That sinking feeling

An election that no one wants?


“When the Assembly is dissolved, you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You are faced with another election.” Thus spoke a Punjab MPA in 1990, when reacting to the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly. That member never made it back to the Assembly.

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That dissolution had come after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had used his powers under Article 58 (2-b) of the Constitution to send the government headed by Benazir Bhutto packing. Incidentally, for the first time, the election date announced, October 24, was the same for both national and provincial assemblies. Before that, there had been a three-day gap. This did not suit the parties. In 1988, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad held a press conference on November 17, the day after the National Assembly election, addressed by PML Secretary-General Iqbal Ahmad Khan, who claimed with 56 seats that the IJI would form the government, ahead of the PPP, which had won 94. When asked some years later why he had done so, even though it was pretty clear that only the PPP could lead the government, he said that the next day was the provincial election, and the IJI workers could not be left depressed.

It seems that Ch Parvez Elahi, while becoming the first Punjab Chief Minister since Manzoor Wattoo did so in 1993 (unsuccessfully), to advise a dissolution, also chose to disregard the discomfiture of one party or the other, because the party defeated will have to face two more elections. There will be a local body election, the first since 2015, and there will be a provincial assembly election in April, and then there will be an election of Punjab’s MNAs in October. The local body elections are already overdue, and it might make sense to hold them along with either the national or provincial elections.

An additional complication is that there will be a national census on February 1. That means the results will be coming out just before the poll. A census means fresh delimitations, even if the number of seats is not changed. While a provincial assembly will have the same number of seats, the seats allocated to a district may change. Even if it does not, the boundaries of seats may change. Those changes cannot be reflected for the provincial election, but can be for the national and local, provided that the results are duly notified by the Council of Common Interests in time. The legitimacy of the elections, and thus of the members elected, will be challenged by the losers, no matter what party they belong to.

Another problem that the PTI will face will be that of the caretaker government. The PML(Q)-PTI has nominated its panel of three for CM, as has the PML(N). If he joint assembly party does not make a pick, the choice would go to the Election Commission of Pakistan, which the PTI has already got problems with, after its decisions in the forbidden funding case and the Toshakhana reference. Unless the PTI wins, it will cry foul.

The caretakers are supposed to be there because they are acceptable to everyone. The PTI has gone one step further, and expressed distrust in the ECP. Such distrust was expressed last in 1977, when the PNA complained the election was stolen. First, the provincial elections three days after the general elections were boycotted, and then protests grew violent, leading to Martial Law. The 1985 elections were conducted under Martial Law, while the 1988 elections were conducted by a government headed by the acting President. In 1990, there was a caretaker PM (Mustafa Jatoi) who contested the elections, while so did the caretaker Punjab CM (Ghulam Haider Wyne), who retained the job. Since then, caretakers do not contest. The cries of official interference have died down, but not been entirely eliminated. This time around, they will probably be redoubled. The PTI is likely to make great play of the fact that while a caretaker government is installed in Punjab, even if it remains neutral, the federal government will be partisan.

That partisan nature is supposed to be kept in check by the ECP, which the PTI does not trust. However, there will be a certain amount of friction between these two components. The PPP has been in government once, between 1993 and 1996, but has not held the chief ministership since 1977. It was the party most badly affected by the rise of the PTI, with its voters going over in 1993. It had put up 239 candidates in the 296 constituencies, and won only five seats. It hopes to make a recovery in the current elections. The PML(N) regards the Punjab as its stamping-ground, as it gave it the government in 1988 and 2013, even though the PPP formed the federal government. It does not want the PPP making a comeback at its expense. At the moment, the PML(N) and the PPP are pulling together, but what happens when their interests collide in Punjab?

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Both are mass parties, with mass followings, which are not driven by ideology, except for the principle that the other is The Other, and must be opposed, come what may. More simply put, the vote banks are not mutually transferable. Is there any point to a seat adjustment? Is one even possible? If one is not achieved, what happens when ministers in the same government campaign for rival candidates (assuming ministers are allowed to campaign)? While ministers are not supposed to campaign, some are more than likely to have siblings or offspring running. How does the ECP handle that situation? Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will have his hands full handling the situation, not to forget that his own son and niece are probably going to be contesting? Will he be Roman enough to ignore familial ties? Will he be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

A factor that would incline Mian Nawaz to stay away would be the disqualification of Imran Khan. He is engaged in an all-or-nothing campaign, in which even the provincial elections are about him. Does the country want him to be PM? Untrammelled? But if the elections are to end with the PTI winning, but somebody else as PM? Who would vote for the PTI then? And if so, why should Nawaz bother going back into the slammer?

A major imponderable is the effect of PML(N) Quaid Mian Nawaz Sharif’s return. On the face of it, he should return post-haste and lead the campaign in his backyard. However, there is no point if he is to return only to be clapped in irons and dragged away from the airport to jail. His bail was not from arrest, as in the case of Ishaq Dar or Salman Shehbaz, but from imprisonment. His surrender will not be before a court, but before the jail authorities. Only then can he appear before a competent court and apply for bail because his conviction was wrongful.

One earlier solution was that his residence be declared a sub-jail, so that he did not have to go to Kot Lakhpat, where he was last imprisoned. However, that solution presumed that a PML(N) government had been established in the province. There is no guarantee that a caretaker government would take such a lenient view of the situation. More importantly, even if his residence is declared a sub-jail, without being freed, he will not be able to campaign. So while he might enjoy a few creature comforts, his return would be pointless.

Perhaps that is the reason that the signals from the UK are so far inclining towards Mian Nawaz staying put in London. His daughter Maryam may return alone, and try to lead the campaign on her own. That would be a tacit acknowledgement that Mian Nawaz is not as important a campaigner as is generally assumed, and the PML(N) places more reliance on the right choice of candidate.

The PDM campaign will focus on Imran’s corruption more than anything else, and it will probably get ugly. It is possible that Imran’s much-trumpeted videos will finally be generally released, not to mention more audioclipps. It is likely to be a nasty campaign.

A factor that would incline Mian Nawaz to stay away would be the disqualification of Imran Khan. He is engaged in an all-or-nothing campaign, in which even the provincial elections are about him. Does the country want him to be PM? Untrammelled? But if the elections are to end with the PTI winning, but somebody else as PM? Who would vote for the PTI then? And if so, why should Nawaz bother going back into the slammer?


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