Pakistan is Heading into Uncharted Waters

14.07.2018 Author: Martin Berger

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Tens of millions of Pakistani people will rush to polling stations on July 25 to determine the future of the country’s supreme legislative body – the lower house of parliament also known as the National Assembly (NA), which has a total of 342 seats, 272 of which are filled by direct elections. Simultaneously with the parliamentary elections, local legislative bodies will be renewed.

Like five years ago, a total of three political parties are setting the tone for Pakistani polling:

  • the ruling (within the body of a great coalition) center-right party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), named in honor of its recent leader, three-time Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif;
  • the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also known in the West as the Pakistan Movement for Justice, led by the charismatic Imran Khan, a former captain of the national cricket team and;
  • The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a left-wing social progressive party, which in the past managed to retain power for many years. Initially it was created by Zulfikar Bhutto, a legendary local politician, and is headed these days by his grandson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

According to a recent poll by Gallup which asked the opinion of some 3,000 people, the Nawaz party enjoys the support of 26% of the population, with PTI coming slightly behind at 25%, and PPP occupying third place with 16%.

It’s hardly a secret that local civil servants are being accused and sometimes charged with corruption charges, with this trend remaining true for all levels determining Pakistani policy, starting with entry level secretaries and ending with prime ministers and presidents. So one should be hardly surprised that on the eye of the parliamentary elections, we’re witnessing yet another corruption scandal unraveling before our eyes, which a potential to skew the results of the upcoming vote. Indeed, when once all mighty former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gets sentenced to 10 years in prison and demanded to pay a fine of 10.6 million dollars due to corruption charges, one would have a hard time describing this situation as trivial. But he didn’t go down alone, bringing together with him his daughter Maryam Sharif and her husband Muhammad Safdar Awan, who received seven years in prison and one year in prison respectively, while also getting slapped with considerable fines. The instigation against the Sharif family began after the release of the so-called Panama Papers, which revealed that the former prime minister was secretly purchasing posh condos in London. However,Nawaz Sharif resides in London together with his family and it doesn’t seem that he’s going to serve the sentence, as he assures everybody that the verdict against him was politically motivated, calling it a poorly concealed attempt to eliminate him from the political stage.

Yet another distinguishing feature of this election campaign in Pakistan is the active participation of a number of various radical Islamist parties and movements in the race. This includes, above all, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, led by the ultra-conservative preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi. One can also include the Pakistan National Muslim League, one of the youngest parties that the United Nations and the United States have blacklisted as a terrorist organization. Both parties were going to take part in the elections, but failed to officially register for the race.

Another radical party, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, represents little more than yet another political reincarnation of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, an ultra-conservative Sunni organization that would take an active part in fomenting sectarian unrest, with its members taking the lives of at least 2,300 people, most Shiites, over the last decade.

There’s no way these parties could effectively secure an election victory, but the steady growth of their influence transforms into a rather worrisome trend, since with the way things are going, a number of extremely radical right-wing religious parties can soon become the new mainstream in Pakistani political life. German Handelsblatt has voiced particular concern about the possibility of active participation of radical Islamist parties in Pakistani politics, pointing out the fact that one day Islamists can come out on top, and represents a nightmarish scenario for the region for a number of reasons, especially if one is to take into consideration the fact that Pakistan is nuclear power, and may choose to use its arsenal or supply nuclear munitions to all sorts of unscrupulous terrorist groups across the globe.

According to local analysts, no political force in Pakistan will succeed in recruiting a simple majority in parliament to form a government following the election. Therefore, there’s a certain degree of certainty that a coalition cabinet will be formed once all votes are counted.

Election preparations in Pakistan are being closely monitored by the leading international powers, especially during a time when Washington is too keen to twist the arm of its once loyal ally. It’s noteworthy that the White House froze all military aid it had been providing to Pakistan, on the grounds that the latter was supposedly supporting the Taliban. It is possible that the United States will brand Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, imposing sanctions, freezing overseas accounts of high-ranking officials of the country, while depriving Pakistan of the status that it acquired back in 2004 as a principal non-member ally of NATO, thereby putting an end to its preferential treatment regarding its access to American weapons.

Against the backdrop of the rapid cooling in bilateral relations between Islamabad and Washington, the former has to rely on the principle: the enemy of my opponent is my friend. That is why Pakistan’s interest in mending contacts with Beijing and Moscow has recently seen an abrupt spike. Islamabad has been in the sphere of China’s influence for several decades, which regards it as a valuable counterweight to India, thus providing all sorts of loans to Islamabad. China, which has invested some 100 billion dollars in Pakistan and has been supplying it with weapons, remains, if one is to use a term commonly used in Islamabad, “an all-weather ally of Pakistan.” Previously, Saudi Arabia was considered a reliable friend, but it seriously weakened itself through its face-off with Iran. Russia, which has become a pillar of opposition to Washington’s international warmongering, looks like a promising partner in this situation as well.

These characteristics of relations with Pakistan’s external partners are not only being played on in the election race by various parties, but will also become a very important factor in determining the future policy of the legislative and executive powers of this country.

Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”