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Will Imran Khan be the swing factor?

Imran Khan, the popular cricketer - known for his sharp swing bowling - turned politician of Pakistan had  an accidental fall while campaigning in Lahore and sustained a serious head-injury- an incident which was captured live on television and rapidly disseminated through social media to thousands of Pakistani citizens who are preparing for a historic election on Saturday writes C Uday Bhaskar

by C Uday  Bhaskar

Imran Khan, the popular cricketer - known for his sharp swing bowling - turned politician of Pakistan had  an accidental fall while campaigning in Lahore and sustained a serious head-injury -  an incident which was captured live on television and rapidly disseminated through social media to thousands of Pakistani citizens who are preparing for a historic election on Saturday.

The effect of this accident has been dramatic and has united Pakistan in a rare show of unity and solidarity. While Imran Khan is no doubt seriously  injured , his condition is reported to be stable and both his supporters and detractors closed ranks in the immediate aftermath  of the accident.

His arch political rivals - President Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief -  expressed their sympathy in public and the latter even called off his campaigning for a day, so as not to be seen to be taking advantage of the accident.

The assessment about the May 11 election may be reviewed  at two levels - one as  before the Imran Khan accident and the other after this unfortunate incident. Prior to the accident, the consensus in Pakistan as reflected in the media and the equivalent of opinion  polls  was that the PML-N led by Nawaz Sharief would be the single largest part in the 342 member lower house - but perhaps short of an absolute majority to form a government, thereby leading to a coalition.

It was also opined that the Zardari-led PPP is now afflicted with anti-incumbency  and that the average Pakistani citizen would  look for a change through the ballot. And Imran Khan’s new party - the  PTI  ( Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf  ) was seen as being relatively new and untested. Though the popular cricketer had warned his rivals that a ‘tsunami’ in support of the  PTI  would  overwhelm them, astute political watchers in Pakistan saw this as wishful thinking.

The possibility that Imran Khan could be a significant player as a prospective coalition partner was mooted - but it seemed that the numbers would not be in his favor.

However post the May 7 accident,  the sympathy wave for Imran Khan has been unexpected. In the last three days, there has been an unprecedented  outpouring of support for the TIP leader in the urban electorate that is cyber-savvy and both the PPP and the PML-N are concerned.

The 342 Pakistan National Assembly has 272 directly elected members and 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities. The provincial distribution has Punjab in the lead with 148 seats, while Sind has 61 and  Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa 35 ;  Balochistan and FATA  (Federally Administered Tribal Areas ) have  14 and 12 seats respectively and the national capital has 2 members.

These are the crucial 272 seats and the Punjab province holds the key to electoral victory and the forming of the new government in Islamabad.

The sympathy vote for Imran Khan after the May 7 accident could have the greatest impact in Punjab and  the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. A national icon, Imran Khan has links with both these regions and his empathy with the right-wing Islamist groups - and to an extent with the  Pakistan Taliban has created a pro-TIP constituency. But these are the traditional vote banks for the PML-N and the Sharief brothers who see Punjab as their province may be the most affected in a four-way contest which will split the vote between the  Nawaz Sharief led PML-N, the Zardari led PPP ,  the  Imran Khan led  PTI  - and the Islam-oriented MMA grouping. 

In the first-past-the-post yardstick, the margins for each seat will be accordingly reduced and as often evidenced  in India, multi-party  contests in the parliamentary form of democracy can lead to unexpected results.

The magic number is 172 seats in the Pakistan National Assembly and on current evidence, it appears unlikely that any single-party will get to that number or cross it. The possibility of a PML-N led coalition is the more likely outcome and in this scenario, the role of the  PTI  could become significant.

In the 2008 election, the  tally  of elected seats among the major parties was as follows: PPP - 94 ; PML-N  71 ; PML-Q 42  ; MQM - 19 ; ANP - 10; and the MMA - 5.

This time in 2013, the PML-Q  which had benefited under the Musharraf rule is unlikely to get much support and the  PTI  may well become the swing  factor for the new coalition - which in my view will be led by Nawaz Sharief.

The current sympathy for Imaran Khan notwithstanding, the run-up to the May 11 election in Pakistan has been splattered with bloodshed and the deliberate killing of moderate and liberal political leaders by the Pakistan Taliban and its support-base. Regrettably neither the PML-N or the TIP have taken an unequivocal position on this right-wing constituency and there appears to be an intent to placate the extremist elements by playing the anti-US card and pandering to their inflexible  Islamist ideology.

The Pakistan Taliban has issued repeated  warnings that their bullets will silence the ballot-box if any party or leader is seen to be too 'secular'  and straying from the ‘true’ path of Islam.

