A bluffers’ guide to the Pakistani General Election

May 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

Pakistan goes to the polls today in one of the largest and most exciting elections in the world. Only the USA, Brazil, and Indonesia have more people voting on a single day – and Brazil might not be able to say that for long (Pakistani census data is notoriously poor and out of date; we do not know if Pakistan is more populous than Brazil – it might be – it does however have fewer registered voters for the moment). Pakistani elections are brilliant, and this one is even more brilliant than usual.

The writing about it over here has been a bit tame though. A lot of the articles in the mainstream western media have been more-or-less the same. And considering what a major event it is there hasn’t even been that much of it. There wasn’t even the traditional Tariq Ali piece in the Guardian bemoaning how the Pakistani people have a thirst for democracy but their leaders let them down (he wrote about Sri Lanka for the LRB instead – I can relate). This piece by Jason Burke is pretty good – you, at least, get the impression that the author stepped out of the air conditioning in the course of writing it.

Of course it doesn’t matter that this is slim fare because Pakistan itself has a truly phenomenal English language media. Indeed if I was being provocative and wanted to link bait I’d say something  Niall Fergusony like:

Pakistan has the freest media in the world

I say Niall Fergusony because it is not true, indeed its frankly a bit ridiculous, but it will bring the punters flocking in to be outraged, shocked, or just curious. Its also a bit Niall Fergusony in that it does contain the gem of an interesting idea, albeit one which is not explored or illuminated in any way. While Pakistan has its problems with censorship and with the murder of journalists, it does have an extraordinary diversity of different news outlets, representing different opinions and sections of society. Of course not everyone is represented evenly, or across all languages, but the Pakistani media is at least a diverse and decent read. The other thing Pakistan has – and here I am using up my one permitted ethnocentric cliché – is that Pakistan has a fairly healthy culture (at least within limits and more so within the English language media) of publicly discussing its faults. Compared to, for example, Sri Lanka the Pakistani press corps are far far more willing to go after a juicy story involving the powerful and their misdeeds.

In fact, if you take away one thing from this post it is that you don’t need to read this post.  Read Pakistani media, read Dawn. Particularly their various brilliant young bloggers and you will find out everything you need. Read this exceptional piece of work by Umair Javed. You don’t need me at all.

And yet strangely we westerners seem to feel the need to have other westerners explain Pakistan to us, as if Pakistanis didn’t speak English (they do – or at lest a few tens of millions of them do), didn’t have access to the higher levels of education necessary to make sense of it all for themselves (they do, they have some of the best universities in Asia) or found that it was all too close to home and sensitive to write about (it isn’t and they do write about it). And that’s how I come in: as a person who knows far far less about Pakistan than most Pakistanis, but is somehow invited to be on a radio panel discussion about it all on Monday. And I feel like a fraud.

And I feel even more like a fraud than normal this time round because the circumstances I alluded to previously mean that I haven’t been following the election with anything like the attention it deserves.

So I’m going to bluff, but by being tongue-in-cheek about it and presenting the piece as a “bluffer’s guide to the elections” you won’t be able to notice. In other words I’ve taken my shortcomings as a researcher and co-opted them as central to the conceit of the article. Booya!

How did we get here?

Actually in the end there is a simple answer to this: because time was up and constitutionally an election had to happen. But the journey wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Pakistan’s latest experiment in military dictatorship ended in 2007-8 with a quasi-popular quasi-judicial uprising known as the “Pakistan lawyers’ movement”. Following that Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of one of the major anti-dictatorship parties (the PPP) became President. However the courts in Pakistan, and many of the judges who had played a key role in ending the dictatorship, became increasingly associated with one of the other major anti-dictatorship parties (the PML-N). As the dictatorship, and the pro-dictatorship parties faded in to history, and the main political rivalry reset as PPP vs PML-N, this developed into open warfare between the courts and the Presidency.

(Of course some would argue that the courts were just doing their job and there was no politics to it, and that might have been true in part, indeed at times they may actually have been correct in law. But there did certainly seem to be a politically motivated element at times.)

