Pakistan is set to see only the second civilian transfer of power in its 71-year history as it goes to polls on Wednesday after a high-voltage campaign that was marred by violence, including an IS-claimed attack on July 13 that killed nearly 150 people, and dominated by political controversies over the arrest of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Not one Pakistani prime minister has completed their term yet.
The run-up to the elections for 272 general seats of the National Assembly and 577 general seats of the four provincial assemblies – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan — have seen a massive crackdown on media and allegations that the military was meddling in the poll process.
The election is expected to be a tight race between Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. If neither party wins a clear majority, the support of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party can be crucial to forming a government.
* When will the voting start? When are the results expected?
Polling will begin at 8 am and close at 6 pm across the 85,000 booths on July 25. The counting will be done on the spot and results will be announced within 24 hours after the polling. About 4,00,000 police officers and 3,71,000 army troops have been deployed across the country, the largest military deployment in the country for elections.
* How many seats are up for grabs?
About 106 million voters will exercise their franchise for two seats in each constituency: one for the National Assembly (the lower house of the parliament) and one for their Provincial Assembly. Pakistan has four provinces — Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The elections will see 272 National Assembly 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 only 8 seats.
The Provincial Assembly consists of 577 general seats, while 151 seats are reserved for minorities and women, taking the total strength to 728. For the complete breakup check the table below.
* Which are the main parties contesting the elections?
The election will be a direct battle between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s conservative, right-leaning Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The Bilawal Bhutto Zardari-led centre-left, secular Pakistan Peoples Party, which was a force to reckon with during Benazir Bhutto’s lifetime but which is now struggling to hold on to its home turf, may at best play the role of kingmaker if neither of the two mainstream parties gets a majority.
This year’s elections will see the debut of proscribed terrorist and 26/11 Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafeez Saeed in the political landscape, albeit not directly. After the Election Commission of Pakistan denied registration to the banned Milli Muslim League (MML) — the political face of Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat-ud Dawa — the party fielded its candidates under the banner of Allahu Akbar Tehreek (AAT). The party has put up candidates for 80 National Assembly (NA) seats, and is also contesting for the provincial assemblies.
* What have opinion polls predicted?
The PML-N’s stronghold is Punjab province – Nawaz Sharif’s homeland and the country’s richest and most populous province, but the party is expected to lose ground to the PTI. Many PML-N candidates switched loyalties before the polls, either joining the PTI or running as independents. The PML-N has never carried enough influence in Sindh, Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In Sindh province, the PPP is expected to hold on to its rural base, but there will be an interesting fight for the 21 seats in Karachi, the provincial capital, and the country’s largest city. 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 breakup and a crackdown by the Army.
According to a nationwide survey, PTI is leading with 29 per cent, followed by PML-N at 25 per cent and PPP at 20 per cent.
* What significance does the election hold for India?
In the campaign of the main political parties, relations with India have not figured. 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.
If the PML-N wins, India will breathe a sigh of relief, given Imran Khan’s perceived closeness with the military. If PML-N forms the government, Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz is the likeliest candidate for PM even though the ousted premier is likely to pull the strings from behind. Like Nawaz, Shahbaz is also a votary of normalising relations with India, but he is also known to be more accommodating of the Army.
* What are the issues facing Pakistan elections and how will it impact foreign policy?
Pakistan is reeling under an economic and currency crisis. Its GDP growth is predicted at 3 per cent in the next two years, down from 5.8 per cent in 2018. Spiraling currencies, high inflation and issues surrounding external debt have been a persistent issue. As tensions with the United States have intensified — particularly over accusations that it is not doing enough to curb terror havens — Pakistan has increasingly turned to China for aid and support.
Earlier this year, US suspended $255 million funds to Pakistan for military equipment and $700 million under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) – paid to Pakistan for conducting operations against militant groups.
In July, China lent Pakistan, which it calls its “all-weather ally”, $1 billion to boost foreign exchange reserves. That takes China’s financial assistance to $5 billion in the 2017-18 financial year, about half of Pakistan’s foreign funding, with most of the funds directed towards the strategically important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But it is also increasing the amount of debt Pakistan is racking up with China.
Pakistan’s relationship with India is also at an all-time low, especially over the issue of Kashmir, and other issues like the delay in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks trial and the Kulbhushan Jadhav case.