December 2011, Abbottabad, Pakistan – Well over a year before Election Day, in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, I could already sense the beginnings of what was becoming the most important election in the history of the country. Political banners, slogans, and portraits lined street corners and highway billboards. Buses, filled with enthusiastic supporters, were shuttling constituents to party rallies. The political climate was heating up in anticipation of the upcoming May 11 election and even I, a foreign-born Pakistani, understood the magnitude of what was riding on the outcome
Since achieving Independence in 1947 under the leadership of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, Pakistan has not exactly been an exemplar of democratic statehood. In its relatively short 65-year history, the country has been the victim of four military coups, three territorial wars with India, and numerous rigged elections. Today, political corruption, rural poverty, and Islamic extremism plague the country. And yet, despite all this negativity, the people of Pakistan face an opportunity for change in the upcoming election.
In the Pakistan’s party dominated political landscape, there are about 90 parties, but the 2013 election has been dominated by three in particular: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The latest polls show that the PML-N will win the most seats, followed by PTI and PPP. Some speculate that if PTI and PPP form a coalition, it could control a majority of the 272 electable seats and consequently, Imran Khan (PTI) would be designated as Prime Minister.
Pakistan People’s Party — Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
Founded as a progressive party in the 1960s, the PPP won parliamentary majorities in 1973, when Zulfikar Bhutto became Prime Minister, and in 1988 and 1993, under Benazir Bhutto, the first female elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Following her assassination in 2007, the PPP won a majority of seats in the 2008 elections but have lost support in recent months with the rise of the PML-N and PTI. The current chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is the son of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, the current President of Pakistan. Educated in England and following in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather, Bilawal Bhutto possesses enormous potential as a future leader. However, since he is only 24 years old, he is unable to run as Prime Minister in the upcoming election (in order to run for a seat, a candidate must be at least 25 years of age).
The PPP has been the most targeted party of the Pakistani Taliban’s campaign violence, which has resulted in the death of several party members and the recent kidnapping of former Prime Minister Gilani’s son Yusuf Raza Gilani by gunmen in Multan. Since April 11th, pre-election bombings have left more than 100 people dead. As a result, the party has not been able to campaign as openly as it would like. Despite efforts by PPP members to protest to the Election Commission that the attacks have put an unfair strain on their campaigning abilities, with Election Day less than 24 hours away, there is little the party can do to make up lost ground. Because of the heightened threat of suicide bombers, the Pakistani Army has announced that 70,000 troops will be deployed across the country on Election Day.
Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz — Nawaz Sharif
The PML-N, a conservative party, is centered in the Punjab province. It won parliamentary majorities in 1990 and 1997 enabling its leader, Nawaz Sharif, to become Prime Minster in both years. Sharif has little to boast from his two terms as Prime Minister. Acquiring considerable wealth from his milling industry ownerships throughout the country, Sharif was accused by former President Ghulam Khan of corruption for his personal financial gains during his tenure as Prime Minster. Despite this allegation, the PML-N remains the leading party at this point in the election campaign.
Pakistan Tehree-e-Insaf — Imran Khan
The PTI is a relatively young party founded in the 1990s. It is the only party out of the major three in this election that has not had a substantial political voice until recently. Its chairman, Imran Khan (the former cricket star who brought a World Cup victory to Pakistan in 1992), first achieved national political prominence through his construction of a major cancer hospital in Lahore, dedicated to his mother who died of cancer. His work on the hospital earned him a reputation as an honest leader because he consistently provided statements of the hospital’s funding records, demonstrating that he had not pocketed any of the donations he received for the project. He was also heavily involved in aid relief efforts for flood victims in 2010. His party’s campaign focus has been to bring justice to Pakistan and to eradicate corruption within the state.
The Path of Change
If there is one thing that has been consistently lacking in the Pakistani government, it has been integrity. Pakistan’s political institutions have been riddled with corruption. Parliamentarians have laundered taxes for their own personal benefit and high-ranking leaders have coerced banks to lend, only to default on the loans. Even I have witnessed police officers blatantly accepting bribes in their execution of the “law.” Unfortunately, there exists a gap in trust between the Pakistani people and their government.
However, on May 11th, the people of Pakistan face a landmark opportunity because this election marks the first time in the country’s history that one democratically elected government will succeed another. After years of “load shedding,” infrastructure deterioration, stagnant social and economic opportunities, and overall political neglect, they finally have an opportunity to steer the country in a direction that can cater to their needs. With this opportunity, though, comes a weighty responsibility: the Pakistani people must be the catalysts for the positive change they seek within the country. This change starts by filling the gap in trust between the government and its constituents. In order to do this, the people must distinguish between leaders who have had a record of corruption from those who have not and put the latter in power. A foundation of trust will only be laid down for future democratic transitions if people have confidence in the government; this is true of any country aspiring towards democracy and Pakistan is no exception.
Both the PLM-N and PPP would preserve the status quo. Nawaz Sharif has little to speak for his leadership besides allegations of corruption and the PPP, the currently ruling party, has accomplished little in its latest attempt to govern. Of the three major candidates, only one candidate has had a track record of sincerity and honesty. From the beginning of PPP’s campaign, Imran Khan has made it a point to fight corruption in Pakistan. To some, he lacks political savvy and experience, but his greatest asset is what is most needed in the country – integrity.
Unfortunately, several days ago, Imran Khan fell off of a tall structure while making a rally appearance. The incident was completely accidental but now Imran will be bed-ridden for several weeks, which renders him unable to campaign. He has insisted, however, on making speeches from his hospital bed. Despite the circumstances, Imran is still devoted to his cause for a better Pakistan and the country should take this as a sign of his determination.
Tomorrow, despite the violence, the Pakistani will take to the ballots. For their sake, and for the sake of the country, I hope they vote for the path of change and integrity.
Facts and figures from Trading Economics, BBC, UNICEF, Guardian, and Pakistan Today
Akbar Khan is a third-year Political Science student with a minor in Global Studies. He is an intern at the Burkle Center for International Relations.