It all started to revolve around something called the “Swiss letter”. Asif Ali Zardari is widely believed to be corrupt and to have been corrupt for some time. Around 2003 the Swiss Government started to investigate Zardari in conjunction with some dealings he had with a Swiss company in 1994. They didn’t get anywhere and wrapped up the case. In 2008 Zardari was elected President and so the Pakistani Government wrote to the Swiss Government saying that as President Zardari now enjoys immunity and so they would no longer be cooperating with the case. The Swiss replied that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up.

Then in 2009 the Pakistani Government passed a law (well technically they repealed a law) which altered the extent to which immunity can be applied in cases of corruption. The courts and the PML-N felt that this now meant that the Swiss could proceed with the case (The Swiss continued to point out that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up). The courts then tried various tactics to force the PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to write a letter to the Swiss asking them to reopen the case.

The actual point, as the Swiss kept saying, was academic, but this argument quickly lost all connection to the point and became about principle (combating corruption on the one hand the supremacy of elected bodies on the other) and even more so about politics. It culminated in April of last year with Gilani being found guilty of contempt of court for not sending such a letter. He was sentenced to a notional minute in prison, to be served (since it was notional) by sitting in the courtroom. However that minute was crucial as ex-felons (even purely notional ones) can’t be MPs and non-MPs can’t be Prime Minister. And so Gilani was toppled.

However meanwhile outside the courthouse there had been a sudden surge in popularity for Imran Khan’s political party: the PTI. The PML-N suddenly realised that forcing early elections (which until then had been the ultimate plan) could well come back and bite them as Khan was at the peak of his popularity. And so at this moment of triumph they backed off and allowed a succession of caretaker Prime Ministers to finish out the term. A compromise letter was finally sent to the Swiss in November to which the Swiss replied, their voices slightly hoarse, that it was all somewhat academic as the case had been wrapped up.

Bluffing dos and don’ts – Do: Tell the almost certainly apocryphal but brilliant story about how, half way through Gilani’s notional minute’s detention in the courtroom, his lawyer stood up and asked if his client could be released early for good behaviour while in prison.

Don’t: Endlessly chirrup “Swiss letter”, “Swiss letter” (unless you want a job in the PML-N). The Swiss letter is frankly no longer that politically relevant.

Dramatis Personae

The army

Its totally wrong to start with the army because the role of the army in the electoral process is hugely overstated. But structurally this is where this fits, and I am all about structure.

Pakistan has had at least four successful military coups, has spent more time under military rule than not, and – as everyone keeps saying – today’s elections mark the first time in history a democratically elected government has seen out its term (although it is a bit of a fudge to mention the military in this context as many of the judicial coups of the early ’90s didn’t really involve the military much). The military hold an enormous amount of sway in Pakistani society and even without any of the rumours you hear about a shadowy “election unit” operating within the ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) it is clear that senior figures within the military hold  significant amounts of political power.

But I do feel the extent to which the army pull the strings in Pakistan is overstated. Firstly the Pakistani army is not a monolith. For simplicity’s sake I’m just going to describe two of the main schools of thought within the army but there are many. The first is the section of the army that thinks of itself in the mould of the Turkish army – the bastions of liberal secular moderation against the barbarism of the masses. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf was very much from this school. They support the secular parties – although they were originally willing to also support Imran Khan because he was a “moderniser”.

The second is the school of thought which grew up around dictator-but-one Zia ul-Haq and his CIA trained operatives in the 1980s. This is hard line anti-India and Islamist – although mostly not to the extent of wanting to scare away the American money that the Pakistani army love so much. They support the exact opposite set of political parties – although they too went through an Imran Khan phase because he was making the right noises (they saw him as being the best of all possible worlds – an Islamist who the west would continue to fund – in other words they saw him as a return to their halcyon days of the 1980s when they got paid to be Islamist).

When the army are in power they are a powerful force for remaining in power – as the durability of the various “kings parties” (political parties developed by military dictators to transition into quasi-civilian rule) show. But out of power the army pulls in different directions and largely against itself. They are a factor to be sure, but they are not the only factor.

