Pakistan’s momentous elections: Winners, losers, and what it all means

Pakistanis went to the polls on May 11th to participate in landmark national and provincial elections. Violent attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency disproportionately targeted vocal opponents of the TTP prior to the vote, and clashes between rival candidates continued on election day itself. But despite the threats and disputed results in some constituencies ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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Pakistanis went to the polls on May 11th to participate in landmark national and provincial elections. Violent attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency disproportionately targeted vocal opponents of the TTP prior to the vote, and clashes between rival candidates continued on election day itself. But despite the threats and disputed results in some constituencies - particularly the country's largest city of Karachi - this appears to have been the freest and fairest election in Pakistan since the country's first democratic national election in 1970. Its legitimacy was enhanced by being one of the most widely contested elections in Pakistan's history, with all major national and regional political parties taking part in what appears to have been a genuinely competitive contest.

During the campaign period, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan in particular seized media headlines and public attention with calls for change and efforts to mobilize the country's large youth vote. But given the PTI's disappointing electoral performance relative to expectations, credit for the high levels of participation - currently projected by the Election Commission at around 60% nationwide, considerably more than the 44% reported in 2008 - must also be shared more broadly. Beyond the party campaigns, a diverse and vibrant array of media coverage and social media participation, a caretaker government and Election Commission administration of the polls that were broadly accepted as neutral, and public commitments by the military establishment not to intervene all appear to have contributed to voters' determination to take part in the elections - despite Taliban threats and calls for a boycott.

Pakistanis went to the polls on May 11th to participate in landmark national and provincial elections. Violent attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency disproportionately targeted vocal opponents of the TTP prior to the vote, and clashes between rival candidates continued on election day itself. But despite the threats and disputed results in some constituencies – particularly the country’s largest city of Karachi – this appears to have been the freest and fairest election in Pakistan since the country’s first democratic national election in 1970. Its legitimacy was enhanced by being one of the most widely contested elections in Pakistan’s history, with all major national and regional political parties taking part in what appears to have been a genuinely competitive contest.

During the campaign period, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan in particular seized media headlines and public attention with calls for change and efforts to mobilize the country’s large youth vote. But given the PTI’s disappointing electoral performance relative to expectations, credit for the high levels of participation – currently projected by the Election Commission at around 60% nationwide, considerably more than the 44% reported in 2008 – must also be shared more broadly. Beyond the party campaigns, a diverse and vibrant array of media coverage and social media participation, a caretaker government and Election Commission administration of the polls that were broadly accepted as neutral, and public commitments by the military establishment not to intervene all appear to have contributed to voters’ determination to take part in the elections – despite Taliban threats and calls for a boycott.

Table 1: Preliminary Pakistan National Assembly 2013 Election Results

Party

Total Nationwide

Punjab

Sindh

Balochistan

KPK

FATA

Islamabad

PML(N)

124

116

1

1

4

1

1

PPP

31

2

29

0

0

0

0

PTI

27

8

0

0

17

1

1

MQM

18

0

18

0

0

0

0

JUI(F)

10

0

0

3

6

1

0

Independents

28

16

2

4

1

6

0

Other Parties

21

4

6

4

7

0

0

Pending Final Results

10

1

4

2

0

2

0

Postponed or Cancelled

3

1

1

0

0

1

0

TOTAL

272

148

61

14

35

12

2

Source: Election Commission of Pakistan, Party Position (National Assembly), as of Wednesday, May 15, available at http://www.ecp.gov.pk/overallpartyposition05152013412.pdf

Note: Results are for 272 directly contested national assembly seats, and do not include 60 seats for women and 10 for minorities that are allocated proportionally to parties based on election performance. Candidates are allowed to contest multiple seats, requiring special elections in the event that they win in more than one constituency, meaning final results will be subject to further change.

Although the final results have yet to be certified, Table 1 illustrates that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has emerged as the clear victor. The party was able to nearly double the number of National Assembly seats it won from 68 in 2008 to at least 124 in 2013. Most pre-poll analysis predicted that the PML-N would emerge as the single largest party, but the general expectation was that the elections would produce a hung parliament requiring Nawaz Sharif to cobble together a weak coalition government. The PML-N’s decisive victory, however, will enable it to reach out to potential coalition partners from a position of strength, increasing its freedom of action to use its newfound political capital. Whether this tremendous advantage will be seized or squandered remains to be seen, but expectations are already being raised – possibly unrealistically so – that Nawaz Sharif will now be in a position to tackle a range of issues from Pakistan’s acute energy shortages to helping normalize relations with India.

While Imran Khan’s PTI supporters may be the most disappointed voters after coming in second place across most of Punjab, the biggest loser in 2013 was the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), which had led Pakistan’s coalition government from 2008-2013. Whereas the PML-N nearly doubled its seat numbers, the PPP was reduced from 89 seats in 2008 to 31 in 2013. While the scale of the PPP’s defeat surprised many, the fact that it lost seats reflects a consistent feature in Pakistani electoral politics, which is the disadvantage of incumbency. No political party has won back-to-back elections in Pakistan since the PPP’s victory in 1977 in an election widely acknowledged to have been massively rigged. The shortage of resources available to meet patronage demands often leaves the majority of voters unhappy with incumbents, who are then punished the next time elections are held.

