Foretelling an election | Najam Sethi

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Mr Asif Zardari says he will pick the next prime minister of Pakistan. He also says he will personally contest the next elections. From these two statements we can logically deduce that Mr Zardari will only get to pick the next PM instead of being the PM himself. That is to say, the PPP will not win the next elections and therefore the PM will come from some other party. That will happen because the PPP will win a sufficient number of seats, largely from Sindh, to hold the balance between the PMLN and PTI, neither of which will win enough seats to form a government on its own and instead look to the PPP and regional parties to form a coalition government in Islamabad. That is how Mr Zardari will cast the deciding vote.

This is the first time a PPP leader has ever admitted that his party is not likely to win the next general elections. Between them, the Bhuttos, father and daughter, won four elections despite being on the wrong side of the military establishment, the last one in 2008 in absentia (as it were) and paid with their lives for it. This shows how far the PPP has plunged in the esteem of Pakistani voters. Indeed, Mr Zardari’s singular achievement has been to transform a truly national, mass based, mainstream party largely of have-nots into a regional party of vaderas that is clinging to power in Sindh on the basis of the politics of corruption, patronage and martyrdom. A fleeting sense of rejuvenation at the prospect of young Bilawal infusing vigour and inspiration into the party has vanished with the return of Mr Zardari. His statements suggest he is sharpening his deal making tools to play the role of king maker because he knows he can’t conceivably be king himself.

Significantly, Mr Zardari’s analysis of how the mainstream parties are placed in the run up to the election is based upon a poor showing of his own party no less than upon similar calculations for the PMLN and PTI. He thinks the PMLN has been cut to size both by the military establishment and by Panamaleaks. He also believes that the PTI has lost the support of the military establishment and Imran Khan has disillusioned many supporters by his U-turns, lack of grass roots party development and failed dharnas, long marches and the like. In other words, while each may emerge stronger than the PPP, neither will be in a position to form a government without the PPP’s support.

Mr Zardari is also banking upon an election later this year rather than next year as scheduled. This prediction is based on the expectation of a seriously adverse court decision in Pananamaleaks for Nawaz Sharif that compels an early election and forestalls a PMLN sweep of the Senate [in which the PPP has a majority currently] and elections in February next year based on its current strength in the Punjab and Islamabad. Certainly, if elections are held this year and no party obtains a majority then the composition of the senate will also reflect that of the National Assembly and governance by coalition compromise will be the order of the day. That will suit Mr Zardari admirably because he will be able to manipulate Islamabad to get a freer hand in Sindh, which remains his top priority.

In the meanwhile, it also suits Mr Zardari to create political space for himself by focusing on running Nawaz Sharif down rather than buttressing Imran Khan by joining hands with him. It is interesting that Imran Khan is attacking both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari for corruption while neither Mr Zardari nor Mr Sharif is attacking the other or Imran Khan for corruption. It is as if Imran Khan wants to peg his election campaign on corruption and Nawaz Sharif on economic development but Mr Zardari is content to swing through Sindh with his Cheshire cat smile showering patronage all round.

In all this, there is one significant factor that could make prediction difficult. For once, the military establishment under General Qamar Bajwa doesn’t seem to have any party favourites to plug or undesirables to pull down. Imagine the lump in Imran Khan’s throat when he emerged from a recent meeting with General Bajwa and proclaimed that the good General was all for democracy. Since his foray into politics, Khan has egged on each army chief to raise his finger and declare either Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif out and give him a short cut to office. And when he didn’t succeed he was quick to turn against those very army chiefs and extol the virtues of democracy.

For one reason or another, the elections in 1988, 90, 93, 97, 2002, 2008 and 2013 were all foretold because of the overlying likes and dislikes of the military establishment. Only the election in 1970 stumped everyone because GHQ kept its hands clean. Under the circumstances, who knows what tricks fate will play upon us all.