Election preview: Pakistan

Tomorrow represents a milestone for Pakistan. For the first time in its history, an elected government offers itself for re-election after serving a full term in office. The process has been chaotic and violent, but nonetheless Pakistan is starting to look as if democratic government may become the rule rather than the exception.

The country’s electoral history has not been a happy one. It was ruled for ten years by a fundamentalist military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, until he was killed in a plane crash in 1988. An unexpected return to democracy ensued, and the following elections were won by the Pakistan People’s Party. Its leader, Benazir Bhutto (whose father had been executed by Zia), became the first elected female leader of a Muslim country.

There followed a long period of constitutional crises punctuated by attempted coups, with the alternation in power of the PPP and its rival, the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. This period ended with the 1999 coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power.

Musharraf was finally forced to concede democratic elections in 2008. Bhutto was assassinated before they took place, but her party was victorious and her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, eventually replaced Musharraf as president. Constitutional changes later reduced the president’s powers (at least on paper) to those of a typical Westminster-system figurehead, but the PPP remained in government under successive prime ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani (who was unseated by the Supreme Court) and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.

Roughly speaking, the PPP is centre-left in orientation and the PML(N) is centre-right, but the former is particularly strong in Sindh, in Pakistan’s south, while Sharif’s party is concentrated in the Punjab, in the north. The balance between them could be held by the reformist Islamist party Movement for Justice (Tehreek-e-Insaf), led by cricketing hero Imran Khan, which boycotted the 2008 election.

Khan dominated media coverage for a couple of days this week after being injured in a fall from a makeshift lift at a campaign rally: that may unleash a powerful sympathy vote, but it’s impossible to tell. The headlines have since been taken over by the abduction of Ali Haider Gilani, an independent PPP candidate and son of the former prime minister, also at a campaign rally. The kidnapping is widely blamed on the Taliban, who have been primarily responsible for the violence that has plagued the campaign and taken more than a hundred lives.

The general expectation for tomorrow is that the pendulum will swing back to the PML(N) and that Sharif will again become prime minister. Although he is not thought likely to win a majority in his own right, if his party does well he should have no trouble governing with the support of small regional parties and independents. But if the three main parties are returned with comparable levels of support, there could be a prolonged period of horse trading before a government can be formed.

The election itself is fairly straightforward. Pakistan operates a classically British system of single-member electorates with first-past-the-post voting. There are also 60 seats reserved for women and ten for religious minorities; these are allocated proportionally by party lists, so they don’t alter the relative strengths established by the constituency vote.

As with India, because parties have strong regional variations in strength the system doesn’t discriminate against smaller parties as much as it might, but it throws up all sorts of other random unfairnesses. Sometimes they roughly cancel out, sometimes not. In 2008, Musharraf’s party, the PML(Q) came second in terms of votes with 23%, but because its support was less geographically concentrated it finished with only 16% of the seats, well behind both the PPP and PML(N). That may be a problem this time for the Movement for Justice, although beyond a certain threshold it could also work in its favor.

There are a total of 342 seats in the National Assembly; elections for the four provincial governments are also being held on the same day (Al-Jazeera has a nice graphic). The Electoral Commission site is here – with any luck, results should come through sometime on Sunday morning, Australian time.

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