Set to determine a new direction after several happening weeks, the Pakistani elections are just round the corner.
Around a 100 million voters will be participating in the polls on July 25th, with the largest province of Punjab taking on its ubiquitous role of the “king-maker” as it has the largest electorate.
Rural areas and villages gain more prominence as they account for 60 percent of the total electorate. Gaining a “simple majority” in the National Assembly requires at least 172 seats, whichever party provides this representation will elect its prime minister.
Leaving aside smaller parties, the three main contenders and their respective parties are Shahbaz Sharif, ex-chief minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Imran Khan leading the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari with his Pakistan People’s Party.
Following a prolonged corruption scandal beginning with being named in the Panama Leaks, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ruled ineligible to contest the elections by the apex court.
Convicted on corruption charges by an accountability court recently, he has been arrested on his return to Pakistan. Consequently, his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif has taken his place. He is reputed for planning extensive infrastructure projects and “economic revolutions”.
Upsetting the status quo and undertaking large-scale changes is never simple and these elections could transform Pakistan’s politicsSabena Siddiqui
Putting Nawaz in prison could get his party an unexpected sympathy vote, even though there is a popular demand since long to root out corruption.
The problem here is that corrupt elements in all the other parties have not been disqualified yet and they are contesting elections. This does not make for an even playing field and might make the election a bit controversial.
In the meantime, former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan seems to be riding on a wave of popularity after having won his war against corruption, his victory happens to be Nawaz’s arrest, which is, deemed an unfair witch-hunt by the erstwhile ruling Sharif clan.
Promising to eradicate feudalism, wipe out corruption and streamline government inefficiency, Imran Khan has an uphill task ahead if he wins. Not only that, he has announced that he would create 10 million jobs and provide housing for the poor.
Finally, the Pakistan People’s Party is being represented by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is a bright young man with many ideas for a progressive Pakistan. Seen more as a political broker in these elections, PPP is predicted to form government with a larger party if a coalition is formed.
Thus, there are three main parties, each with its own vision of a future Pakistan. Some independent candidates with the election symbol of a jeep are also rumoured to be potential power brokers after the election results are out.
However, no matter which party comes to power, it will face the same pressing issues like the ongoing economic stability and the next government will have to avert an immediate balance-of-payments crisis, most probably by getting Pakistan’s second IMF loan in five years.
Similarly, water conservation has become top priority for Pakistan and the building of both small and large dams has to be undertaken on a war footing.
Continuity is also expected where the China Pakistan Economic Corridor mega-project is concerned as it is a project between governments, not political parties, and it will continue in the same way Pakistan carried on with its nuclear program notwithstanding the changing of several governments.
Likewise, Pakistan will continue to balance its foreign relations with its friends and strategic allies, the world is getting to be more multipolar in nature and the age of power blocs is over in this geo-economic century.
Most of all, regional unity is very important for countering terrorism which has still not ended. Even as the campaigning was taking place, two terrorist attacks took place in the provinces of Balochistan and KPK bordering Afghanistan just two weeks before the elections.
Given the stakes and risks involved, this portends to be a close election amid multiple domestic and political challenges. Upsetting the status quo and undertaking large-scale changes is never simple and these elections could transform Pakistan’s politics.
Voting for moderate, liberal parties, which do not support far right, extremist elements would determine a positive way forward as only a moderate government can help balance relations with the US and the rest of Pakistan’s friends and allies as well as fight terrorism.
Considering that most of the electorate is in the rural areas and has a very different voting pattern relying on grassroots level contacts and a lot of feudal influence, it is not easy to predict where it leads.
Especially as the rural voters have very little presence on social media it is a more traditional pocket. Consequently, a hung parliament is very likely and a coalition government might be formed.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.