Pakistan elections: what you need to know

When the Pakistani government completed a full five-year term on March 16 and stepped down in preparations for elections, the country reached a turning point in the history of its relatively adolescent democracy. It was the first time an administration had ever completed its term in office without military interference. This could be a time of change in the political culture of Pakistan. But whether or not this achievement foreshadows real change will be determined when (and if) Pakistanis go to the polls on May 11 to elect the national and provincial assemblies, and whether or not a smooth transition of power can be achieved.

Developments over the past several months in the electoral process have been promising. But this progress has taken place in the shadow of chronic insecurity, with attacks and threats on political parties made by the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatist groups happening regularly. With days to go, there is still fear that elections could be postponed due to the high level of insecurity across the country.

The outcome of the elections remains unpredictable, yet highly anticipated. Regional and global players, not least of all the United States, have strategic interests to maintain with the next administration. Of course, most is at stake for Pakistan itself, which has a chance to not only reassert its sense of legitimacy and integrity in the international arena, but amongst its own population.

Likely Outcome

The success of these elections may be defined by the parties contesting as victory at the polls, but for Pakistanis and the country as a whole, victory will be defined by what happens in the months after the polls close.

While there are numerous parties contesting elections that garner much local support in the provinces, the three main frontrunners at the national level are the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) headed by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by the incumbent president’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose head, Imran Khan, is a famous ex-cricket player.

But it is unlikely that any of these parties will win a majority, which could mean a slow and complicated start for the new administration.

According to a recent IRI poll, 32% of respondents intended to vote for PML-N, with the PPP and PTI nearly tying for second place.  Low voter turnout coupled with a politically-fragmented population means that a coalition government and hung parliament will most likely be in the cards, with PML-N leading the coalition.

Pakistan’s largest political party, the incumbent PPP, will most likely lag behind at the polls, as the country has seen an increase in domestic terrorism, economic troubles, and US drone strikes during its term. The PTI, a relative newcomer to the mainstream political scene, has been riding a wave of popularity with the youth in large part due to leader Imran Khan’s anti-American rhetoric, but the party may find this demographic will not deliver at the polls on election day.

Ismail Khan, a political analyst who works for an NGO in Islamabad, believes the possibility of a coalition presents the main obstacle to a smooth and quick transition of power and a functioning legislature: “The key challenge will be how the winner, or the major political party, goes with its allies to rule the country. This especially applies to PML-N.”

After its government was deposed by the military in 1999, PML-N has taken a harder line toward the military and a more diplomatic tone on India, while maintaining its appeal to right-wing voters and its main constituency in the Punjab, where Shahbaz Sharif (Nawaz’s brother) is chief minister. According to Khan, “the big challenge will be not to let this fissure erupt, which seems superficial now, while still performing on the foreign policy end.”


A coalition government headed by PML-N seems likely, but several factors are at play that make this a difficult prediction to make. Insecurity, low voter turnout, and fragmentation among parties and voters alike are all factors that will have a major effect on the election results.

The most immediate challenge is getting voters to the polls as scheduled on May 11. Frequent attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and separatist parties threaten to delay elections, and at the very least, to deny parties and voters a level playing field. According to Human Rights Watch, over 20 attacks have been carried out since the campaign season began in April, killing 70 and injuring about 300. Attacks have been launched by the TTP against secular political parties, including the Pashtun nationalist party, Awami National Party (APN), which controls the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, as well as the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the PPP.

These attacks not only pose a threat to timely elections, but also greatly discourage voters from turning up to vote and shake their confidence in their political leaders. For example, the PPP has not been able to hold campaign rallies for fear of attack. The party launched their election campaign with a video message from the incumbent president’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is currently outside of the country.

The hostilities are also rooted in the provinces, namely Balochistan, where separatist insurgent groups have launched attacks and threats against those participating in the elections, including teachers performing election duties.

