Pakistan’s 2013 elections: Next Steps and Implications for the United States

Pakistan reached a democratic milestone this week, with a democratically-elected government completing its full term for the first time in Pakistani history. The general elections on May 11, 2013 will determine the composition of the National Assembly, which is the larger, lower house of parliament. Together, the National Assembly and the Senate, which is appointed by the provincial assemblies, will elect the prime minister. Both houses of parliament and the provincial assemblies will vote to elect the president.

Going forward, questions remain as to how the elections will be handled and the implications of the various combinations of parties in the next government. With the United States heavily invested in the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the next Pakistani government will be vital to upholding U.S. interests in the region. For Pakistan itself, the next government will have to take difficult steps to stabilize Pakistan and solve its internal issues of energy, security, corruption, and finances.

Until the May 11 elections, Pakistan will be under the control of a caretaker government, which will be appointed in the next several days according to the provisions of 20th amendment to Pakistan’s constitution. Passed in February 2012, the amendment aimed to ensure an independent election commission and a neutral caretaker government. The selection process for the caretaker prime minister has three phases. First, the outgoing prime minister and head of the opposition attempt to find a mutually-agreeable, neutral candidate. Failing that, the outgoing prime minister and head of the opposition each submit two names to a committee composed of eight members of the outgoing parliament, drawn equally from the ruling coalition and opposition. If that committee cannot agree on a caretaker prime minister within three days, the question is put to the election commission which must decide within two days.

Q1: What obstacles will the elections need to overcome?

A1: The two greatest challenges that these elections face are low voter turnout that will result in an illegitimate government and the ability to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections.

Historically, voter turnout has been low in Pakistan, with only 44 percent turnout in 2008. New players like Imran Khan and popular discontent over domestic policies have driven people to ask for change and could increase turnout. However, given the current trends of violence in Pakistan and threats by the Taliban, voter turnout could be low due to fear of attacks. Furthermore, the month of May is one of the hottest months in Pakistan and could keep people away from the polls.

Though the Election Commission has been reformed and rules and regulations have been put into place for polling stations, many Pakistanis remain skeptical of the elections being free and fair, especially given the levels of corruption in Pakistan and the lack of experience in holding transparent elections.

Q2: Could the election threaten U.S. interests in Pakistan and the region?

A2: Observers worry that the election and its lead-up could be violent and disorderly which would lead to greater instability in the coming months. For the United States government, fraudulent elections that delegitimize the resulting government with which it must partner will frustrate U.S. efforts to stabilize Pakistan and withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly manner.

The outcome of the election could also pose problems for U.S. policy. While the United States will have to partner with whatever government comes to power, previous experience has shown that the composition of the coalition government has made decision making in Pakistan difficult in the past. An election outcome that results in a fragmented coalition made up of many parties will make a difficult partner. For instance, the IMF and U.S. government pressured the government earlier in its term to pass vital tax reforms and reductions in fuel subsidies. After the government phased in higher fuel prices, a key coalition partner withdrew in protest, threatening the survival of the coalition, until fuel subsidies were re-instated and the protesting party rejoined the coalition. A similar coalition, or an even more fragmented one, will find it difficult to muster the political capital necessary to keep its member parties unified around unpopular U.S. policies, such as drone strikes and the transit of NATO military supplies which are essential for a timely and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Q3: Who are the main political contenders and what are the possible outcomes of the next election?

A3: Three parties currently lead the race for the May 11th elections, all polling between 20 percent and 30 percent, though the numbers are disputed. First, there is the current ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Asif Ali Zardari and outgoing Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. PPP won 124 seats (out of 340) in the 2008 election, more than any other party. PPP’s main base of support is in Sindh, though it has scattered support throughout the country as well.

The second party is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by two-time ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. PML-N has a strong base in the province of Punjab. In 2008, PML-N won 91 seats in the national assembly and has formed the core of the opposition to the PPP coalition.

The third party is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), challenging both the PPP and PML-N. PTI was founded by Imran Khan, former captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, and maintains an image as an outsider social movement. It boycotted the last election but has significantly grown in support since 2008. PTI’s base of support is in Lahore, and it is likely to siphon votes away from PML-N in Punjab. Early polling points to a large base of support, though without established party mechanisms for mobilizing voters this backing may not translate into victory at the polls.

Even with the uncertainty in the race, none of these parties are close to an outright victory and will need to build a coalition to reach a majority in parliament. If PPP wins, it may continue its alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), rival of the PML-N and strong supporter of the Musharraf military regime which won 54 seats in 2008. A PPP-led coalition could also continue PPP’s partnership with the Awami National Party (ANP), a liberal party with a strong Pashtun base in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which held 13 seats in the last assembly. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a liberal party with a strong base in Karachi, could also form part of a winning coalition as it did after winning 25 seats in the 2008 election. A number of other parties, including conservative Islamist and regional parties, are expected to win a handful of seats. These individual seats may be recruited into a coalition depending on how close the results are.

Q4: Who are the religious parties and can they win?

A4: In 2008, a number of Islamic parties competed under the umbrella organization Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), winning seven seats. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), a religious conservative party and the holder of MMA’s seven seats, joined the PPP coalition in 2008 and MMA was disbanded. In November 2011, a number of conservative religious organizations formed the umbrella Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defense of Pakistan Council) to protest the NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Since then, the group has attempted to put pressure on the Pakistani government to close NATO supply lines, distance Pakistan from the Indian government, and stop drone strikes in Pakistan. The DPC is competing in the upcoming general election, but without the Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam-Fazlur (JUI-F) party, which is the religious party holding the most seats in parliament. Jamaat e Islami (JI), which was part of MMA in 2008, is also running on its own. While DPC supports the Taliban, violent struggle in Pakistan, and has members previously associated with banned Islamist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba, internal divisions and weak popular support are expected to prevent it from winning in May. Past experience shows that the religious parties have been unable to win significant enough numbers of seats in parliament, whether running on their own or under umbrella organizations to constitute anywhere near a majority. Current expectations do not expect this to change, though their eventual participation in a coalition is possible.

Q5: What is the likelihood that the army will interfere given its past record?

A5: The head of Pakistan’s military establishment, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, announced in February that the military would not interfere in Pakistan’s electoral process this spring. This statement follows a speech in November when General Kayani responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the military rigged the 1990 election and ongoing investigations into past military interference in Pakistani elections by warning that efforts to undermine public support for the military threaten national security and were “unacceptable.” Despite the military’s pledge of noninterference, rumors continue that Imran Khan, the popular leader of PTI, is supported and funded by the military as an alternative to the PPP. Similar rumors circulate about Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a Canadian preacher who organized massive protests in January.

While the army certainly has concerns about democratically elected civilian governments and any impeachments on its own policies it is not likely to significantly interfere or challenge the next government, despite past behavior. Public opinion of the army is still very low especially given the security climate. Furthermore, while people argue that consistently elected democratic governments will weaken the army, the next government is not likely to challenge or force much change on the army and hence will not threaten them. Ultimately, military noninterference will be positive for U.S. interests in Pakistan as it will allow the military to focus on the precarious security situation in Pakistan.

Sadika Hameed is a fellow with the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Andrew Halterman is a research intern with the C3 program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.



Sadika Hameed

Andrew Halterman