The PML-N and Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif is a self made businessman from Lahore (he and his family are actually from Pakistani Kashmir but have developed a Lahori identity). He was Prime Minister twice in the 1990s and, crucially, his brother Shahbaz has been Chief Minister (effectively Governor) of the Punjab – Pakistan’s largest state – for the last five years.

If you ask the Sharif brothers’ many admirers they will tell you they are well liked because they get things done in a good old fashioned way. They get up early in the morning, eat plenty of ghee, and then they shout down telephones until Pakistan is fixed. If you ask the Sharif brothers’ many detractors they will say they are corrupt, and that they have no substance or political principle.

The Sharif brothers have a tight grip over the PML-N (which stands for Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, and decends from a faction of the old PML that split when Nawaz split) but they are more than a one family party. They tend to be the party of “upstart” rich self-made men: industrialists, urbanites, but, above all, of Punjabis. Last time out the PML-N only won 6 of the 124 Parliamentary seats outside of the Punjab; however they won 61 of the 148 seats in the Punjab. Even within the Punjab they are concentrated in the more urban and industrial north. However as this is where most of the population, and seats, are concentrated you can absolutely win a general election this way.

They see themselves as centre right and very mild Islamist (they sell themselves as an even softer and more secular version of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party). But largely the difference between them and the other parties is that their supporters tend to be more urban and to work in manufacturing – rather than any deeper issue of principle.

Every political party in Pakistan has a symbol and a flag. The symbol is so they can be identified on the ballot paper by people with limited literacy, and the flag is for waving. The PML-N’s flag is kind of dull:

Their symbol however has caused no end of fun. Its the tiger:

Now some bright spark decided that this would make for a good campaigning brand. Nawaz Sharif was to be portrayed as the “tiger of the Punjab”. This works on many levels: its the king of the jungle, it has its roots in the subcontinent and Mughal connotations, its fierce and brave, and its a reference to the famous 1970s Punjabi politician Ghulam Mustafa Khar “the Lion of the Punjab”.

Anyway so far the tiger brand seems like a good idea. But they took it too far. Much much too far. For example they made his supporters dress in plush tigerskin onesies:

You thought/hoped I was joking didn’t you? It could be worse though. You could completely cover your entire car in plush tigerstripes:

At least that logically makes sense though. Its not like they covered their entire car in psychedelic crepé paper for no reason and then stuck a half arsed papier maché tiger on the roof:

Still at least they know what a tiger is. Prepare yourself for the worst thing ever:

Where to begin with this monstrosity? Probably with the fact that THAT IS NOT A TIGER THAT IS A LEOPARD. Also the left arm has been done differently and looks shit. Also the whole thing looks shit. What facial expression were they going for? Why is it humping the car?

There’s various montages going around of shit PML tigers. Because it is easy to mock. Easy and fun. Things got slightly more serious (while still remaining farcical) with “tigergate”. Because you knew at some point an actual tiger was going to rock up:

Sadly it seems this tiger was exposed to thirty degree heat for far too long and died. Petitions were launched in the high court on behalf of the tiger. Now it has been suggested that actually the tiger didn’t die and is doing fine. Either way poor tiger – it hasn’t had a fun few weeks. Probably better to just get fat Punjabi men to dress like furries.

Do say:  “It will be interesting to see how well the PML will fare outside their Punjabi heartland”. (It won’t be because they won’t and don’t need to, but it will make you sound like you know what you are talking about.)

Don’t say: “Incidentally the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ Khar’s ex-wife Tehmina Durrani wrote a brutal and engrossing if slightly mad book about Khar’s cruelty to her; Durrani is now married to Shahbaz Sharif and Khar is campaigning for him.” Then make some terrible joke about ligers.

The PTI and Imran Khan

Imran Khan was an absolutely magnificent cricketer. Then for a while he was a dilettante playboy (there’s a wonderful line in his 1991 appearance on Desert Island disks when Sue Lawley says to him, “drinking and womanising aside, you’re a very religious man aren’t you Imran?”). Then even less forgivably he moved to the UK and married a woman with a Jewish surname (that her dad was a fascist actually wasn’t a problem). Then much more forgivably he moved back to Pakistan, set up some really good charities and built and absolutely fantastic cancer hospital. Then he embarked upon a fifteen year long complete joke of a political career in which his party didn’t win a single seat.