To his credit, in the last fortnight Imran Khan has been more nuanced in his reference to the challenge of domestic terrorism in Pakistan and in a signed article cautioned his electorate:

“We now stand at a critical crossroad in our history with rampant violence, terror and fissiparous tendencies spreading across Pakistan. While these are certainly the worst of times for this country, decimated as it is by violence, corruption and polarization, it can also be seen as the most opportune of times to move towards a rebirth of Pakistan in the vision of its Quaid.”

A ‘naya Pakistan’  is the slogan of Imran Khan. The power of the ballot over the bullet in realizing this vision will be tested on May 11. And the powerful Pak Army will be watching the outcome from its GHQ in Rawalpindi - to step in - as it has in the past if the 'national interest' as interpreted by the khaki-brigade  is jeopardized.

(C Uday Bhaskar is Distinguished Fellow at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

Terror, abduction and a fall: turbulent run-up to Pakistan polls

Pakistan was on the edge Friday, a day before it goes to the polls to decide the fate of 23,000 candidates who stayed on despite a volatile run-up that saw at least 100 people being killed in a series of terror attacks and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's son being abducted.

  Islamabad, May 10 (IANS) Pakistan was on the edge Friday, a day before it goes to the polls to decide the fate of 23,000 candidates who stayed on despite a volatile run-up that saw at least 100 people being killed in a series of terror attacks and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's son being abducted.   To add to the anxiety levels, star leader and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan suffered serious injuries after a fall in an election rally in Lahore Tuesday.   As Pakistanis prepare to vote in a new civilian government - this is the first time ever that an elected government has completed its term - former military strongman Pervez Musharraf found himself under arrest. He had returned from exile in Dubai hoping to be a factor but that was not to be.   Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim said Friday all arrangements were in place for free, fair and transparent elections.   "The power of vote can change destiny of the nation," he said.   The 20-day election campaign had ended at midnight Thursday with mainstream parties holding big public meetings in the capital Islamabad and the eastern city of Lahore.   Election for 342 seats of the National Assembly and 728 seats in the four provincial assemblies will be held simultaneously. Polling will begin at 8 a.m., and will continue until 5 p.m. without any break.   The Election Commission's data shows that a total of 23,079 candidates are in the fray for the National Assembly and provincial assembly seats. The country of 180 million will 84 million voters, including 36 million women, exercising their franchise.   The election campaign has been marred by a string of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, whose chief Hakimullah Mehsood has warned of more strikes on election day. Officials estimate that over 100 people have died and many more injured in these terror strikes. At least three candidates were killed in attacks where elections have been postponed.   The main contenders for power in this high stakes battle being watched all over the world are the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). There are others too like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Awami Muslim League and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.   Barely two days before the polls, Gilani's son Ali Haider Gilani was Thursday abducted in Multan town by armed men who attacked a street corner meeting of the PPP. Two people were killed and four injured in the brazen attack that rattled campaigners and voters.   "I urge all of my party supporters to remain peaceful and participate in the vote," Gilani said.   Pakistan's elected government completed its first full five-year term March 17, an unprecedented development in a country that has seen long spells of military rule, with the last of the military dictators being Musharraf who returned to the country March 23 after a self-imposed exile.   Though he was keen to contest the elections, Musharraf's nomination papers were rejected from four constituencies. He was subsequently arrested on graft charges and is under guard at his luxurious country villa just outside Islamabad, which has been declared a sub-jail.   The elections are being held under a caretaker government with Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, a former judge of the country's top court, being made the caretaker prime minister.   Pakistan's parliament, according to the 1973 constitution, is bicameral. It consists of the president and two houses - the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly has 342 seats, including 60 reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims

