to play an outsized role in shaping elite politics, particularly through its influence within the media and social media environment in which the governing PML-N must now contend. After returning from his recovery abroad, Khan renewed complaints that the judiciary and the Election Commission had failed to address allegations of fraud in the May elections invited contempt of court proceedings from Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Preliminary contempt hearings were held on August 2, during which Khan denied any intention to malign the judiciary but stood by his complaints. Further hearings are now set for the end of the month.

Although these allegations of fraud by losing parties are hardly unique in Pakistan’s electoral history, the combined (if not closely coordinated) PPP and PTI critique represents a challenge to the Chaudhry court’s efforts to publicly position itself as an independent actor with the authority and legitimacy to oversee the actions of the executive branch. After clashing repeatedly with the PPP and Musharraf governments over the past six years, Chaudhry himself is due to retire by the end of the year. The prospect that the judiciary may shift back into quiescence and remove one of the few formal checks on the PML-N executive appears to have invoked latent fears among the opposition parties of Punjabi dominance, sparking the latest efforts by the opposition to reassert itself. The PPP in particular has begun to voice concerns that the PML-N is overriding the interests of the smaller provinces, whose autonomy from the federal government was strengthened with the compromise passage of the 18th Amendment to the Pakistani constitution in 2010.

After years of contests within the Pakistani system between elected and unelected officials seeking to define the limits of their decision-making authority, the PML-N’s solid victory in the May polls has raised the prospect of an empowered prime minister with a strong political base in the country’s largest province. Its policies on how to respond to the threat of domestic militancy remain vague and ill-defined, and Sharif has approached relations with the military establishment with caution, maintaining a united public front on Afghanistan policy and moving slow on the potentially inflammatory treason prosecution of former president Musharraf. But the PML-N is keenly aware of the high public expectations it faces to turn around the country’s economy, and has prioritised take steps in that regard, particularly focusing on the revival of the energy sector.

The PPP and PTI opposition currently remain divided, and the PML-N enjoys a considerably stronger position in power than its predecessors from which to begin tackle these and other issues. But even in this position, its authority will be constrained, raising the potential for sharper political conflicts in the coming months and years of its term should it push its formal powers past their contestable limits.

Photo: CeeKay’s Pix

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