Farzana Shaikh
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Pakistan will go to the polls on 11 May to elect a new parliament and four new provincial assemblies.   

The elections come against the background of three unprecedented events that promise to mark 2013 as a watershed year: a constitutional handover of power from one elected government to another; the prospect of a historic third prime ministerial term for the leader of one of the country’s two main political parties; and the arrest and electoral disqualification of a former army chief on charges of treason. 

These events all spell an uncertain transition for Pakistan at a time when the drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan in 2014 is expected to re-fashion the regional environment.  

The political landscape

Attention is most keenly focused on the outcome of the general elections. While the majority of polls predict a hung parliament, they also suggest a pronounced shift to the right of the political spectrum. If so this would leave the former liberal coalition headed by the Pakistan People’s (PPP) and its allies, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), out in the cold.  

Their position has been made all the more untenable by a campaign of unrelenting violence mounted by the Pakistan Taliban, who have accused the former coalition partners of promoting 'secular' and 'un-Islamic' policies. A recent statement by the current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, that coincided with the start of the official election campaign in which he declared that 'Islam could never be taken out of Pakistan', has fuelled fears it has given license to militant groups. 

'Bloodiest election'

The Taliban have killed scores of workers belonging to the PPP, the ANP and the MQM in recent days and systematically targeted their party offices and rallies, making this Pakistan’s bloodiest election campaign on record. It is now widely believed that, in the absence of any real realistic gains in store for religious parties, the Taliban may be skewing the election results in favour of mainstream parties, which have adopted a softer line on militancy.  

Among the political parties that appear to have escaped the wrath of the Taliban is the current front-runner for power, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), loyal to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Dominant in the key province of Punjab, the party combines a strong pro-business agenda with a socially conservative outlook. More controversially, it has harboured close links with a number of banned militant sectarian groups that boast extensive networks in Punjab.

No less remarked upon for its relatively benign treatment at the hands of the Taliban is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice, led by the former cricketing star, Imran Khan. It is expected to make strong inroads in urban Punjab and the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where it stands to challenge the PML (N) and the ANP, respectively. Projected by his supporters as a political mould breaker, Khan has attracted almost as much attention for his campaign against US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as for his reluctance to speak out against militancy. 

If however, as the polls predict, the PML (N) should emerge as the largest party, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif will have the distinction of becoming prime minister for an unprecedented third term (he held the post in 1993 and 1997). It will also mark an extraordinary political comeback for a leader driven into exile in 1999, after being overthrown in a military coup led by the then army chief, General Parvez Musharraf.   

'Uncharted territory'

By contrast, General Musharraf's arrest and continued detention upon his return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile to contest the elections, represents an extraordinary reversal of fortune. It also heralds a unique moment. The decision by the courts to pursue legal action against Musharraf over a variety of cases – ranging from his dismissal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court in 2007, his order to kill the Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti, and his failure to protect former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 – marks the first time an army chief has been forced to submit to a court of law. It takes Pakistan into uncharted territory.

The army is now presented with an acute dilemma: to act in defence of Musharraf and be accused of the political interference it claims to have renounced, or to endure the humiliation of one of its top generals being brought to account in a criminal court of law. So far there is little indication that the army is ready to accept rules set by judges or to stand by and allow politicians to bring the military into disrepute.

The impending drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan means these concerns are likely to weigh more heavily. With uncertainty over both its future role in the region and about how best to protect its interests at home and abroad, the army may favour a weak governing coalition as its preferred electoral outcome.

At a time when Pakistanis appear unwilling to welcome yet another military take-over (and when stiff international sanctions could be the price to pay) a government with a fragile majority could be the next best option for an army that is still averse to civilian control. A weak government would not only be powerless to question the army’s long standing dominance over national security and foreign affairs, it would also enable the army to exercise (much as at present) de facto power with none of the responsibility.