Then the PTIsunami happened.

I’ve written about the PTIsunami before but I was probably a bit too dismissive. Nothing I wrote there was really wrong but I missed two fairly important factors. One was that once the bandwagon started to roll it attracted media coverage and Khan does really well in the media. What then became apparent is that there’s a new constituency in Pakistan, of mostly young (Pakistan has a very young population; over 30% of voters in this election are under 30) mostly urban, but in any instance uprooted and unaffiliated voters who are willing and able to vote for whomsoever they please – as opposed to feeling obliged by patronage, village, or family to support a certain candidate. They started to flock to Khan in droves.

The second thing that happened, and I don’t want to overstate this, is that the army started to push Khan. As I discussed before this is because he managed to convince both the secularists and the Islamists that he was one of them. They saw him as the President they had always dreamed of in that he on the one hand expressed the anti-western sentiments they felt, but still on the other was beloved of the west and so would continue to attract arms and investment.

Looking back I honestly think Khan could have won an election if it had taken place 18 months to a year ago. The problem with bandwagons however is that they run out of momentum and this started to happen. Its quite hard to keep a young, unrooted, unorganised and fickle support base going over 18 months without any significant party structure. Also people started to worry that there might not be too much substance behind him: the Islamists started to worry he might actually mean the Secularist stuff, the Secularists started to worry he might actually mean the Islamist stuff, those that joined him on the anti-corruption bandwagon started to worry about what it meant that the army and all these big landlords had suddenly joined, and the army and all the big landlords started to worry that if he won he might not need them and might actually get serious on corruption. Above all the herculean task of winning a first-past-the-post election from a base of zero seats started to hit home.

Khan did make some efforts to build a lasting party and appear like less of a one man band – most notably by bringing in ex PPP heavy hitter Shah Mehmood Qureshi and even occasionally hinting that if the PTI won Qureshi – not Khan – might be the Prime Minister (I still think this might happen if Khan has to go into a coalition he is not happy with as it will allow him to keep his hands clean and paladin-like). He also tried to define what the PTI is about, but here he is still struggling.

People project a lot of views onto Khan that he has never actually expressed. Because he is new, and exciting, and might win, everyone is hoping he shares their views, and this process of projection is made easier by him talking in semi meaningless terms: saying he believes in things like “modernisation” and “communitarianism” which could mean anything, and that he is against corruption (has any politician ever spoken out passionately in favour of corruption?).

Its pretty clear to me that the PTI are mildly Islamist and on the centre-right. Even if that’s not where they want to be I think that’s where their support base will push them. For one thing their support base has a lot of overlap with the PML-N – more than any other party – and so they will be pushed PML-Nwards. Additionally their support is largely based on the media and the media are mostly Islamist centre-right. And finally their support is largely urban and middle class (because those are the unrooted voters) and the urban middle classes are Islamist and centre right. However there are people who will insist until they are blue in the face that Khan’s talk about modernisation and the battle against poverty means that he is a centre-left secularist.

So it looks like Khan had missed his window but then as the election, and media election fever, started up the bandwagon did start rolling again and now all the talk is once again about Khan. And so now we really don’t know. Did he leave it too late? Is it  too much of a task?

We also don’t know what effect him falling off that stage had.

Khan may have thought that in this post Jennifer Lawrence era falling off the stage was now cute. For me it seems a bit more Bob Dole.

Dole, Khan, Lawrence: it could split either way

Mockery aside we should point out that this was a more serious fall than the Dole/Lawrence falls. He fell 4.5 meters off a forked lift truck that was transporting him up onto a raised stage and broke two vertebrae  He was in hospital for a bit but is fine now. Again it could split either way: massive outpouring of sympathy and admiration for his speech from the hospital bed – or that old adage “never elect a guy who falls off a stage”.

