Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari agreed today to work together after the February 18 election. They lead the two main opposition parties that are expected to capture the majority of votes in an election that will either move the country towards stabilisation or exacerbate a political crisis. The poll could also determine the fate of President Pervez Musharraf.
Around 81 million Pakistanis are registered to vote in general elections due on February 18. More than 7,300 candidates are contesting:
• 272 National Assembly seats;
• 99 seats in the North-west Frontier Province (NWFP) assembly;
• 130 seats in Sindh;
• 51 seats in Baluchistan; and
• 297 seats in Punjab.
There are also seats reserved for women and minorities that are allocated proportionately (70 in the National Assembly, 38 in Sindh, 25 in NWFP, 14 in Baluchistan and 74 in Punjab). Around 1,000 international observers (mostly from the United States and the EU) will be allowed to monitor polling, vote-counting and the compilation of results. However, for security reasons, they have to let the government know which of the 64,000 polling stations they will visit.
Turnout patterns. Since the 1970 elections (viewed as Pakistan's most free), voter turnout has been steadily declining:
• It fell from 63% in 1970 to around 41% in 2002. • In 1997, when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif secured a landslide victory, it was 35%.
Average turnout is around 40% and it would be significant if this figure were achieved next week given the poor security situation. (Over the past few days there have been three terrorist attacks on the Awami National Party, ANP, a secular Pashtun party expected to do well in NWFP). Many voters are likely to stay away:
• The government has issued shoot-on-sight orders against troublemakers.
• There is a high probability of manipulation.
Voter turnout, particularly in the rural areas (about 70% of the country), also depends on the ability of voters to get to ballot stations. On a recent survey, 75% of voters said that they may use transport provided by a candidate, though 78% also asserted that this would not influence their vote. A high turnout would benefit opposition leaders Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, who has been leading the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) since his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.
Political players. Political parties poised to play a crucial role in forming the next government include the PPP, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) (PML-Q), Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the ANP. Jamaat-e-Islam (JI) and Imran Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaf are boycotting the elections.
Only the PPP and the PML (N) have nationwide support. Indeed, the Bhutto assassination and the Election Commission decision to reject Sharif's candidature mean the next premier will not be a politician with national support. In a country where charisma and political background mean a lot, this could also discourage voting. Zardari is not contesting the elections. His controversial past is a distraction, and he has less support than PPP Vice-Chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim.
Independent candidates are also running:
• Most belong to well-known feudal families who can win in certain constituencies.
• Many deserted the PML (Q) as its credibility fell.
• They are among those most likely to be influenced by the intelligence agencies.
Leadership question. In the event of a PPP victory, a Sindh politician will probably be nominated for prime minister. However, there is speculation that a South Punjabi, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is also being considered. Qureshi, a well-educated member of a respected Multan family, is deemed loyal to Zardari and acceptable to the military.
PML (Q) leader Pervez Elahi Chaudhry, former Punjab chief minister and a Musharraf ally, is also a prime ministerial candidate. However, it is highly unlikely that free and fair elections would produce a victory for the incumbent ruling party.