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Who are the frontrunners in Pakistan’s crucial election?

February 7, 2024 at 10:10 am

Police talk with party members as they take security measures near PTI’s building after Ex-Pakistani Premier Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi are sentenced to 14 years in jail in the state gifts case in Islamabad, Pakistan on January 31, 2024 [Muhammed Semih Uğurlu – Anadolu Agency]

Millions of Pakistanis will head to the polls on Thursday amid a grinding combination of economic and political crises. Over 128 million people, 45 per cent of them between the ages of 18 and 35, are eligible to cast their ballots to elect a new government for a five-year term.

Thousands of candidates — independents and those affiliated with parties — are vying for 266 seats in the National Assembly, the 336-member lower house of parliament. The remaining 70 seats are reserved for women and minorities. A party requires 169 seats to form the government with a simple majority.

Pakistan follows a parliamentary form of democracy, where the lower house elects the prime minister, who himself must be a member of the National Assembly. The four provincial assemblies elect their respective leaders, or chief ministers, in the same manner. No prime minister has completed a full five-year tenure in Pakistan’s history of more than 75 years.

Parties can forge an alliance in parliament to form a coalition government, but no individual parliamentarian can vote against his or her party for the prime minister’s election, according to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

North-east Punjab, the country’s most populous and richest province, has the most seats, with 141, whereas mineral-rich Balochistan, the smallest province population-wise but largest in terms of area, has only 16 National Assembly seats. Sindh, the second-largest province located in the country’s south, and north-west Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have 61 and 45 National Assembly seats, respectively. The federal capital Islamabad has three National Assembly constituencies.

This breakdown essentially gives Punjab, which has some 60 per cent of Pakistan’s total population of around 240 million, the power to decide which party forms the federal government.

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While over 100 political parties are contesting the election, a tough fight is expected between three mainstream forces: Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N); Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI); and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). All three have their particular strongholds when it comes to provinces: Punjab for PML-N; KP for PTI; and Sindh for the PPP.

Led by three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the centre-right PML-N is being viewed as the favourite to form or lead the next government. The party is one of the several breakaway groups of Pakistan’s founding party, which was established in 1906 before the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

Founded in 1993, PML-N has had four stints in government. However, the party has completed its constitutional five-year term just once, from 2013 to 2018.

Two of Sharif’s previous governments were dismissed, on corruption charges in 1992 and through a bloodless military coup in 1999. He was disqualified from office by the country’s top court in 2017 and subsequently sentenced to 10 and seven years in jail in two corruption cases stemming from the whistle-blower Panama Papers scandal.

In 2019, Sharif went to London for medical treatment but only returned late last year. Both his convictions and lifetime disqualifications have been overturned by the appellant court and parliament, respectively.

The party has strong roots in Punjab, especially in the industrial part of the province. It also has a solid vote bank in parts of KP and Balochistan, but mainly relies on Punjab.

The PTI, meanwhile, is considered to be the only party with roots in all four provinces. Founded by the country’s now jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 1996, it emerged as the largest party in the 2018 election and formed a coalition government. Khan was ousted through a no-trust vote in April 2022.

After a cumbersome legal battle, the PTI has lost its traditional electoral symbol, a cricket bat, a nod to Khan’s career as a World Cup-winning captain of the Pakistan national team. The party now has no option but to field its candidates as independents.

Khan himself is languishing in a jail in Rawalpindi, facing multiple civil and criminal cases. He was sentenced to a total of 31 years last week in three cases accused of exposing state secrets, illegally purchasing and selling gifts he received as prime minister, and violating Islamic marriage law.

He was also sentenced to three years in prison and subsequently disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan last year in a case where he was accused of concealing details of gifts he received as prime minister. That sentence, however, was suspended by the high court.

Hundreds of PTI supporters are also in jail following violent protests and attacks on military installations in May last year after Khan’s brief arrest in a corruption case in Islamabad.

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The latest surveys show that Sharif and Khan are neck-and-neck at the moment, with the latter enjoying an overall edge. However, in bellwether Punjab, Sharif has a slim lead over his arch-rival.

The PTI, according to surveys, is in a commanding position in KP, a province it has governed for two consecutive terms. In Punjab, though, it is the only party that poses a serious threat to the PML-N, despite the fact that it is not contesting the election as a party.

The centre-left PPP has ruled Pakistan four times since 1970. Founded by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967, the party came into power just three years later in 1970. Bhutto’s government was toppled in July 1977 by the then army chief General Zia-ul-Haq on the charge of rigging the elections held that year. He was later hanged for murder in 1979.

His daughter Benazir Bhutto came into power twice, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. Both of her governments were dismissed on corruption charges before completing their constitutional terms. Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in 2007 during an election rally. Her party is now led jointly by her widower, former President Asif Ali Zardari, and her son, ex-Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

The PPP came into power in the 2008 election and completed its five-year term in 2013. While it was once Pakistan’s most popular party, it has now almost been wiped out in Punjab, KP and Balochistan amid a series of corruption scandals. However, it still has a strong vote bank in Sindh, where it has ruled for three consecutive terms from 2008 to 2023.

It is again predicted to be the single largest party in Sindh, although it is facing a strong challenge from the mainstream religiopolitical Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party and the Grand Democratic Alliance, a conglomerate of regional forces from different parts of the province.

Apart from the three main players, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) and JI are expected to win constituencies in pockets of KP, Balochistan and Sindh, particularly in the commercial capital Karachi, where JI has covered sizable ground in recent local polls.

As far as the overall outcome is concerned, political analysts say that there is a good chance of a coalition government, with no party being able to secure the magic number of 169 seats in the National Assembly.

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