Whether the February 18 elections produce an immediate national crisis, an unpopular U.S.- friendly regime, or a stabilizing coalition of opposition parties depends on the Punjab.
In terms of wealth, population, members of parliament, media attention, and elite clout, Punjab is the state that matters most in Pakistani politics.
Its 148 national assembly seats are the key to the February 18 general elections.
With the Sindh-based PPP expected to dominate its own province and do well in the Balochistan and the North West Frontier Provinces, Punjab is the province in which the winner of the national plurality will be determined.
Punjab is also the main battleground between two factions of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-Q and the PML-N.
The PML-N is headed by Nawaz Sharif, Punjab’s former chief minister and its favorite son, previously prime minister of Pakistan and currently opposition leader.
The PML-Q was created from the ruins of Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League as the bulwark of President Musharraf's power when Sharif was driven from power--and out of Pakistan--in 1999.
The PML-N expects to do quite well in Punjab and even in the national elections.
The PML-Q's popularity has collapsed along with Musharraf's, but it hopes its resources of patronage, administrative pressure, and vote rigging will enable it to survive the February 18 elections with a minimal loss of seats.
If the PML-N cuts into PML-Q support enough, it may deny Musharraf’s party the national plurality it needs to form the new government.
If the PPP and the PML-N both do well enough in Punjab to push the PML-Q into third place without the PPP gaining an absolute majority nationwide, it will encourage the formation of a PPP/PML-N coalition, something desired by 72% of respondents in the recent IRI poll.
If the PPP overcomes the PML-N in Punjab and Sharif’s party places third nationally behind the PML-Q, Zardari may feel he has the political cover to exclude Sharif and ally with Musharraf in the coalition that Washington—and nobody else—wants.
If the PML-N cuts into PPP support enough, it may deny Zardari’s party the plurality it needs and puts the PML-Q on top again; then the PPP will call its supporters in the streets and trigger a national crisis rather than submit to a hung parliament and a new election.
Punjab is the most important story in the elections.
But nobody seems to know what will happen.
There are predictions that the PML-N will get 45 to 110 seats, virtually all of them in Punjab.
That's a difference of more than a factor of 2.
There’s plenty of reason for uncertainty.
Half of the Pakistani population is illiterate, and will be marking the ballot not based on the candidate’s name, but on the electoral symbols arrow (PPP), tiger (PML-N), and bicycle (PML-Q) or the 143 symbols of the other smaller parties contesting the elections.
And the symbol they seek will depend upon preferences of the elites that control Pakistan’s localities.
In Pakistan’s countryside, politics aren’t local—they are family...and feudal.
Kinship networks, known as biradari, of rich, educated families dominate rural society.
These biradari networks obtain political insurance for their local standing and interests by fielding their sons and (some daughters) as candidates for the provincial and national assemblies.
The biradari provide employment, protection, and justice or their opposite to millions of rural workers. At election time, the biradari deploy these workers as political assets, known as their “vote bank”, on behalf of their selected candidates.
Sometimes a biradari monopolizes a particular district. Sometimes biradari go head to head.
So inside baseball Pakistani political reporting reads like this :
The NA-86 (Chiniot city and Saddar) [Punjab] constituency has seen, in the past, many keen contests fought between Sheikh Samlanas and Shah Daultanas.The two major branches of the Bukhari Sayeds, residing in this area for more than four centuries, have their base in Thathi Gharbi and Rajoa Saddat, respectively...
Shah Daultanas won the seat in 1977 and 1985 [and 1993 and 2002]...
Sheikh Samlanas had their share of success in 1988 and 1990 when Amir Hussain Sayed won the seat on a PPP ticket.
For the 2008 elections, the PPP has awarded ticket to Sayed Enayat Ali Shah, the cousin of Amir Hussain Sayed, who is facing Sardarzada Muhammad Tahir Shah on a PML-Q ticket...
Annoyed with the party decision, Amir Hussain Sayed has also filed his nomination papers from the same constituency...
The parties the baridari choose to represent are not selected according to permanent ideological preferences or political loyalties.
Party affiliation is based on a clear-eyed evaluation of which party has the best chance of success.
After Musharraf deposed Sharif in 1999 and expelled him from the country, political candidates in Punjab shifted wholesale to a new party sponsored by the government, the PML-Q.
The PML-Q led the formation of the governing coalition in parliament and dispensed patronage, lavish to the point of fiscal irresponsibility, primarily in Punjab.
