There are hundreds of political parties and tens of thousands of candidates chasing a few hundred seats in the May 11 general elections in Pakistan. We examine the parties, the issues and some of the same tired old faces that have dominated Pakistani politics for decades.
Elections are not only noisy but violent affairs in Pakistan. How many will be shot and killed in rallies and what will happen on election day (May 11) is yet to be determined but if the past is any guide, scores of people are likely to be killed in election related violence.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said it had received a record 24,094 nomination papers. Of these, 3,764 are for the National Assembly contesting 272 seats (another 70 are reserved for women (60) and minorities (10) bringing the total to 342) and the remainder for the four Provincial assemblies. Perhaps only in Pakistan can a single candidate run in four different constituencies simultaneously. This enables leaders of political parties and feudal lords to have a perennial position in government, given that they can get a seat from at least from one constituency.
This year, however, because of an activist judiciary, articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s Constitution are being enforced rigorously, much to the chagrin of secularists both in the media and the society at large. Similarly, 54 outgoing lawmakers were disqualified for holding fake graduate degrees; some were sentenced to jail terms as well as fined. Another 189 failed to provide proper documentation for their degrees. Candidates must hold at least a bachelor’s degree to contest elections. This last condition was imposed by the former dictator, General Pervez Musharraf who returned to Pakistan on March 24 after spending years in exile to avoid court appearances on a number of charges.
The Supreme Court ordered the Returning Officers to question candidates about their knowledge of Islam. Some candidates were unable to answer even basic questions like the number of juz’s (paras) in the Qur’an or how many rak‘ahs there are in the five daily prayers.
It is, however, the enforcement of articles 62 and 63 (also introduced by another former dictator, General Zia ul-Haq) that has aroused the greatest angst among secularists. Article 62(1)(e) says: “(1) A person shall not be qualified to be elected or chosen as a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) unless — (e) he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins.” The Supreme Court ordered the Returning Officers to question candidates about their knowledge of Islam. Some candidates were unable to answer even basic questions like the number of juz’s (paras) in the Qur’an or how many rak‘ahs there are in the five daily prayers. The secularists took offence at such questions arguing that lack of knowledge of these matters would not prevent lawmakers from performing their duties in parliament. The same can be said about not having any formal education.
The issue, however, is not whether knowledge of such matters would make better lawmakers. The real point is the enforcement of articles of the Constitution. Every elected official as well as judges and officers of the armed forces are required to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. How can people be elected to parliament to make laws for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (the country’s official name) yet they themselves do not have basic knowledge of Islam? If the very basis of electing people is wrong, what can be expected of them in terms of upholding the Constitution and of remaining faithful to the country?
Article 62(1)(g) of the Constitution is very clear on the question of Pakistan’s ideology. It states that a person is qualified to become Member of Parliament if “he has not, after the establishment of Pakistan, worked against the ideology of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan.” Even in the nomination papers submitted to the Election Commission, every candidate is required to sign the oath: “I will strive to preserve the Islamic Ideology which is the basis for the creation of Pakistan.” Secularists have taken offence at this clause as well. Would any American be allowed to sit in Congress if he said he would violate articles of the US Constitution? Only in Pakistan do the secularists say such things and expect to get away with it. Perhaps no more, thanks to an activist judiciary that insists on upholding the law. It did not write the Constitution but it is required to uphold it. The secularists and feudal lords are upset.
We must, however, turn our attention to the plethora of political parties in Pakistan. There are at least six factions of the Pakistan Muslim League, each with little resemblance to the party that led the movement for the creation of Pakistan. The largest faction is the Pakistan Muslim League (N), named after Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister in the1990s. On current projections, his party might garner the largest number of seats in parliament because its strength is in Punjab, which accounts for 60% of the assembly seats. A faction that broke away from the Nawaz group calls itself Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e Azam group); Chaudhry Shujaat Husain leads this faction. He was aligned with the People’s Party to stay in power. When General Pervez Musharraf was in power, this party acted as his stalking horse. In the forthcoming elections, its chances of winning any seats are slim.
Other factions of the Pakistan Muslim League include Functional Group created by Pir Pagara; Pakistan Muslim League (Zia) named after the late General Zia ul-Haq and currently led by his son Ijaz ul-Haq; the All Pakistan Muslim League, formed by the ousted dictator General Pervez Musharraf, and then there is the Awami Muslim League led by Sheikh Rashid. The last three are one-man parties and insist on using the Muslim League name for recognition.
The other major party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has also had a run at governing twice. Theoretically, it is led by Bilal Bhutto Zardari, son of Asif Ali Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto but Asif Zardari is the real power wielder. Currently serving as president, he is a shifty character and has managed to survive by making deals with various players. His party is not expected to do well because of its disastrous five-year rule. Another faction of the party is called the Pakistan Peoples Party (Shaheed Bhutto). Fatima Bhutto, daughter of Mir Murtaza Bhutto who was killed in 1996 when Benazir was prime minister, leads this faction. There are allegations, unproven so far, that Zardari was involved in the killing of his brother-in-law. There are three other factions of the Pakistan Peoples Party: Sherpao faction, National People’s Party and People’s Party (Parliamentarians). Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and Amin Faheem lead these factions respectively.
The party that has aroused the greatest attention is Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), led by Cricket-star-turned politician, Imran Khan. How well it will do is the big question. Its supporters believe it will sweep the polls; others are less optimistic because of the way politics are played in Pakistan. Various parties have their own support base and making inroads in those areas might be difficult. For instance, Punjab is the stronghold of Pakistan Muslim League (N). The PPP holds sway in the interior of Sindh while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) dominates such urban centers as Karachi and Hyderabad. There are also attempts at seat adjustment between various parties to enhance their chances of success.
Among the Islamic parties are the following: Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (F - Fazlur Rahman), Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (S – Sami ul-Haq), Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (N – Nazariati of maulana Asmatullah), Jamiat Ahle Hadith, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Jafaria, Sunni Ittehad Council, Sunni Tehreek, Hizbut Tahrir and Hazara Democratic Party, a Shia party from Baluchistan. On the secular side, the following parties are better known: Awami National Party, Jamhoori Wattan Party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Muhajir Qaumi Movement (Haqiqi), Jammu Kashmir Peoples Party, National Party, Pakhtun-khwa Milli Awami Party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, Awami Tahreek (Sindh) and Balochistan National Party.
Other smaller parties are: Green Party of Pakistan, Labour Party Pakistan, Communist Party of Pakistan, Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party, National Workers Party, Mazdoor Kisan Party, Jannat Pakistan Party, Justice and Development Party Pakistan and Pakistan Christian Congress.
In this potpourri, it will be interesting to see how the people of Pakistan find their way and choose a suitable representative. All parties have been given an election symbol. This will help the electorate to choose their favorite candidate but turnout in elections has traditionally been low. It is not expected to be much higher this time either unless Imran Khan is able to mobilize his youth base.
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