Simultaneous with the publication of our new briefing paper about the Pakistani parliamentary election next week, we publish a blog based on an email interview with its author, Ann Wilkens, a former Swedish Ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan. She says that the election may result in a shift from centre-left to centre-right although its outcome is difficult to predict, that violence in two provinces might lead to the Pashtun vote not reflecting their real preferences and that the democratic process in Pakistan needs more time – but also that it is unclear whether this time is available given the various challenges Pakistan is facing. (For details on those, refer to the paper.) She also does not expect a change in Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. (Questions by AAN’s Thomas Ruttig.)
Why are the coming elections important?
What makes these elections a potential landmark is that – if everything goes well – it will be the first time in Pakistan´s history that one elected government is succeeded by another. That could be a great boost to the democratic process, which has been so slow and cumbersome ever since the partition of what was then British India in 1947.
In the midst of violence and turmoil, the carrying out of credible elections with good participation will also, in and by itself, be quite an achievement. In that sense, it will gauge the willingness of Pakistanis to take the country further along the bumpy road of democracy. So we actually come back to the point of the importance of a continued democratic process.
Who will win, who will gain?
Polls are pointing in different directions and are probably quite unreliable in any case. A fair prediction is that the main traditional parties will still come out at the forefront but that there will be a shift in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, at the cost of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by President Asif Zardari. The Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, will participate for the first time as a major player and probably make some inroads.(1) But it would be a surprise if PTI is able to change the traditional political landscape in a more fundamental way.
Who will gain is, of course, quite another question. Again, coming back to my main point, it is my hope that the democratic process will gain. But it will still take a long time to go from the dynastic politics that characterises the major parties to grass-root democracy.
Will the next civilian government have more influence on crucial policies, like on Afghanistan?
Since the beginning, Pakistan´s regional policy, including vis-à-vis Afghanistan as well as India, has remained in the domain of the security forces. The outgoing PPP government tried to bring it under democratic control but failed. It is hard to see that any other political constellation would be more successful in this endeavour in the short run and as long as the development in Afghanistan remains as dicey as it looks now. So one thing that is essential for increased civilian influence over the army and the ISI is more stability in Afghanistan.
Internally, the army has retained a role as the last resort when things derail, or are perceived to derail. In order to change that, more confidence in the capacity of civilian government is needed. So again, we come back to the main point: the democratic process in Pakistan needs to grow stronger and that will take time. With so many high-risk factors in the political environment, internally as well externally, the question is whether that time will be available.
What is the impact of the Pakistani Taleban’s attacks on secular parties?
They have, of course, made it much more difficult for the targeted parties (notably the PPP, the Awami National Party, ANP, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, MQM)(2) to effectively carry out their campaigns. To what degree that will influence the election result remains to be seen but there is a tangible risk that, for instance, the vote of the Pashtun population will not reflect actual political preferences. At the same time, the ANP appears to have lost part of the sympathy it mustered in the election in 2008 for reasons only partly related to Taleban intimidation. It is largely perceived as having failed to exercise a strong government role in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province where it has been unable to deliver stability.
Will PML-N, if it wins, ally itself with Islamists known as supporters of the Afghan Taleban?
Nawaz Sharif is seen as close to the religious parties but I don´t think he would ally his party with them – unless they have an unprecedented success in the election, which, again, I don´t think is very likely. So far, the Pakistani electorate has turned out to be largely pragmatic, rather than ideology-driven. But the large number of first-time voters in this election could change that pattern so we do have a question mark.
In any case, if Nawaz Sharif comes out as the winner, the political point of gravity will shift from centre-left to centre-right and, in that shift, it is reasonable to assume a greater understanding of at least the religious aspects of the Taleban´s agenda. When it comes to regional policy, Pakistan´s position that the Afghan Taleban should be accepted as part of the solution in Afghanistan would not change – it would rather be reinforced.
(1) PTI had boycotted the 2008 parliamentary elections. Before, Imran Khan was his party’s only MP (elected in Mianwali).
(2) The Awami National Party is traditionally the strongest of the Pashtun non-Islamist parties and is mainly influential in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province as well as in other Pashtun ‘pockets’ across the country. MQM is the party of the Mohajir, the descendants of those who left India for Pakistan after partition and has its stronghold in Karachi.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020