This tendency was further exacerbated by the deep discontent of most voters with the direction in which Pakistan was heading (91% according to a recent Pew poll), and the perception that the PPP-led government from 2008-2013 was corrupt and inefficient, doing little to tackle some of the major issues confronting Pakistan, such as the country’s serious energy crisis. The most disturbing aspect of the PPP’s dismal performance is that it has now essentially been reduced to a party of rural Sindh, whereas historically it has been the only national party able to consistently win seats in all four provinces. It remains to be seen whether this devastating defeat, especially in the largest province of Punjab where it won only one seat, will serve as a wake-up call and force a subs
tantial shakeup within the party, or whether it will continue its downward spiral into yet another ethnically defined party.

Another impact of the 2013 election result is that the role of the Pakistani presidency is likely to diminish further after the PML-N assumes office. Although the 18th Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in April 2010 formally transferred many powers of office that had accrued to the president under General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure to the prime minister, President Asif Ali Zardari’s leadership of the PPP allowed him to retain effective control over its activities in parliament – though a verdict from the Lahore High Court forced him to relinquish his party title prior to the start of the campaign season. Zardari’s term in office expires later this fall, and he now appears unlikely to secure reelection by the electoral college comprised of the national and provincial assemblies and the upper senate house. For the first time since Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in a 1999 military coup, civilian power in the Pakistani political system will be re-centering in the office of the prime minister rather than a powerful president.

This represents a shift from the past five years, which had seen a general diffusion of power within the country. The PPP tenure was marked by significant compromises on power-sharing with the opposition and between the central and provincial governments. But the difficulties of managing a fractious coalition and fending off challenges to the government’s authority from the judiciary and Pakistan’s powerful security services ultimately consumed much of the PPP leadership’s attentions. The result was a slow consensus-based policymaking process that, while necessarily more inclusive of the interests of the country’s diverse centers of powers, stalled out before resolving many of the critical concerns facing Pakistan – particularly on economic reforms needed to address chronic energy shortages, fiscal deficits and tax revenue collection shortfalls, and Pakistan’s integration through trade with its neighbors.

Table 1: Preliminary Pakistan Provincial Assembly 2013 Election Results

Party

Punjab Assembly

Sindh Assembly

Balochistan Assembly

KPK Assembly

PML(N)

213

4

9

12

PPP

6

63

0

2

PTI

19

1

0

35

MQM

0

37

0

0

JUI(F)

0

0

6

13

Independents

41

5

8

13

Other Parties

12

10

27

22

Pending Final Results

0

9

0

2

Postponed or Cancelled

6

1

1

0

TOTAL

297

130

51

99

Source: Election Commission of Pakistan, Party Position (Provincial Assemblies), as of Wednesday, May 15, available at http://www.ecp.gov.pk/overallpartypositionPA05152013412.pdf

Although the largest parties managed to achieve small footholds in the other provinces, the overall election result has reinforced the regionalization and localization of political party organizations in Pakistan. Despite its wins, the PML-N made few gains outside of Punjab itself. The PPP retained its hold over the Sindh assembly, but lost its position elsewhere in the country. Although it failed to make major hoped-for gains in Punjab, the PTI secured approximately a third of the seats in the Khyber-Paktunkhwa provincial assembly, echoing the decisive ouster in 2008 of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition of religious parties by the Awami National Party, which has now itself failed to gain reelection to any more than a handful of provincial assembly seats. Balochistan, which faces an active separatist insurgency and saw the lowest levels of participation, experienced the most fragmented electoral outcomes, with ethnic nationalist parties, religious parties, and independents dividing the provincial assembly and delegation to parliament.

The PPP retains a plurality in the upper senate house, and administrative devolution processes mandated by the 18th and 19th amendments to the Pakistani constitution have strengthened the autonomy and responsibilities of provincial governments, as well as locking in larger shares of national tax revenues for the provinces. The PML-N supported many of these reforms during its time in opposition, benefiting through its management of the Punjab government. It is possible the PPP and PTI opposition parties’ control over provincial governments will ensure their stake in the system and provide for a negotiated balance of power with the PML-N at the center. But given the history of conflict in Pakistan over issues of federalism and provincial autonomy, relations between the new Punjab-based government in the center and the rest of the country have the potential to be a significant source of political tension going forward.

Beyond questions of divided center-provincial relations, the new PML-N government must also balance its relations with Pakistan’s unelected centers of power – namely the military and the increasingly assertive judiciary. Speculation is already mounting as to whether Nawaz Sharif, who when previously in office confronted and was overthrown in a military coup by General Musharraf, will again try to increase the role of civilian authorities in security and foreign policymaking – traditionally the domain of Pakistan’s military. Both the military and the judiciary are facing transitions of their own later this year, as Chief of Army Staff General Ashaq Kayani and Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry approach the end of their respective terms. These two institutions have effectively self-selecting control over their membership and leadership appointments, and are likely to continue to check parliament’s freedom of action, potentially setting up deeper institutional clashes if a Sharif government chooses a course of more direct confrontation than its predecessor.

The new PML-N government takes office with many major challenges to resolve, including the ailing economy, tense relations with its neighbors to the east and west, and the continuing threat of domestic militancy. The PML-N, which played a patient waiting game in opposition throughout the PPP’s tenure, can now credibly claim a mandate for action on many of these issues. But even with a stronger base of support in its home province of Punjab and in the national parliament, it will still face limits to its ability to push through new policies. Nonetheless, the transition from the PPP-led government at the end of its full term in office to a popularly elected successor is an important institutionalization of the democratic process as a means of resolving political disputes, and a hopeful sign for Pakistan’s future political stability.

Andrew Wilder is the Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, where Colin Cookman is a researcher. The views reflected here are their own.

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