The PTI flag is very generic:

The PTI symbol is a cricket bat which has to be cheating because cricket is Pakistan’s national religion. Imagine if the Labour Party in Newcastle changed their symbol to Jackie Milburn (actually that is a really good idea):

Do say: “Khan coordinates his supporters via SMS”. Its true and it also makes his supporters sound like tamagotchis or Beliebers.

Don’t say: “Khan is batting higher than his average”. All cricket metaphors have already been used. Also don’t use cricket metaphors unless you know what you are doing. Khan only averaged 37.69 so batting higher than his average wouldn’t be that impressive. He more than made up for it with ball and armband but, while a solid and occasionally brilliant batsman, it was never his job to get the big runs. Besides he did the jobs that needed doing up and down the order – he didn’t have the long spell at no3/4 you need to pad your average.

The PPP and ???

The Pakistan People’s party are in many ways Pakistan’s most established and successful party. They were founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who, while a very long way from a saint, was a brilliant and charismatic leader who did what no Pakistani politician has really done before or since, which is to build a stable and lasting political party around an ideology: in this case centre-left secularism. Bhutto was judicially murdered in a military coup, thus ensuring his political immortality.

As a result the PPP has become the Bhutto party. They were next led by Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, after she was assassinated her husband Asif Ali Zardari took over. He is widely loathed to the extent that now Benazir’s son Bilawal has taken over.

The problem here is that Bilawal is 24 and to be Prime Minister of Pakistan you have to be 25. Furthermore he seems fairly uninterested in the electoral process and has left Pakistan for Dubai for the duration of the elections. If the PPP do win it is likely that the current Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf will continue, at least for a while.

Meanwhile the eminence grisé of the current PPP, and the man who has been largely heading up the electoral campaign, is former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. He is continuing to do so despite the fact that his son has been kidnapped.

The PPP do actually have quite a bit of strength-in-depth, more so than most of the other parties. The most photogenic is the Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. Articles written by men usually contain some fatuous excuse to include a photo of her:

Although the PPP still go through the motions of being a secular left-wing party (and probably are a bit more secular and left wing than the others) these days they tend to be more about the fact that they have a different support base than the other parties. They are more Sindhi, and thus less Punjabi, and thus more pro-decentralisation. They are more Shia Muslim (although most of the top brass maintain at least a pretence of being Sunni) and thus less pro official Sunnidom. They are more rural and thus less interested in cities. And they are more old money and landed aristocracy and so are against “upstart” capitalists like the Sharifs. They also have a reputation for corruption. At some point the Bhuttos and the Sharifs seemed to be engaged in some wierd kleptocratic race.

One of the other key areas of strength for the PPP (apart from Sindh) is the southern Punjab. This is where Gilani is from and he commands a lot of clout here. They speak a slightly different form of Punjabi called Saraiki and the PPP are proposing the Punjab be split in two and a Saraiki province be established. This is a brilliant political maneuver. Firstly it is wildly popular in the southern Punjab and will bag them a ton of votes. Secondly its essentially a pledge to cut the PML-N’s power base in two. Unsurprisingly the PML-N are not thrilled about this, but its getting to the point where they cannot oppose it or they will be dead in the south.

The PPP seem fairly resigned to the fact that they will take a hit at this election. Indeed they are oddly relaxed about it. In part this is because they know that whatever the PTI do it is going to hurt the PML-N more than them, and indeed they might win a few seats by coming through the middle. In part it is because they don’t face much of a threat in their core areas. And in part it is because it seems fairly likely that there will be a coalition government and the PPP are very good at building coalitions.

I think the PPP’s flag is really cool but I can’t really explain what I like about it:

The PPP’s symbol is the arrow:

Do say: “The PPP might get away with it this time round but the prospects for a predominantly rural party in a rapidly urbanising nation are pretty bleak.” Don’t say it too much though because its my PhD thesis. Get your own

Don’t say: “Where’s Bilawal?”

Other parties

Some of these parties are actually quite important but none will contribute a Prime Minister.

