In 2013, after Nawaz Sharif won a decisive mandate, it was believed that relations between India and Pakistan were set to improve. A promising start was made after Narendra Modi’s victory, but ties have since been in a downward spiral. Jaish-e-Muhammad’s Pathankot attack was just one of many events that undid Nawaz’s intentions to normalise relations with India.
His preoccupation with Imran Khan and his battles with the Pakistan Army over the treason trial of General Pervez Musharraf, and generally the perception that he was “pro-India”, tied Nawaz down. His efforts to retrieve lost political ground saw him praise Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. It led to his PML (N) winning elections in PoK, but did not help matters with India.
In 2017, in events flowing from the Panama papers leak, Nawaz’s tenure got cut short.
India has watched with dismay and alarm the mainstreaming, during this election, of the Jamat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba through a party called Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek. Its leader Hafiz Saeed, a UN-designated global terrorist, is not contesting, but is leading the campaign with vitriolic anti-India speeches. The party has put up candidates for 80 National Assembly (NA) seats, and is also contesting for the provincial assemblies.
An array of other religious extremists are in the fray, including the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (through a front called Pakistan Rah-e-Haq party) and the extremist Barelvi group, Tehreek-e Labbaik-e-Rasool Allah, through its electoral front, Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Imran has courted the Labbaik in some places, fearing it could cut into his party’s votes.
In the campaign of the main political parties, relations with India have not figured — except in an indirect way in Nawaz’s questioning of the role of the Army and the ‘Establishment’ in his ouster, and in his allegations that they were trying to ensure his party’s defeat.In their manifestos, the PML (N), Imran’s PTI, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have all called for dialogue with India. All three manifestos reference the UN Security Council resolutions as a framework for the resolution of the Kashmir issue.
China is the main focus of the foreign policy section in the manifestos: the PTI and PML (N) have separate sections on China-Pakistan economic co-operation.
Pakistan election big picture
The main themes revolve around Nawaz’s conviction on corruption charges, and the Army’s perceived role in his removal. Despite being knocked out of the race and in prison, Nawaz dominates the election, which in Punjab is virtually a referendum on him: vote PML (N) if you believe that he and his daughter Maryam were done in by a “judicial coup” masterminded by the Establishment; vote PTI if you believe Nawaz deserved to be removed for the wealth that he could not explain. Nawaz’s return with Maryam to face imprisonment, leaving behind his terminally ill wife in a London hospital, has breathed some life into the PML (N) campaign, which is now led by Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz.
For all Imran’s confidence that the Prime Minister’s office is now virtually his, outright victory for the PTI remains uncertain. Rows of empty chairs at a couple of rallies have frazzled him, and he has told party cadres to work harder to bring out voters.
While the election remains a close fight between the PTI and PML (N) in Punjab, other parties or groups could well end up calling the shots when the results are out. The PPP, which was a force to reckon with during Benazir Bhutto’s lifetime but which is now struggling to just hold on to its home turf, is already positioning itself. The Independents will also play an important role.
Pakistan election: Parties and provinces
Wednesday’s vote will see 272 seats being filled. An additional 10 seats are reserved for minorities and 60 for women, which are filled based on proportional representation of the 272 general seats, taking the strength of the Assembly to 342. The 272 general seats are split between the four provinces — Punjab (141), Sindh (61), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (39), Balochistan (16) — and two territories: FATA (12) and Islamabad Capital Territory (3).
Clearly then, the road to Islamabad passes through Punjab. This is where the PML (N) is strongest — in 2013, Nawaz picked up 118 of his 126 elected seats in Punjab. The PTI won 8; this time, it has made far deeper inroads, with some of those who exited the PML (N) after Nawaz’s disqualification having joined Imran. The PML (N) has never carried enough influence in Sindh, Balochistan or KPK, where the national parties have traditionally competed with regional parties.
In KPK, the terrorism-hit leadership of the secular-leftist Awami National Party has been too weak since 2013 to counter the PTI and the two big religious formations — Jamat-e-Islami and Fazlur Rehman’s Jamat-e-Ulema Islam — which are now back together in the revived Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. In 2013, the PTI won 17 of its 29 seats in KPK, and came to power in the provincial assembly.
The PPP, now led by Benazir’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, will likely keep its base in rural Sindh, where it won 30 of its 31 seats in the last election. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s hold over Karachi, Hyderabad and other cities of Sindh — it won 18 seats in 2013 — has loosened with the party’s break-up and a crackdown by the Army.
In Balochistan, the Balochistan National Party, PPP and ANP no longer hold influence, and the vote is fragmented. The newly formed, Army-backed Balochistan Awami Party is also in the race this time.
Pakistan elections: Leaders and India
As a leader who repeatedly challenged the Army, Nawaz was India’s best bet. Today, it is doubtful whether the PML (N), even if voted back to power, would take on the Army on any issue. Should the PML (N) form the government, with or without allies, Shahbaz is the likeliest candidate for PM. Like his brother, he is a votary of normalising relations with India, but he is also known to be more accommodative of the Army than Nawaz. If there is behind the scenes understanding for the release of Nawaz and Maryam, the Army will extract its pound of flesh.
Imran as PM is also hardly likely to challenge the Army, at least not in the immediate term. His personal views on India have veered from “why should we not want friendly ties with India?” to “cut trade ties with India”. While the impression is that the Army is working to put him in power, it may find him useful but does not trust him entirely because of his unpredictability.
If the verdict is unclear, one hopeful for the top job is Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan. He was Nawaz’s Interior Minister and had wanted to succeed him, but Nawaz, who distrusts him, chose Shahid Khaqan Abbasi instead. Nisar is contesting as an Independent and is likely to win. He is perhaps the leader in this election that the Army trusts most. He is a hardliner on India, and will be steered by the Army in all aspects of governance.
Bottom line: irrespective of who wins or loses, the Pakistan Army will remain the ultimate arbiter on regional policy. And even if Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek does not win a single seat, and especially if it does, Hafiz Saeed will remain the finger in India’s eye.