Now that Sharif has returned and the popularity of Musharraf and the PML-Q has cratered, lota (turncoat or opportunistic) candidates are peeling off from the PML-Q and seeking tickets as PML-N or PPP candidates.
Lota is a particularly insulting term, since a lota is a water jug used in South Asia for washing one's backside. Lotas often have rounded bottoms and tend to roll back and forth, evoking the image of someone who switches from one position to another and is inconstant in his or her loyalties.
The gyrations of Punjab's most notorious lota, Colonel (retired) Cheema in Punjab’s National Assembly district 101 are particularly noteworthy.
Colonel Cheema served as Benazir Bhutto’s Defence Minister and ran on a PPP ticket; when she was kicked out, he switched his allegiance to Nawaz Sharif and ran on a PML-N ticket; and when Sharif fell, Cheema became a core member of the PML-Q. Despite his track record (or perhaps because of it), the PML-Q shouldered him aside for this electoral cycle.
Col. Cheema’s shortcomings are indignantly discussed in a Pakistani politics message board (Urdu snark and translation in bold):
Col(r) Ghulam Sarwar Cheema common known as \\\"Lota e Azam\\\" [Turncoat of the Nation; sardonic twisting of title Quaid e Azam “Leader of the Nation” bestowed on Pakistan’s founder-ed] in the constituency was the one who after the musharaff take over on oct 12,99 branded Mian Nawaz Sharif as \\\" Ullu Ka patha\\\" [Urdu “son of an owl” e.g. “idiot”-ed] in all national newspapers again went to ask for ticket but this time he was disgraced and denied PPP and then PML(N) ticket.
Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Marhuma Rated him as \\\"personna non Gratta\\\" and PML(N) flatly refused to entertain his application.
Now after having no option he is openly siding with Hamid Nasir Chattha and have placed hs daughter to oppose PML(N) candidate. On the other side when Mian shahbaz sharif and Nawaz Sharif visited the constituency his banner were also there to greet them. What A charachter to earn such a name \\\"lota e Azam\\\". :)
It’s easy even for Pakistani political junkies to get confused.
The reference to Cheema running his daughter is apparently incorrect. There is a Cheema running on a PPP ticket, but she’s the daughter of another powerful local Cheema, Shahnawaz Cheema.
The PML-Q gave the NA 101 ticket to Hamid Nasir Chattha, a powerful Punjabi politician and himself a veteran of both the Bhutto and Sharif parties, whose family grouping, the Jatts is dominant in the area (the Cheemas are described as a sub-group of the Jatts and Cheemas have battled Chatthas in the last four parliamentary elections).
Chattha’s son, by virtue of his position as the local nazim or magistrate, has been pouring government money into the district, which is expected to benefit his father.
Colonel Cheema apparently does identify himself as a PML-N man, even though the party doesn’t currently want him. His charmingly disingenuous political profile can be viewed here .
He describes his affiliation as PML-N, while indiscriminately proclaiming his affection for Sharif, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Karl Marx, horses, cricket, squash, the army, and the rule of law (he wanted to become a barrister!).There is no mention of his previous position in the PML-Q, despite his rise to the position of acting secretary general of that party.
The question, especially for Sharif, is how much opportunism puts a prospective ally beyond the pale. With that “son of an owl” remark, Col. Cheema may have crossed that line, at least for now. The PML-N is running another candidate, a third Cheema-- Iftikhar Ahmed Cheema—but he is not expected to have a chance.
Whatever happens in NA-101, where the PPP is favored this year, and despite Zardari’s active recruitment of candidates and campaigning in Punjab, it looks like Nawaz Sharif has a solid base of support in his home province, especially in urban areas like Lahore where opinion politics has a role and biradari-type politics are less of a factor.
Province-wide, however, given the intricacies of biradari politics, popularity and polling are not dependable indicators of electoral success.
Add to that, the influence of the local nazims, who are supposed to influence elections in their jurisdictions on behalf of the current government, if not their relatives.
And add to that the ticket adjustments—where parties avoid fielding candidates in constituencies of important allies and insurmountable enemies.
Add to that the alleged vote rigging.
Several sites have taken on the thankless task of trying to predict the outcome of the parliamentary elections based on the relative local strengths of the various candidates.
The one that seems to go into the greatest depth, judging by its methodology, granularity, and the heated discussion of electoral minutiae on its message boards, is PKPolitics .
It makes an extremely rosy evaluation of Nawaz Sharif’s political fortunes, and takes the bold step of predicting that the PML-N will actually win 79 seats nationwide on February 18--more than the PPP!
