Election unknowns

ELECTION activity has swung into high gear in the country with the filing of nomination papers by candidates and mobilisation of supporters by party leaders. The election date of Feb 8 is now cast in stone. But there are more unknowns than knowns about how the election will play out.

The first unknown is the PTI factor. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is engaged in legal actions aimed at securing a level playing field in the poll. It has contested the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to deprive it of its election symbol — which is how most voters identify which party a candidate belongs to on the ballot paper.

Court dramas are likely to continue on this and other counts, including petitions challenging Khan’s disqualification. Whatever the legal outcome, the key political question is whether the perception that PTI is being persecuted will translate into a ‘sympathy wave’ to boost its electoral support or deter its supporters from showing up at the ballot box.

With most of its leaders and many activists incarcerated, it will be hard for the party to mobilise its base. But the party has also shown a knack of using social media and communication technology to overcome such obstacles. Whether this will work in the complex environment of individual parliamentary constituencies remains to be tested.

This brings up the second unknown. Constitu­ency politics embedded in networks of traditio­nal allegiances often override the personal popularity of leaders at the national level. If there was a presidential system, a leader’s popularity would be enough to determine the outcome. But parliamentary elections are a different matter where dynamics are more complicated.

The phenomenon of ‘all politics is local’ also works to the advantage of older parties that have long dominated Pakistan’s constituency-based politics. Electoral politics still pivots around transactional patterns of behaviour and traditional allegiances to determine the result at the constituency level — hence the importance of so-called electables, who are local power brokers. This makes the overall outcome harder to predict.

The third unknown is the impact of the urban-rural balance, which in the past has long tilted in favour of the countryside and reinforced traditional allegiances. But greater urbanisation is altering this picture. Although urban Pakistan is still underrepresented, many rural constituencies now have urban features.

In the battleground province of Punjab, this shift is most evident. In Punjab’s 144 national constituencies more than half are now either urban or ‘mixed’, displaying a significant urban complexion. This is weakening older alignments and reshaping voting patterns, again making outcomes harder to forecast.

Prevailing in the election will be in vain if the battle for Pakistan’s economic revival is lost.

New voters are a fourth unknown factor. Since the last election in 2018, over 23.5 million voters have been added to the electoral list — 18 per cent of the electorate. This could impart a significant swing factor to the election. A substantial number of new voters can be assumed to be unaffiliated to any party with no firm party preference. They are therefore up for grabs for any party able to appeal to them and get them out to vote.

The youth bulge in the electorate has, of course, attracted much attention. ECP figures show voters from the ages of 18 to 35 constitute 45pc of the electorate. This makes young voters a significant factor, even a game changer, in determining the poll outcome. But what is unknown is whether young voters will actually show up at the ballot box — which would give PTI an edge.

So far, turnout among younger voters has been exceedingly low. Official statistics are lacking on this but a Gallup-Pakistan report, relying on exit polls conducted since 1988, finds youth turnout to be much lower than overall voter participation. It shows that usually only a quarter of young voters turned out to vote. In the past two elections, their participation was only a third compared to the average overall turnout of 52pc.

Overall voter turnout is itself a big unknown. It could be a significant indicator of how free, fair and credible voters will judge the election to be. Turnout in previous elections has ranged bet­w­­­een 51pc (2018), 53pc (2013), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). The lowest turnout in 2002 was cle­a­­­­rly a measure of the scepticism with which people saw an election held under military rule. A very low turnout, say below 44pc, could undermine the legitimacy of the February election result.

Another unknown is how voters in Punjab will respond to the new Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party organised to upend PTI and comprised mostly of PTI deserters in a process orchestrated by the establishment. Pakistan’s electoral history shows voters usually punish turncoats, just as they reject expedient alliances. Individual IPP leaders with a strong constituency base may, however, buck this trend.

What should be among election ‘knowns’ by now is where contesting parties stand on the consequential issues and challenges facing the country. But with elections just a month away, political parties have yet to articulate their positions on key policy issues or offer detailed programmes on what they will do if elected.

One party has made extravagant and utterly unrealistic promises wilfully ignoring the dire state of the economy. At a time when the economy is still in the critical ward and needs bold and decisive action, the need for policy ideas and options has never been greater. However, this has yet to figure in the election campaign that has so far been mostly about ticket distribution and ‘seat adjustment’ deals.

Pointing out that “Pakistan needs urgent fiscal and structural reforms to restore macroeconomic stability and lay the foundations for sustainable growth”, the lack of attention to economic issues and expressions of commitment to reform probably urged the World Bank to publicly voice concern about post-election policy reversals in critical areas of reform by powerful vested interests. This, it said, could pose high macroeconomic risks to Pakistan, especially as the next government’s priorities and commitment to structural reforms are not known.

While people wait to hear from their political leaders about how they plan to address pressing economic issues what is clear is that prevailing in the electoral contest will be in vain if the battle for Pakistan’s economic recovery and renewal is lost.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

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