Political confusion will likely result in a split mandate

Any person or a group with financial resources and socio-political agenda can set up a political party in a democratic country. The real test of a party is how it copes with elections. If a political party stays away from several elections it will disappear from the political scene or become irrelevant. If a party hardly wins a seat in the elections over an extended period it is unable to sustain its support. A good number of people do not vote for the parties that have little or no chances of winning seats.

There is a proliferation of political parties in Pakistan. Currently 227 political parties are registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan. If you include unregistered political parties there would be over three hundred political parties. Up to now 123 are entitled to contest the elections. This number is going to rise in the next two weeks. However, not all of them will field candidates. There may be 35-40 political parties, excluding independent candidates, in the elections to the national and provincial assemblies. Out of these only 15 to 20 parties are expected to draw attention.

The major competition for the seats of national and provincial assemblies is going to be between the PPP (contesting as PPP-P) and the PML-N. However, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) will evoke much curiosity because it is expected to win seats in the National Assembly, the Punjab Assembly and perhaps in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly. The key question would be how much seat losses the PTI can cause to the two leading parties which will have implications for the role of these leading parties in the formation of a coalition government at the federal level. Most political analysts do not share the PTI leadershipís optimism that it will sweep aside the two leading party and become the number one contender for setting up the federal government.

There are more reports of seat adjustments among the political parties than electoral alliance building because the former method is relatively easier to agree to and gives a lot of flexibility to those agreeing to seat adjustment. Though the PPP, the ANP, and the PML-Q (three partners in the federal government) are seeking seat adjustment with each other and other parties where possible, there is more active politics of seat adjustment and electoral partnership building among the political parties with Islamist and Political Right orientations.

The former allies of the alliance of Islamic parties, the MMA (2002-2007) have separately expressed their desire to revive it with the objective of replaying the political triumph of the 2002 elections. The two major constituent units of the former MMA, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI-F, are not expected to pull together in a formal alliance, making it difficult to revive the MMA. Some Islamic parties have announced partnerships for the elections but there is hardly any political impact of these partnerships. The Deoband/Whabbi-Bralevi divide, especially their disposition towards the Taliban and other violent religious groups, is expected to reflect on the disposition of some Islamic political parties.

One or two Shia parties may put up their candidates. Traditionally, exclusively Shia political groups have not performed in the elections because the past general elections show that a very small number of Shia vote goes to exclusively Shia parties. The PPP has been the major beneficiary of the Shia vote. This vote also spreads to different factions of the Pakistan Muslim League, the MQM and the ANP. Local political affiliations, especially the personal qualities of the candidates, disperse small number of votes to other parties, including the Jamaat-i-Islami. This time, some Shia vote is expected to be diverted from the PPP and the Muslim Leagues to PTI, especially that of the youth.

It is interesting to note that most political parties of the Political Right are agreeing to seat adjustment. One wonders how would there be seat adjustment among so many parties. It seems that it is fashionable to talk about seat adjustment whenever top leaders of different parties meet.

The MQM is expected to face credible challenge from the ANP and the Islamic parties in Karachi but the MQM is expected to maintain its political supremacy. The other parties insist that if the alleged excesses of the MQM are contained in the run up to the elections and on the polling day, Karachi will have different results. There is no way to verify this claim.

A number of political parties are striving hard to cash on the alienation of the people from the PPP in interior Sindh. Twenty-two political parties and groups have joined together in interior Sindh in the last week of February to contest elections in opposition to the PPP. Most of these parties and groups have not traditionally performed in the elections. There are three significant parties: the PML-Functional of the Pir of Pagaro, the National Peopleís Party of the late Ghulam Mustaf Jatoi, now led by his son, and the PML-N, led by Nawaz Sharif. The NPP has limited vote bank. Similarly, Mumtaz Bhutto who has joined the PML-N has not traditionally performed well in the elections. Nawaz Sharif has made earnest effort to mobilise people in his favour by addressing various public meetings in interior Sindh. His decision to join hands with the Pir of Pagaro (PML-F) helps to boost the PML-Nís fortune in interior Sindh. However, the Pir of Pagaro, while agreeing to work with Nawaz Sharif, is maintaining his autonomy because his party is expected to get more voters alienated from the PPP than any other political party. If he commits himself fully with Nawaz Sharif, the latterís position will be strengthened but this limits the Pirís political options in the post-election scenario. He may encourage his followers to attend Nawaz Sharifís public meetings but the vote of his followers will go to PML-F candidates, unless the PML-F agrees to step back in favour of the PML-N.

General Pervez Musharraf plans to return later this month for entering the political fray. Pakistan has changed so much since 2008 that Musharraf will find himself irrelevant in the political context of 2013, especially because his Muslim League (APML) is in shambles. All political parties will target him for criticism and court cases will haunt him. Instead of returning to active politics, Musharraf should write another book. However, proliferation of political parties and increased politico-religious divisions are likely to increase political confusion and produce a split mandate.