That unlikely outcome would cause no small amount of heartburn for the PPP.
It’s one thing to attribute the disappointment of one’s political fortunes to vote-rigging on behalf of the despised PML-Q. But to lose out to the PML-N?
Especially since resentment of Punjabi domination of the national discourse is universal in Sindh and strong in Balochistan and the NWFP.
A result that gave the Punjab-based PML-N, if not the Punjab-based PML-Q, the upper hand would make the aftermath of the parliamentary elections interesting—and awkward—indeed both for the PPP and the PML-N.
But even without such an astounding result, it appears that Sharif hopes to exit February 18 with a decisive block in parliament, second only to the PPP, ready to settle into a ruling coalition, with the PML-N well positioned to expand its influence inside that key province.
That should be more than satisfactory to Sharif, who is unable to run for a seat (and compete for the prime ministership) himself in this election because of unfinished legal business.
He’s clearly in this for the long haul.
A pre-election profile in Pakistan’s biggest media conglomerate, Dawn, shamelessly fluffed Sharif’s prospects (editorial glossing in bold):
THE first impression that one gets after seeing Nawaz Sharif is that he is not a man in a hurry. He is at ease with himself, somebody who has gained weight, physically and politically, not to mention a full head of hair [Ed. note: This is a snarky reference to Sharif’s recent hair plugs. No doubt feeling the need to compete with the glamorous Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Sharif invested in a new hair line and a new, more cosmpolitan look before returning from Saudi Arabia for the elections. Compare and contrast the recent image above of Mr. Sharif as confident world leader with a magnificent coiffure with the black and white photograph below of Mr. Sharif in his younger and balder days, stuffed into national dress and looking like an embarrassed garden gnome.]
He seems to have realised that he is once again in the power game. It may take longer than he would like, but surely, sooner or later, he will get another chance to make it to that place up on the hill from where he was sacked unceremoniously over eight years ago.
He struggled back from a position where merely coming back to Pakistan was an achievement. Since then he is definitely going from strength to strength. Even his worst in the coming election may not be so bad. His aides are confident that the PML-N would be the biggest party in the National Assembly after the PPP by winning at least 70 seats.
Nawaz Sharif seems to have reconciled himself to not being anointed king this time. But he surely has a chance to become the king-maker.
And who knows if his stars continue to be as blessed as they are, a time may come when he decides the premiership for a possible national government.
The good thing is that he is focused on issues. He is taking a clear stance on the reinstatement of judges, unlike the PPP’s dilly-dallying on the issue.
In a recent meeting with Nawaz Sharif at his residence in Lahore it was obvious that he realises the political potential of the judges issue. It has a popular appeal and also endears him to the legal community. Even those lawyers who are PPP members acknowledge Mr Sharif’s categorical support.
He also seemed aware of the new media, the new judiciary and the new (civil society). That’s why among the first things that he did after his return was to call on Justice Ramday [one of the Supreme Court justices under house arrest for declaring Musharraf’s state of emergency illegal-ed].
The message that we got in Ittefaq Lane [the Sharif family residence-ed] was: who knows this might lead to the new army that the new chief is promising us in the new environment. Let, as they say, old be sold.
He wants to strengthen the public perception that he is, ironically Bhutto-like — a defiant and anti-status quo politician.
“We want to play it like a test match,” [obligatory cricket reference ; Americans would say “we're running a marathon”] one of his confidantes shared his views during a recent visit to Lahore. “We know we are here to stay so that’s why we are done with old style of power play. We are seeking permanence in politics that only issues-based politics can bring.”
The author, Amir Mateen, hedges his bets at the end with a prediction that the PML-N might take only 45-55 seats nationwide, with the vast majority in Punjab.
Or it might get 79 seats, as PKPolitics thinks.
Or 110 seats, the number that both the PML-N and PML-Q are optimistically claiming for their own electoral prospects.
Or the the PML-N collapses, and the PPP overperforms in Punjab, comes away with 50 seats of its own, and commands enough seats nationwide to command a parliamentary majority and form a government without allies.
Or the vote riggers throw discretion to the winds, the PPP underperforms, and Zardari does his best to make heck break loose instead of accepting a hung parliament and a new election that sees the growth of Nawaz Sharif’s national stature and the PML-N’s clout inside Punjab at the PPP’s expense.
Better just to wait and see.
We'll know soon enough.
Color image of Nawaz Sharif from http://www.rfi.com/