The PML-Q (meaning Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid. Quaid being short for Quaid e Azam, this translates as “father of the nation” ie Jinnah) were built by the Army and Musharraf as a “kings party” in the early 2000s. They were and still are dominated by two Sharif-like brothers: rich industrialists known as the Chaudhurys of Gujrat. History has rather left the PML-Q behind and they have shrunk considerably and will shrink further. However there are at least 15 or 20 seats where PML-Q candidates are so enshrined by local patronage that they will win come what may. They will side with the PPP in a coalition because they hate the PML-N more.

There are a host of other parties with PPP or PML in their name.  This is because both the PPP and the PML have fractured at various points in their history.  Also to be thought of in the same terms are the National People’s Party. Many of these parties have strong family ties with particular seats and so will win one or two seats but no more.

Generally speaking if they have PPP in their name then they hate the PPP and will side with the PML and vice verca. Probably the most significant is the PML-F (the F stands for “functional” which is wonderfully passive aggressive). This is because they are the party of the Pir of Pagaro, a famous dynastic sufi spiritual leader and mediocre cricketer. They always win about five seats in northern Sindh where the following of the Pir is strongest. The Pir himself died last year, but as an immortal saint this is unlikely to have much impact on his electoral performance

The ANP (Awami National Party) are notionally a left wing secular party. More importantly they are a Pathan ethnocentric party. Indeed they largely seem left wing and secular merely because they are mostly competing with religious parties for Pathan votes. They have two areas of strength: the border areas with Afghanistan (what used to be called the NWFP or North West Frontier Province, and is now called KPK or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and large cities – notably Karachi – with a sizable migrant Pathan population. Although notionally the same party there is a fair bit of difference between the ANP in KPK which is largely controlled by the Wali Khan family; and the ANP in Karachi which is largely controlled by Shahi Sayed. The ANP would probably be happiest in a PPP coalition.

The MQM (which now officially stands for Muttahida Qaumi Movement – meaning united national movement – but used to stand for Muhajir Quami Movement meaning united Muhajir movement) claim to be a liberal secular centrist party but in reality are an ethnically based party of the Muhajirs – the name given to Urdu speaking refugees who came from India in 1947. They are exceptionally populists and ethnocentric and the term fascist gets used about them frequently – and with increasing justification. They are also, frankly, gangsters. They are controlled by Altaf Hussein, a London-based godfather who makes Scarface look like a milquetoast. The MQM are big in urban areas of Sindh. As such they are sworn enemies of the PPP locally but might actually work with them nationally –  they’ll work with anyone nationally.

The religious parties don’t actually get much of the vote. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important – more on that later – but they just don’t win seats. This time round there are four main religious parties. The JI (Jamaat Islami – Islamic Party) were the biggest, but are really down on their luck this time round with a lot of their natural support going to the PTI. They also have to deal with the fact that the coalition of tiny religious parties that usually support them have this time formed their own coalitions: the Shia MWM (Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen – united Muslim council) and the Sunni MDM (Mutahida Deeni Mohaz – united religious front). Finally, the JUI (Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – party of the clerics of Islam) are more ethnically based in the Pathan community and so have more concentrated support in the north west and so might do a bit better.

Baluchi politics is a mess. None of the non-Baluchi political parties win more than one or two seats in Balochistan. In a way it doesn’t matter as there aren’t that many seats in Balochistan and whoever wins tends to do a deal with the leading coalition anyway. Generally speaking the parties that win believe in some sort of Baluchi nationalism – but not one strident enough to mean the army has to be sent in again.

Do say: “The MQM will be part of the ruling coalition.” There have been safer bets, but not many.

Don’t say: “Pakistan is in the grip of Islamic extremism! Oh my god! We’re all going to die! No no no no no no no no no no!” (unless you want a job working for Fox)

Here comes a map

This was the result last time.

  • PPP 124
  • PML-N 91
  • PML-Q 54
  • MQM 25
  • ANP 15
  • Islamic Parties 7
  • PML-F 5
  • Various other PPP splinter groups 2 (PPP-S 1 and NPP 1)
  • Balochistan National Party 1
  • Independents 18

This led to a PPP Prime Ministership and Presidency and to a PPP/PML-N/ANP/JUI coalition government. The PML-N later left this coalition while the MQM joined it only to leave some time later still.  The PML-Q have been informal supporters of the coalition for some time. The PML-N took office in the Punjab, the PPP in Sindh, the ANP in the NWFP (which they renamed KPK) and Balochistan remained a mess.

