Predicting who’ll win the next polls is a lottery at this stage
The next general elections are only months away but the cameras are already rolling. As the battle-lines are drawn, three major contenders are in the run, but putting a finger on who will steal the show is like a lottery at this stage.
However, some trends are emerging that give a ringside view of what to expect. Let’s begin with the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, which has the unenvious task of pulling an encore in an atmosphere of great public disenchantment, not merely because of failed governance leading to a strong anti-incumbency factor but also the loss of its once-assured vote clincher: the Bhutto name.
The PPP and Bhutto are synonymous to the extent that it is difficult to conceive one without the other in the same breath. The elections, if they are on schedule, will be the first in the party’s history that has produced a father-daughter prime minister duo, without a Bhutto to boot.
In the family of six, only Nusrat Bhutto, the former first lady, died a natural death. Only one — her daughter Sanam Bhutto — survives. Significantly, she is the only one who shunned politics.
It is now left to Bilawal, the son of Benazir, the last Bhutto prime minister, and Asif Zardari, the current president, to carry the torch.
The PPP chairman, who turns 24 next month but still does not qualify to contest an election, pretty much set the pace on his grandfather’s death anniversary this year with a fiery but calculated speech to take on a hostile judiciary, and induce ‘political martyrdom’.
This was followed by Zardari’s foray into the Sharif bastion. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif refused to give him protocol in Lahore, and then added insult to injury by suggesting that he would have received the president’s late spouse “a hundred times” had she been around.
The president then launched a vitriolic tirade against the Sharifs, saying they even owed their “shine” to him and he could “take it back whenever I wished”.
The boast was not strictly true given how Zardari did engineer the ouster of younger Sharif more than three years ago by imposing Governor’s rule but was trumped thanks to the restoration of an independent judiciary — courtesy a popular revolt helmed by the Sharifs.
But Zardari’s sabre-rattling was designed to lift the morale of demoralized party workers in the province, which provides a domineering chunk of legislators, but where the PPP hasn’t been able to form a government for three-and-a-half decades. He also raised a fever pitch for a separate Seraiki province in southern Punjab — a move pregnant with cutting a swathe into Sharifs’ PML-N.
Zardari promised to “realize the dream” before year-end in a populist move aimed at cashing in at the hustings. It may be easier said than done but then the president has stumped his detractors all four-and-a-half years the PPP has been in power.
His remarkable ability to keep coalition partners that matter on his side still leaves his party as the top dog — at least on paper.
The PML-N has, however, reinforced its pole position in the last few months with an array of impressive entries. In particular, the party has made inroads into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province with the entry of stalwart Amir Muqam, former Musharraf ally, who brings a clutch of electables with him.
In Sindh, too, where the party drew a blank in the last polls, it has drawn nationalist Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, who has allied his Sindh National Front with PML-N. The PML-F is also reportedly contemplating a switch. Former Musharraf aide Liaquat Jatoi, too, has joined forces.
Former PPP leader Enver Baig, a strong influence on the diplomatic circuit, has also followed ex-PML-Q firebrand Marvi Memon into Sharif’s embrace.
Meanwhile, the much touted ‘third force’ — Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf — appears to have lost much of its steam with reports of intra-party rifts. The current lack of kinetic energy is as spectacular as its ‘game-changing’ rally in the Sharif stronghold last October.
Even though the PTI claims it was “busy” with a membership drive and more recently preparing for intra-party elections, reports point to fissures in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a province where it had hoped to create a new wave and now Sindh as well.
The party, however, managed a decent outing in Quetta, something that neither the PPP nor PML-N have been able to do over security fears.
Slanging matches with the PML-N apart, the only interesting bit coming out of the Khan camp is the avowed peace march into Waziristan, which, if reports are to be believed, may run into serious trouble following the Taliban’s reported threat to kill Khan although later its spokesman denied having issued such an edict.
However, the spokesman stuck to his guns on how it views Khan — as an “infidel” for calling himself a “liberal” before saying the militant group would consult on whether allowing the march.
This has caused much unease but Khan has refused to back down, going to the extent of even saying it’s a cause — protesting against drone strikes — “worth dying for”.
In what is an open season for recruiting/embracing turncoats, Khan has also agreed to form an electoral alliance with former detractor Sheikh Rashid in what promises to be an intriguing battle for supremacy in PML-N’s stronghold in Rawalpindi in the fall.
The latest Gallop Pakistan findings pertaining to voter intentions show the PML-N topping the charts in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with PTI also cutting its teeth as a major force ahead of the PPP.
However, as a spate of bye-poll results have shown, these statistics mean little with the PPP regularly beating the odds — and opposition.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at [email protected]