The ballot and the bayonet

The reason why the Pakistani state has adopted such a kid-glove approach towards these terrorists was made clear by Maulana Fazlur Rehman at a speech in Dera Ghazi Khan recently when he demanded that no force be used against the TTP. Clearly, he was currying favour with them so he could continue his campaign without having to worry about security.   Irfan Hussain In most countries, if a criminal gang had issued a death threat against high-profile national organisations five months earlier than their killing spree, two things would happen:   Firstly, the state would make a concerted attempt to track down and neutralise the murderers; and secondly, the targets would be provided enhanced security. In Pakistan, neither has happened after the Taliban’s declaration of intent last December. As a result, they are attacking the PPP, the MQM and ANP candidates with bombs and bullets at will.   The reason why the Pakistani state has adopted such a kid-glove approach towards these terrorists was made clear by Maulana Fazlur Rehman at a speech in Dera Ghazi Khan recently when he demanded that no force be used against the TTP. Clearly, he was currying favour with them so he could continue his campaign without having to worry about security.   This theme was echoed by Imran Khan at a rally in D.I. Khan when he waved aside precautions, saying he did not need any security on the stage. Of course, he doesn’t: he did not acquire the nickname Taliban Khan for nothing. By excusing terror attacks on ordinary Pakistanis by saying they are being caused by the US drone campaign, he has sought to legitimise the TTP’s onslaught that has killed tens of thousands.   Nawaz Sharif, too, is reaping the rewards of his studied silence on the issue. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister for the last five years, has hardly been energetic in pursuing the militants based in southern Punjab. They have used these sanctuaries to attack targets in the other three provinces. And when he appealed to them not to launch attacks in Punjab because his administration was not pursuing them, he was raising the white flag of surrender.   Understandably, the Taliban were emboldened by these clear signals from these right-wing politicians, and have decided to settle scores with the three parties standing in their way. As Ejaz Haider wrote recently in the Express Tribune, the Taliban have a clear strategy for imposing their version of Sharia on Pakistan. While they know they could never hope to come to power through elections, they are using terror to push their agenda.   The reason they are succeeding is that divisions across the political spectrum have prevented decisive action. In order to gain immunity from attacks, politicians like Fazlur Rehman, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have sown enough confusion to cause paralysis among the defence establishment.   The PPP-led coalition that ruled these last five years — hardly the best example of dynamic, clear-headed governance — was powerless in the face of multiple challenges from the military, the judiciary, the media and the opposition. Constantly bleating about the lack of consensus, the government was an impotent witness to an escalating terror campaign.   If Pakistan were under attack from, say, India, there would be an instant consensus on the need to defend ourselves. And yet the threat Pakistan faces from terrorism is just as serious. So why this ambivalence among our politicians and our generals where the TTP is concerned?   Lenin, when advising on how to advance a cause, wrote: “Probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” The Taliban must be delighted at meeting mush most of the time. The only time they met steel was in Swat, but it’s been plain sailing since that setback.   Apart from the tragedy of the lives lost in this bloody run-up to the election, another loss is the truth. Given the brakes that have had to be applied to the campaigns of the PPP, the ANP and the MQM, they will always be able to claim that they received less votes than they would have in normal circumstances. And it is true that many of their voters will be reluctant to risk their lives by queuing at highly vulnerable polling stations.   Thus, we will never really know how the incumbency factor and the perception of poor governance has affected the outcome. Out of the three parties, the MQM is likely to be the least troubled by the terror campaign as its well-oiled machine delivers in each election. Most voters in the areas the party controls have little say in how their ballots are cast.   The other troubling factor is the perception that fortunately, Punjab has been barely hit by the TTP’s terror tactics. The smaller provinces have some justification in blaming Shahbaz Sharif’s policy of appeasement for the bloodbath they are experiencing. This will add to the feeling of disenfranchisement the smaller provinces feel, and fuel anti-Punjab sentiment.   When the Boston Marathon was bombed last month, the FBI assigned 1,000 agents to reconstruct the steps that led to the attack, and to determine whether the two young Chechen brothers were part of a terrorist organisation. This is the kind of meticulous investigation that has warded off other similar attacks.   In Pakistan, apart from routine editorial handwringing, it’s business as usual after a terror attack. Our pathetic security apparatus has no clue about the perpetrators or their whereabouts. In fact, the whole intelligence failure over the last few years has been nothing short of catastrophic.   Considering the billions allocated annually to the ISI, MI and sundry other intelligence organisations, it’s a scandal that they have done so little to counter the Taliban threat. The next government will hopefully stir our spooks into action.   But if — as is widely expected — Nawaz Sharif becomes the next prime minister, why would he want to disturb the arrangement he seems to have reached with the Taliban? Imran Khan, too, wants no military action against these killers.   So it seems the Taliban will continue meeting mush as they push their bayonets deeper into Pakistan.   irfan.husain@gmail.com   The Dawn, 5 May 2013

The next five years

Judging by the number of Western media and analytical queries I have received over the past two weeks, there seems to be a growing interest in Western capitals in the potential implications of the elections on Pakistan's foreign policy orientation. The interest is perhaps triggered by Pakistan's self-acclaimed and much-touted 'strategic shift' that has continued to receive attention in Western capitals (and in New Delhi and Kabul for that matter). At best, the shift is only partially understood and there is no sense of whether it is likely to have any longevity.