The provinces here are slightly separated to distinguish them. The top white bits are Pakistani Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. They are – no kidding – administered as colonies from Islamabad and don’t get to vote. India occupies half of it anyway.

The top long thin one which starts with the green is KPK. It is largely Pashtun. This is likely to be a battle between the secular Pashtun ANP and the religious Pashtun JUI although the fact that both of them are pretty weak right now means other parties might try to muscle in: Imran Khan is ethnically Pashtun so you’d think the PTI could pick up some seats here.

The one on the right is the Punjab. The blue is the urban north which is going to be the main battleground between Khan’s PTI and Nawaz’s PML-N. As you go south it gets more rural and the PPP start to come into it. You also start to get the big rural seats which will go whichever way the local landlord picks (most of them are currently PML-Q).

The sliver of yellow on the left is the FATA or Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They are governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations of 1848 under which MPs are not elected but simply selected by tribal elders. Do not get me started on this. EDIT: apparently this is no longer the case. About bloody time.

The massive thing to the left is Baluchistan. As I said above it is a bit mad, its basically Pakistan’s wild west. Its fascinating but you’d need someone more knowledgeable than me to explain it.

The bottom is Sindh. The rural areas vote PPP, the urban areas split on ethnic lines: Sindhis vote PPP, Pathans vote ANP, Muhajirs vote MQM. This is where the elections get very violent. Karachi in particular used to have a huge PPP stronghold in Layari town and huge ANP strongholds around Banaras colony and Landhi. Cue running gun battles between PPP, ANP and MQM gunmen and hundreds upon hundreds dead. I think its fair to say the MQM won, and now the whole city votes MQM. At risk of throwing my credibility away completely, the Vice guide to Karachi is actually very good.

Do say: *Khyber Pa*khtun*khwa while clearing your throat at the asterisk marks

Don’t say: “North West Frontier Province” The NWFP has gone to the big maproom in the sky with Madras and Bombay.

How elections are fought

I’m a lazy man, so here is how I described it in my paper:

“Mohammad Waseem’s (1994) study of the 1993 elections describes the Pakistani electoral landscape primarily in terms of “big men” or brokers who operate large banks of “hundreds or thousands” of votes. In the crudest examples they gain control over this number of voters through bribes, murders and intimidation. In more sophisticated strategies, they gain control as a quid-pro-quo for providing services of access-to, and mediation-with, the state: patronage. They trade these vote banks with the political parties in exchange for, in some instances, money and more generally local public goods which further enhance their reputation and access. There is an economy of patronage in which public goods are the primary currency…. party identification is partly, and increasingly, based on ideology and service delivery; but the main driver is patronage, which in turn is linked to development spending.”

That still largely holds true. However it is a fairly rural model and it is clear that while parties try to do the same thing in the cities it doesn’t work as well. The vote banks are more fragmented and the voters more independent minded. This is why Pakistani politicians hate working urban constituencies. They know they have to (for show if nothing else), but they find it difficult, expensive, and hard work.

Moreover there are some parties that don’t primarily operate this way: “modern parties” if you will, that primarily try to win elections by using campaigning and the media to get their message across. The religious parties, for all their many other flaws, have done this for some time, as have the MQM. They have now been joined by the PTI.

However most parties mainstream aren’t that good at it. They lack “street power”. And so this is where the religious parties come in. Again I’m going to plagarise myself here. This is from an unpublished field report:

“Mainstream political parties feel they cannot motivate people in the cities as they lack the networks to do so. This is because while the networks associated with a particular candidate will normally suffice in a rural area, they will not run as deep, or be extensive enough, in urban areas. Ideological organisations, on the other hand (such as religious or ethnic political parties) concentrate their resources in the cities as a) this is the most efficient way to reach the most people, b) this is where the media, their most effective tool, has the most impact, and c) this is where universities are based (the ban on political parties organising at Universities means that Universities have become areas of strength for religious and other non-party-political ideological groups).

