ISLAMABAD — Parliamentary elections in Pakistan are expected between March and May 2013. They would mark the first time in the nation’s history that a democratically-elected government completed its full term and transferred power to a successor. Previous elected governments have either been deposed in military coups or dismissed by presidents allied with the powerful army.
Pakistan’s National Assembly - the lower house of parliament, and the four provincial legislatures are likely to be dissolved on or before March 18, when they all complete their five-year constitutional terms.
Neutral caretaker governments will then take the democratic transition forward by preparing for national elections.
Ministers in the coalition government, headed by Pakistan People’s Party or PPP, have indicated voters may go to polls as early as May.
A central PPP leader and federal minister for defense, Naveed Qamar, says he is confident the democratic process in Pakistan will proceed as planned.
“I see the government completing its term and the assemblies coming to an end [March 18], a caretaker [government] being appointed in consultation with the opposition and elections being held within a period of 60 days,” Qamar said.
Widespread optimism on the smooth democratic transition notwithstanding, escalating political violence in the country’s biggest city, Karachi, continued Baloch nationalist insurgency in the resource-rich Baluchistan province and the ongoing Taliban-led militant violence in the northwest do pose serious challenges to the upcoming elections in Pakistan.
Critics fear that continued violence could derail the reform momentum and impact the integrity of the elections.
"“There is a lot of uncertainty gripping the Pakistani political mind," noted Ayaz Amir, who represents the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League or PML-N party in the parliament. "The law and order situation in Karachi, the law and order situation in Baluchistan, the [recent] wave of terrorism, which have struck [northwestern] Peshawar and other military installations. That is sowing doubts in people's minds whether the elections will be held on time."
The assassination of a top Pakistani politician in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on December 22 has been the latest blow to political campaigning in a region where Taliban militants have killed hundreds of political activists for opposing the Islamists.
Observers fear that the spate of targeted killings may force anti-Taliban liberal parties such as the Awami National Party to limit electioneering. This they say could impact the credibility of the polls.
But despite the surge in militant violence, observers believe the introduction of key election reforms and measures taken to ensure credibility of the future election have brought about cautious optimism among many political actors that the progress toward democratic governance in the country will continue.
Sandra Houston, Pakistan's director for National Democratic Institute, says that political parties this time around have been cooperating with one another in a manner rarely seen and are constantly engaged in consultation with the election commission on the adoption of electoral rules.
“I think that there is a real willingness amongst all of the parties and civil society and the election commission to ensure that there is a following of the rules and that there is such a level of cooperation amongst all those parties that I think the election will be considerably different,” she said.
Many local and foreign observers also praise and consider the new national list of 85 million voters to be the most accurate to date. Bogus votes in previous elections have helped some political parties maintain their dominance, casting doubts on the credibility of the process.
Adverse economic conditions, crippling inflation and acute power shortages are also likely to be major issues in the upcoming elections.
The ruling coalition is already facing widespread public resentment for failing to provide relief on these fronts. Corruption within the state institutions is another simmering issue.
The chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog, Fasih Bokhari, said in early December that Pakistan loses up to $72 million every day to inefficiency, corruption and tax evasion by the affluent.
“On a daily basis there is a large volume of corruption and drainage of financial resources of Pakistan,” noted Bokhari.
But despite all the criticism, Ahmed Bilal Mehboo of the pro-democracy non-governmental organization called ‘PILDAT’ does not rule out the possibility of the current ruling elite returning to power, albeit with a split mandate
“That will be because of the divisions in the forces, which are arrayed against them. If they are trying to contest against each other, as they are, then they would be dividing their votes themselves,” Mehboo said.
Some observers believe that the ruling PPP party could benefit from the emergence of cricket-star-turned politician Imran Khan’s political party as a third major force on national scene in recent years.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf or PTI has gained popularity because of its harsh criticism of former Prime Minister Nawaz Shairf’s PML-N party, which rules the country’s most populous province of Punjab and is the main opposition party in the national parliament.
Analysts say the rivalry could deprive Sharif’s party of crucial votes, largely to the benefit of the current ruling party headed by President Asif Ali Zardari.
In the past, Pakistan’s powerful military almost always influenced the electoral process in favor of its political allies. But observers believe the rise of a fiercely independent judiciary and private electronic media outlets have limited the military's predominance in the electoral process.
Another major factor that preoccupies the army is the continued religious, sectarian and ethnic violence in various parts of the country. This has clearly eroded the once mighty military's authority.