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 email@example.com)