“So the cities are areas of relative weakness for the mainstream political parties and areas of relative strength for ideological groups without a formal role in mainstream politics. And the mainstream parties seem to have limited interest in challenging this. They make very limited attempts to mobilise in the cities, and they leave the demonstrations, postering, corner meetings, and other manifestations of modern politics almost entirely to these latter groups. But at the same time these latter groups, including the religious political parties, are not able to project power at a national level – both because they lack the necessary patronage and high level networks to win a national election and also because, all things considered, their message isn’t actually that popular

“And so it appears that informal, local level, agreements are reached between members of the former groups and the latter. In a piece for Dawn Umair Javed describes this exchange as “electoral support for a blind eye”.  The religious parties lend the mainstream parties street power at election time and in return they get patronage. This manifests in the turning of a blind eye to illegality by the foot soldiers of the religious parties, and arguably by the religious parties themselves, and also arguably in the disproportionate influence religious parties have over policy.

“These deals seem to be done on a constituency-by-constituency or district-by-district level. So there are constituencies where the JI support the PPP and the JuD the PML-N, and there are constituencies where the reverse is true. Religious parties fielding candidates themselves does not seem to prejudice these arrangements, as even where they stand it seems they rarely make an attempt to win.”

Do say: Talk about the transgender candidates. Its really interesting.

Don’t say: Any of this stuff above. People’s eyes will glaze over.

Counting the vote

Polls are closing roundabout now and we’ll start to get media reports of who has won what in dribs and drabs. Formal results will be announced within 14 days. These will take the form of first-past-the-post constituency results to both the National Assembly and to the Provincial Assemblies of the four provinces. Only Muslims can vote but there is a separate election for non-Muslims to elect 10 minority seats. Its very hard to find anything out about this election but I understand it is done by dividing Pakistan up into 10 first-past-the-post electorates. Ahmedi Muslims are counted as non Muslims which they are very angry about.

EDIT: this has now changed and minorities can now vote and stand for election in the general seats. In addition minorities still have ten reserved seats which now work the same way as female reserved seats. You still have to declare your religion to vote though which many Ahmedi Muslims refuse to do because of the way Muslim is defined.

In the meantime candidates who have won more than one seat (this happens quite often) have 60 days to decide which seat they would like to keep and by-elections are then held in the ones they give up.

Within three days of the official result independent candidates have to either join a political party or pledge to remain independent. You see this happen quite a lot in seats dominated by feudal landlords. They will put up an independent candidate who will win and then join whichever party forms the Government.

About six days after official results are declared reserve seats for 60 women are allocated among the political parties in direct proportion to the number of seats the parties have already won.

Parties in Parliament then go about trying to agree on a Prime Minister and, almost as importantly, parties in the Provincial assemblies then go about trying to agree on a new Chief Minister for each province.

Finally the President of Pakistan will be elected in September by an electoral collage made up of Parliament, the Provincial assemblies, and the Senate (the Senate is indirectly elected by the Provincial assemblies – by Single Transferable vote eccentrically enough – half being elected every three years. We’re not due until 2015 so it will be this current Senate that helps pick the President).

Does winning the Presidency matter? Its hard to say. It used to be a symbolic role, then it became quite powerful, now it is fading and becoming more symbolic again – but it does in a large part depend on the personalities involved.

Do say: “The disenfranchisement of the Ahmedi community is a disgrace”.

Don’t say: “As is the disenfranchisement of the FATA, the Northern Areas, and minorities in general”. Its true but people don’t want to hear it. In fact do say it. It is true.

Who will win?

My guess? PML-N led minority coalition. PTI will get about 40 seats. But this is a much better prediction.

Results are coming in here.



§ One Response to A bluffers’ guide to the Pakistani General Election

  • […] Pakistan is one of those countries which everyone thinks they know a whole lot about, but in reality they don’t know much besides the stereotypes incessantly parroted by the media. I certainly don’t claim to know much about Pakistan, in fact much of this post is based on Who rules where‘s brilliant piece on these elections. […]

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