Everywhere elections are contested by candidates and political parties on the basis of certain issues facing the state and society; however, traditionally it has not been the case in Pakistan, particularly after the restoration of democracy in 1988. More often than not, elections in Pakistan have revolved around certain personalities whether politicians or those masquerading as politicians. This has been so because elections have not been a continuous feature of Pakistan’s political life. In such a situation personalities become more important.
However, with the passage of time and a semblance of continuity of the elected political system in Pakistan slowly and gradually issues have been becoming increasingly important in elections. For instance, in the 2002 national elections in Pakistan the United States-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan had become a partial electoral issue and this was also one of the reasons that the religious parties’ alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), whose component parties had been protesting against US occupation of Afghanistan and ouster of the Afghan Taliban regime, won a significant number of parliamentary seats. The MMA win in 2002, one may add was also largely due to then President Musharraf support and rigging of elections in favour of the alliance.
In the February 2008 national elections in Pakistan the issue of terrorism perpetrated by the Taliban groups figured significantly during the campaign and on election day. As the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) then head, Benazir Bhutto, had also been killed by the Pakistani Taliban group in December 2007, due to which elections were postponed for a while, the issue of terrorism became a key issue. This resulted in the win of the PPP at the national level and the Awami National Party (ANP), which promised the people of Khyber Pakhtunhwa (KP) province to rid them and KP of terrorism, got a majority in the province. But in the 2008 elections it was important to note that the PPP despite the loss of its popular leader, Benazir Bhutto, could not win a landslide victory. The ANP could only win with very thin margins in different constituencies in the KP, because the PTI and certain important parties had boycotted the elections. In other words for the ANP it was just a walkover. This suggests that the 2008 national elections in Pakistan although were contested on the issue of terrorism but it was far from being a decisive factor.
In the 2013 national elections the issue of terrorism although was important but equally important was the issue of energy crisis in the country particularly power outages and gas shortages. The issue of corruption and bad governance also became important factors in the outcome of these elections. Insofar as the issue of terrorism was concerned both the PPP and the ANP, which had together won a majority in the 2002 national elections and had also formed a coalition government at the centre, Sindh and Balochistan provinces except the Punjab, badly failed to eliminate terrorism and restore peace and normalcy in the country. This was evident from the fact that the PPP even could not bring to justice the killers of Benazir Bhutto. This was despite the fact that the PPP chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, who assumed the office of president of Pakistan and had claimed time and again that he was well-aware of the killers of BB. On the other hand the ANP, despite making agreements with the father of the Taliban, Sufi Muhammad, and sacrificing tens of its leaders and workers, could not restore peace in the province of KP let alone eliminating terrorism. The foremost reason was that both the PPP and the ANP governments at the federal and provincial levels got involved in large-scale financial corruption which brought a bad name to the parties. Moreover, the quality of governance remained pathetic. Consequently, in the 2013 national elections, both the PPP and the ANP were routed except in the Sindh province where the former maintained its government.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which formed the government at the centre and province after the highly suspected elections of May 2013, has also governed badly both at the centre and the Punjab. This is evident from the fact that the bare minimum which the PML-N could not achieve of putting an end to the energy crisis in the last five years, which the party leadership had vowed time and again before 2013, and even after that, of fixing in just months. Today after five years the situation of power crisis in the country is as bad as it was in 2013. Most of the power projects which the PML-N has been bragging to have initiated have failed to generate energy. Whereas the circular debt which the government has accumulated over the years particularly to provide funds to the power generation companies has increased manifold. Financial corruption in the PML-N has been pervasive to the extent that the Finance Minister Ishaq Dar had to virtually flee the country to escape arrest in cases of financial corruption. Above all, although Mian Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified for being in active service of a foreign entity while serving as prime minster of Pakistan, by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, is facing charges of corruption, accumulating wealth illegitimately and illegally transferring ill-gotten wealth from Pakistan to England. The main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has been in the forefront in both countrywide protests and agitation against Sharif and PML-N for rigging the 2013 elections and Sharif’s involvement in the Panama corruption scandal, has taken the issue of corruption to a new height in Pakistan. Recently, the PTI head Imran Khan took the unprecedented step of sacking 20 of its nearly 60 members of KP, where the party has its government, for accepting millions of rupees from other parties’ candidates in the March 3 Senate elections. This has further highlighted the issue of corruption and made it a real public issue ahead of the next general elections. Having said this, the PTI has partially failed to eliminate corruption from KP in the last five years. However, the party has claimed that it needs more time to put an end to corruption in the province and the entire country. The party also claims with a lot of substance that as the party has never had a chance to have its federal government and prime minister therefore, once it is elected at the central level it would put an end to corruption.
The PTI also claims to have restored peace and normalcy in KP, which has been greatly devastated by terrorism in the name of religion for more than one decade and put in place a system of “merit” in the province. Therefore, it should be given an opportunity by the people to govern at the federal level so that it could install a meritocratic system of governance which would automatically result in an end to corruption and bad governance. The PML-N, on its part, has been trying to exploit the ouster of Nawaz Sharif by colouring it as a conspiracy of the powers-that-be against his person and the party rule. There are some who agree to his line of argument. However, it would be extremely difficult for the PML-N to attract a large number of voters by only such argumentation. The party does not seem to have any argument beyond that.
On the other hand the PPP which could not improve its governance in Sindh province does not have an issue on which to do politics. Still, keeping in view the ultraconservative political scene of Sindh, the PPP is most likely to win without having any issue on which to ask people to vote.
In a nutshell, the issues of corruption plus the quality of governance are going to be two key issues which would play a decisive role in the results of the next elections provided the polls are fair and transparent.