Voter turnout in 2008 was relatively low for the region, at around 44%.  With insecurity already threatening a decent turnout, every vote will matter hugely, particularly since the political parties contesting arranged themselves in such a way that could fragment the voting population. Several smaller parties, particularly right wing groups, who usually throw their support behind mainstream parties are running independently this year. This would usually work in favor of the PPP, who has significant support in every province, according to Khan. But the party’s absence on the campaign trail and muddied record from the past five years has left PPP supporters disillusioned. “Ethnic nationalism is going to a play a role, especially in Balochistan,” Khan says, as no main party has managed to capture significant national support.

A glimmer of hope in this bleak election landscape is the much-heralded ‘youth vote’—a demographic the PTI is banking on. When the electoral roll was computerized for the first time, it revealed that about 30% of the 85 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30.

While much hype has been generated in the media about the youth vote, it’s unlikely that the under-30s will turn up in droves at the polls. Aside from concerns over security, many politically-engaged youth residing in urban centers for work or study are registered to vote in their home villages.

Memona Naseer, a 23-year-old working for USAID in Islamabad, and Mahak Ali, her 22-year-old colleague, said not only can they not return to their home villages to vote, for logistical reasons, but that none of the candidates appeal to them anyway as they fail to address issues of human rights. This is one example of how the youth vote is just as susceptible to the obstacles faced by voters at large in the country.

But the youth might still deliver, as Maria Kamal, an assistant editor at The News based in Karachi, believes. “A majority of young Pakistanis consider Khan something of a savior and a national hero. I am not sure how widespread and evenly distributed this support is across Pakistan,” says Kamal. “Khan has galvanized considerable support among the youth, which I believe will reflect in a higher turnout of young voters this year.”

US and regional relations

Regional powers, and the US, have their respective interests at stake in these elections.
PML-N is known to be close to Saudi Arabia, to the extent that when Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to life in prison after being deposed by the military in 1999, King Fahd intervened to ensure Sharif’s exile in Saudi Arabia. A PML-N-led government might fare well for the United States, who was irked at President Zardari’s partnership with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the construction of a Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline (which is scheduled for completion in just over a year). The US portended that it might place sanctions on Pakistan in retribution, but nothing has come of that…yet.

Under Zardari’s rule, the country has also given control of its deep-sea port in Gwadar to the Chinese, another move that raised eyebrows with the US and India. To whom these projects will be handed over to, or how they will be dealt with, remains to be seen, though the pipeline would help improve Pakistan’s dire need for energy resources, an issue the PML-N has vowed to address.

Regardless of which party comes out on top at the polls, perhaps the easiest relationship to speculate about is with the United States. Despite the role that anti-American rhetoric has played in gaining approval from voters, it will remain just that, a stalwart feature of the love-hate relationship that Pakistan and the US maintain out of necessity. The US will want to keep launching drone strikes, ensure that NATO supply routes into Afghanistan remain open, and continue to put pressure on Pakistan to combat insurgents spilling over the border from Afghanistan. Because the US holds the purse strings, the relationship will most likely continue as per the status quo.

Relations with Afghanistan hinge on the outcome of that country’s 2014 elections, as well as the situation on the ground that the US will leave behind as they withdraw. Perhaps because Pakistan’s decades-old deal of covertly funding the Taliban backfired into a domestic terrorism crisis, Pakistan is now pursuing increased relations with northern-based (non-Pashtun) political groups. But more than likely, the next five years will see much of the same–disputes over the contested Durand Line, and cold-shouldered diplomatic relations. The longevity of this type of relationship also depends on the success or failure of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. If full-fledged civil war erupts in Afghanistan again, which is unlikely as the US will taper its departure, increased support to militant Islamist groups fighting in Afghanistan could ensue.

The real victory

While the results remain unknown and the obstacles inevitable, how Pakistan approaches and executes the process of elections is the most crucial focal point. Most Pakistanis are more concerned about a peaceful and legitimate process being achieved than a certain political party coming to power.

The real victory in Pakistan’s 2013 elections will be in the process, not the product. The country’s ability to carry out transparent, legitimate, and timely elections while ensuring relative security, and also execute a smooth transition of power will be a milestone in Pakistani political history, and a turning point for the country, regardless of which party is the victor.

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  • About the autor

    Lael Mohib has an MA from Boston University in International Relations, with a focus on South and Central Asia. She currently works on media development projects in Afghanistan.

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