Pakistan Election 2018: PML-N facing tough fight in Punjab, but overperformance by PTI could indicate poll rigging

With the stroke of midnight on Monday, campaigning for the Pakistan general elections—rallies, fights and the usual promises—ended. It's probably not the last day for a good shootout between rival parties, but that’s, strictly speaking, not under the control of the Election Commissioner. With general elections just a day away, the focus of attention of both national and international media will naturally be the state of affairs in the ‘kingmaker’ that is the province of Punjab.

File image PTI chief of Imran Khan. Getty Images

File image of Imran Khan. Getty Images.

The province’s status arises from the fact that as the most populous state, it has the largest number of seats in the National Assembly (141). It also has the largest number of business families, who have invested directly and indirectly in the country’s politics. An example of this is, of course, the Sharif family, but there are others like Mian Mohammad Nasha, head of the powerful Nishat group, with assets worth more than $9.6 billion. Gap Inc and Levi Strauss for instance, are major customers.

Gap alone buys 8-10 million metres of Nishat cloth a year. Another example is Asad Umar, the contender from Islamabad, a corporate boss-turned-politician. There are several others of the same ilk, but the point is that Gallup predictions and poll prognostications will only go so far. The polls in certain parts of Punjab have always swung largely according to the survival books of these big businesses, once the playing field of the Sharif family. This vote bank is unlikely to shift much, but the fact remains that big business prefers candidates who are looked upon kindly by the establishment. It's no accident that Asad Umar is campaigning on a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ticket.

A second class of people—particularly in specific districts which were once the stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz—prefer a pro-establishment candidate. The Sharif family’s central plank of victimisation by the army is not likely to win friends and influence people in areas such as Chakwal, Jhelum and Rawalpindi.

These are the main recruiting centres for the army, and criticism of the Deep State is unlikely to sit well when sons, brothers and fathers are receiving their pay cheques from the army coffers. There are also the retirees settled in these districts, and one of them, a Major (retd) Tahir Sadiq Khan is—no surprise—a PTI candidate. The shift from the PML(N) to the PTI has occurred in these provinces.

A third interesting and relatively new aspect to Punjab is the rise of its middle class. Credit Suisse reported some years ago that Pakistan has the 18th largest middle class in the world. This is also backed by the State Bank of Pakistan, which estimates the country’s middle to upper class numbers at nearly 42 percent of the population.

The more mundane Household Integrated Economic Survey of Pakistan shows a slower growth, but identifies Punjab as having the largest middle class share (59 percent), and that too urban. This has, so far, been the natural constituency of Imran Khan's PTI, which based itself on educated and fairly well-heeled voters who fervently backed his anti-corruption campaign. This is all very well in terms of Facebook campaigns.

But this requires a specific shift in attitudes on the ground, and that brings in the fourth factor: The established fact that major politicians generally win from the same constituency, and do this for years on end. For instance, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his family have been winning from Rawalpindi district since 1985: Barring just one instance in 2002.

This is not just dynastic politics. It is the perception of the voters that their fortunes lie in the continued prosperity of the family that represents them, an aspect also common in India. This is a factor that should—by all natural laws of electoral practice—have benefitted the PLM(N). But even here, the Deep State has interfered as much as it could.

The surprise detention of Hanif Abbasi, a key official of the PML(N) in Punjab, in an ephedrine quota case days before the elections is one example. Abbasi’s loss is the gain of Sheikh Rashid, an out and out establishment proxy. Though the Lahore High Court upheld the decision to stay elections in the constituency, it is these small games of the establishment that have largely gone unnoticed outside the country, and by most analysts in India.

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The fourth issue is one that has received the most attention. This is the issue of the emergence of a new religious Right as political entities. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba—through its front the Allah-o-Akbar-Tehreek, the Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and the heterogeneous Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) are far more active on the ground than the established parties.

For instance, the Barelvi group had a massive rally in Rawalpindi on 15 July, the strength of which seems to dwarf the efforts of the others. Remember that the Labbaik is fighting national elections for the first time, and as everyone knows, it’s the length of the purse that determines the size of the support. Go figure.

In the final analysis, the religious Right will probably cross its previous records of representation to an extent, but that is not its main effect. Recently, Imran was heard defending the horrific blasphemy laws at a podium in Islamabad. In his own home province, he insists on defending the Taliban and their ilk.

Similarly, the PML(N) rehabilitated the highly sectarian and murderous Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Spooked by the rise of these small extremist parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami has lent itself to the ranks of the MMA. In sum, the rise of the extreme religious Right has already made its effect felt in Pakistan, and Punjab in particular. That effect is to drive the political discourse more and more towards extremist thought.

In conclusion, the numbers in the media is certainly not good news for the PML(N). Pakistani analysts note the 21 defections and 11 who moved out as Independents. That’s a straight 32 at the national level. The latest polls by the Herald and the highly regarded Sustainable Development Policy Institute indicate a tight fight between the PTI and the PML(N) across the country. In Punjab, its survey notes a 33 percent and 40 percent support respectively for the two.

However, there is an “Undecided” group – nearly 52 percent—may just swing the vote towards either. There is another approach however. Electoral logic—which assumes some minimal degree of fairness—that a jump for PTI from the pathetic eight seats it got in 2013, cannot dramatically increase to five times that number. It did a remarkable job even in getting these: And 19 percent of the vote.

But PML (N), with its domination of the populous Central Punjab may still get more seats, even if a lower vote share. If the PTI is able to jump from eight seats to a majority: or even four times that number, then there would be clear evidence the elections have been rigged outright.

Certainly, there have been instances where an established party has returned from virtually zero to a majority. The triumphant return of the Pakistan Peoples Party after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was once such. This time around, there is no such ‘breakout factor’. If the PTI wins, even with outside support, then the polls have been rigged from day one.


Updated Date: Jul 24, 2018 20:46 PM

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