Moeed Yusuf Judging by the number of Western media and analytical queries I have received over the past two weeks, there seems to be a growing interest in Western capitals in the potential implications of the elections on Pakistan's foreign policy orientation. The interest is perhaps triggered by Pakistan's self-acclaimed and much-touted 'strategic shift' that has continued to receive attention in Western capitals (and in New Delhi and Kabul for that matter). At best, the shift is only partially understood and there is no sense of whether it is likely to have any longevity. Therefore, the very basic question: what should we (external watchers) expect from the next five years? One can answer this with some confidence since, perhaps driven by Pakistan's acute internal challenges, the establishment and the three major political parties (the PPP, PML-N and PTI) seem to have converged on the key markers — not necessarily in terms of the pace with which things should move but at least on the broad directionality of the key foreign relationships. The continuing civilian-military disconnect on a number of foreign policy questions notwithstanding, the convergence began to emerge during the last PPP government. At its core, it entails a subtle recalibration of the country's regional outlook coupled with a status quo approach on relations with China and the US. The next five years are likely to see a consolidation of this. Conceptually, as far as I can decipher, there are six major pillars of this outlook. First, positive movement with India: The inevitable vocal and perhaps violent challenge from the right-wing notwithstanding, the leaderships of the three major parties seem to be fairly sanguine on the options. We'll have to find the right political jargon and face-savers to pursue this fully but the bottom line is set: the way forward is trade. Jaw-jaw will continue on Kashmir in parallel but it won't hold the rest hostage. The establishment has found this difficult to swallow but it is also aware of the internal compulsions. The pace of movement will remain up for discussion but the directionality will not. Second, hedging on Afghanistan: The Afghan policy can take one of two very different directions depending on what transpires in Kabul post-2014. The current desire is to see Pakistan reduce its reliance on hardcore Islamist Pakhtuns and open up with the northern factions. Behind-the-scenes efforts to reach out to the north have been ongoing for some time. The desire for greater attention to the economic aspects of the relationship is also part of this thinking. Quite to the contrary, a return to civil war in Afghanistan will inevitably trigger the good old proxy game with Pakistan falling on the side of the hardcore elements and the traditional supporters of the northern factions reviving their erstwhile ties. Pakistan will find itself squarely on the wrong side of global opinion if this outcome transpires. Third, rebalancing of the Sunni-Shia divide — read, the Saudi-Iran equation: For years, Pakistan has been firmly in the Saudi camp with all its attendant economic benefits and ideological repercussions. This has begun to undergo some correction for two reasons. First, the ideological repercussions seem to have caught up with us fair and square. Among other fallouts, the 'Arabisation' of the Pakistani religious right's mindset and its ability to intimidate its opponents has quite obviously exacerbated the Sunni-Shia divide in Pakistan. The state, with the history of tilt towards the Sunni crescent, is increasingly finding it hard to pledge neutrality. It is quickly losing control of the situation. Second is energy where the Pakistani decision-making enclave seems to be taking the Iranian option far more seriously than one thought it would given the Western opposition. President Zardari's last visit to Iran had both goals in mind. Admittedly, a PML-N government with its closer links to the Saudi royals may be less sympathetic to this recalibration but again, it could tamper with the pace, not directionality. The latter seems to be coming out of a deeper realisation that the traditional policy has run its course. Fourth, consistency on China: There is zero dissent on this all-weather friendship despite the clear Chinese signalling that it will not get into the business of bailing Pakistan out with free handouts on a regular basis. The attachment to China, however, is almost reflexive. The future policy will continue seeking Chinese investment and increasingly also use Beijing as a buffer against the geo-political squeeze Islamabad feels it is under. The Chinese presence in Gwadar ought to be seen in this light. Fifth, more of the same with the US: For all the seesawing and finger-pointing we have seen from both sides over the years, the bottom line is that neither can afford to alienate the other completely. Pakistan worries Washington and this will not allow it to walk away. Islamabad realises it has been treading on thin ice and cannot afford isolation. There will continue to be a lot of lip service to decreasing dependence on the US (especially from the likes of PTI). It won't happen though — neither the establishment nor the political parties wish to forgo the assistance that flows from Washington. So there will be angst; there will be mudslinging; but the relationship will continue. Sixth, more outreach to the traditionally neglected. Efforts to reach out to Moscow over the past two years are examples of efforts at diversification of foreign policy options. None of these are likely to be consequential in the foreseeable future. Net positive or negative? It depends. The best case implies improved ties with the region without losing out on Western engagement. A more realpolitik analysis on the other hand suggests a major problem: continued outreach to Iran may well be non-negotiable in Riyadh and Washington. How Pakistan manages to deal with this challenge will determine the fate of the reorientation. The Tribune, 30 April 2013

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