February 22, 2008
By the time this column is printed Pakistan will have gone to the polls and elected a new government. If the election was managed without significant rigging, it could be the beginning of sustained democracy in a country that has known mostly political instability for most of its existence.
The latest polls done in the last two weeks of January showed a substantial lead for the PPP nationwide, with PMLN trailing in second place and the PMLQ, which is the pro-Musharraf party lagging behind. What is the likely outcome of this scenario?
Pakistan , unlike most parliamentary systems, does not have a proportional representation system. In those systems, each party gets a share of seats equal to its share of the national vote. In Pakistan, the seats are assigned by the winner of each district separately. So whichever party wins the most votes in a given district wins that district. This allows a party that can come out on top in most districts, even if its winning vote total is only 35% of the vote, to end up with a huge majority in the National Assembly. This is what happened in the 1997 election when the PML under Nawaz Sharif won over two-thirds of the total seats even though they did not even get 40% of the total vote.
The PPP is positioned to perhaps repeat that outcome. It is likely to win a huge proportion of the Sindh seats outside of Karachi. But the real test will be whether it can win in Punjab. What might make the difference is if the anti-PPP vote in Punjab splits between the PMLN and PMLQ, leaving the PPP candidates to win the seats even though they are getting much less than 50% of the vote.
The PMLN needs to avoid this outcome if it is to win a share of power. As the PMLQ has the power of incumbency and the support of Musharraf and the government it might be that the PMLN may get a smaller share of the seats than its supporters are currently expecting. When it comes to rigging, there may also be some incentive for Musharraf and the army to accept a PPP win as long as the PMLQ retains a significant base and the PMLN is kept down. Such an outcome might be protested by Nawaz Sharif and his supporters, but if the PPP sees a victory handed to it, it might choose to look the other way as Nawaz Sharif is marginalized.
For Musharraf, his personal popularity, which was at 60% in 2006, has hit a new low. At this point it seems that his effectiveness as a leader is limited. While he has done much to advance Pakistan as a country, he could probably serve it even better by retiring rather than getting into the tussle of politics that will mark relations between him and the next Prime Minister. It is unclear, given how muddled the lines of authority now are between the President and the Prime Minister in the oft-amended constitution, how the relationship between Musharraf and the next PM will actually work out.
For the religious parties, this election will be a bad one. It is likely that they will lose control of the government in the NWFP, and will also lose their 15% of the seats in the National Assembly. The MMA alliance is looking at a big setback.
The ultimate question is how big the anti-Musharraf coalition will be. If the anti-Msuharraf parties can capture a two-thirds majority, they can undo Musharraf’s constitutional amendments, and can even go after his claim to the Presidency. But if Musharraf’s allies, particularly the PMLQ and the MQM in Karachi can together put together at least 35% of the seats, they can keep Musharraf in power fort the next five years.
My hope is that the PPP wins a governing majority but falls short of a two-thirds level. I would like the PMLQ to finish second, and Nawaz Sharif to finish much behind. It would also be nice if the MMA got wiped out, while the MQM gets enough seats to be part of the Sindh governing coalition. Such an outcome would likely yield the most positive foundation for pushing forward the transition to real democracy in Pakistan.