On May 11, as millions queued in sweltering heat to cast their vote, defying Taliban threats, Pakistan made history. For the first time, a governmental transition has been made possible through the ballot. The outgoing coalition government, led by Bhutto’s PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party], was the first elected government to complete its term. This is a positive sign.
However, the outcome of the elections hardly leaves any room for celebration for progressive forces. In a house of 272, the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction [PMLN] has gained a near majority [128 mandates/35% votes]. Led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, PMLN has bagged most of the seats from Punjab, biggest of country’s four provinces. Himself a Punjabi, Sharif was ousted in a military coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia in 1999. He returned to Pakistan in 2008 when an Arab Spring- like situation emerged. An industrial tycoon with conservative social views and a neo-liberal economic agenda, Sharif was not able to guide his party to power in 2008 elections. However, his party formed the government in the Punjab province. In the other three provinces, and at the Centre, a PPP-led coalition came to power and in no time became notorious for corruption as well as inefficiency. In contrast, the Punjab government was relatively effective. It was evident that in any fresh elections, the PPP would be decimated. Hence, Sharif cleverly kept waiting in the wings.
Meantime, another factor emerged. Imran Khan, former cricket star who guided Pakistan to its only world cup victory in 1992, began to attract huge audiences. Politically marginalized since the formation of his Pakistan Justice Movement [PTI], Khan was voicing middle class grievances both against PPP and PMLN. The urban middle classes were pivotal in bringing down the Musharraf dictatorship in 2008. An explosion of private TV channels [there are over 80 now] since 2001, helped galvanize their cause in the anti-Musharraf movement. The many TV channels amplified middle class concerns, because urban middle classes are the target audience. It was through the medium of TV that Khan was able to woo the middle classes. Khan’s description of the country’s problem is simple. Corruption and tax-evasion, he says, are holding the country back. He vowed to end corruption on coming to power in 90 days and through a better tax-collection, he promised to build a welfare system on Swedish lines. His political message was couched in Islamic terminology. The Swedish welfare system, for instance, is modeled on Islamic teachings, according to Imran. Once (in)famous for his playboy lifestyle, Khan is a lifestyle liberal but politically conservative. However, on economic policy, he is hardly any different from Sharif or Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower. The only difference is, Khan’s career is not tainted by corruption scams. He also runs a huge charity network consisting of country’s only cancer hospital and a university. Also, he was most vocal against the US drone attacks. His anti-drone rhetoric won him a huge following in Khyaber Pakhtoonkhwa province which, on the one hand is subjected to US drone attacks and on the other hand devastated by Taliban terror. His PTI will form the government in this province and has emerged as second biggest party nationally (33 mandates/17 percent votes).
What do Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan say about the Taliban? While Sharif is either evasive or avoids criticism of Taliban, Imran implicitly praises them as ‘freedom fighters’. Both want to hold peace talks to pacify the Taliban. In this case, both are in sync with Pakistan army. As if to acknowledge Sharif’s and Khan’s friendship, the Taliban ahead of May 11 elections had announced not to allow the PPP and its allies, Peoples National Party (ANP) and United National Movement (MQM), any canvassing. The ANP, a continuation of Ghandhi’s Congress party from the colonial days, is the only mainstream secular party. Once staunchly anti-imperialist, ANP has jumped the ideological fence and is considered a pro-US party. In 2008, it won the election in the province and formed a government. It defended and abetted US policies in the ‘war on terror’, and as a result, it has been under constant Taliban attack since 2008. During its electioneering effort ahead of the May 11 polls, its meetings were attacked by the Taliban 31 times. In about five years, Taliban terror has claimed the lives of 800 ANP activists and leaders.
As far as the PPP is concerned, it has been reduced to Sindh province [31 mandates in the national parliament but a majority in Sindh parliament]. Home to the Bhuttos, Sindh is Pakistan's second largest province. In Balochistan province, where armed rebels fighting for independence called for an electoral boycott. It seems their call was heeded. Turnout was hardly 20 percent. Various nationalist factions contesting elections have won in these low-turn out contests.
Two main left currents, the recently formed Awami Workers party [after a merger of three parties] and IMT [International Marxist Tendency] had fielded over fifty candidates for various parliaments. An IMT candidate won but results were first rigged, and a later re-election was announced, to deny him victory. He contested elections from South Waziristan, a hub of Taliban militancy and a major target for US drones. Despite the left’s humble participation, it was a step forward that the left was able to field so many candidates.