Imagine three ongoing conflicts within a country’s borders: a Taliban-led insurgency in the tribal areas; a separatist movement in the copper and gold-rich province bordering Iran and Afghanistan; and the largest city hostage to targeted killings on a daily basis.
Those are just the security challenges nuclear-armed Pakistan faces. The world’s sixth most populous country is also on the verge of running out of money and will need to talk to the International Monetary Fund very soon.
Instead of rejoicing in their country’s unlikely democratic milestone – a civilian government just finished a full five-year term, a first in a country whose 66-year history has been marred by military rule – Pakistanis are in a sour mood as they ready to vote in national and provincial elections on May 11.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, makes a speech to launch his political career during the fifth anniversary of his mother's death, at the Bhutto family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh near Larkana, December 27, 2012. Nadeem Soomro
Pakistan Peoples Party
Can the Bhutto brand still win?
The left-leaning, secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won the 2008 elections on a wave of support following the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto.
It faced enormous challenges: tepid economic growth following the 2008 economic downturn; the relentless attacks of the Pakistan Taliban; an unpopular U.S.-led drones program; and an energy crisis that left factories without power and homeowners facing daily electricity outages in stifling heat.
The party now faces two challenges, according to political scientist Rasul Bakhsh Rais: a major encroachment by an opposition alliance on its Sindh province power base; and the very real chance it will be wiped out electorally in the country’s largest province of Punjab which holds 148 of the national assembly’s 272 seats.
A mournful TV ad tries to capture the public service that has driven several generations of Bhuttos and ended tragically: the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 and the assassination of his daughter Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Ms. Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is now the party’s co-chairman along with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari.
But the younger Mr. Bhutto is not leading his party in person because of security threats. Instead, he will speak to supporters via video link. His father, Mr. Zardari, is required under rules to remain neutral.
This time, the “emotionalism” of the Bhutto brand might not be enough, argues Prof. Rais of the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) hold images of their party leader Nawaz Sharif as they chant slogans and beat drums to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision against Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani during a rally in Karachi June 20, 2012. Akhtar Soomro
Pakistan Muslim League
The return of Nawaz Sharif
The main rival of the Pakistan Peoples Party is Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – a conservative, pro-business party that has dominated politics in Punjab province.
Mr. Sharif served as prime minister twice in the 1990s before being ousted in a coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Momentum is on his side ahead of the May 11 elections.
“The public’s perception is that this is the party that is going to form the next government – and that pulls people,” said Prof. Rais.
Many Pakistani voters will remember Mr. Sharif’s large infrastructure projects in the 1990s – highways and airports – as well as his oversight of Pakistan’s successful testing of a nuclear device.
But Mr. Sharif also had help from his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who has achieved gains in education, health and infrastructure while leading the Punjab provincial government.
“I think Shahbaz Sharif’s commitment and zeal and ability to deliver has been quite remarkable,” said Prof. Rais.
Nawaz Sharif has been criticized for his response to the rise of the Pakistan Taliban and accused of being an apologist over his call for negotiations before military action – a position more unpopular among outside observers than it is among many ordinary Pakistanis.
He is expected to make significant gains on election day because of the PPP’s unpopularity. But his support could be eroded by a former cricket superstar turned politician who is wooing young voters.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman, and former cricket captain Imran Khan gestures while attending the World Economic Forum in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. Manish Swarup
Pakistan’s candidate for change
The rise of Imran Khan
Pakistani politics has largely been a revolving door of Sharifs, Bhuttos and military generals for decades – and then along came Imran Khan.
In sporting terms, Mr. Khan is a cricket legend. He led Pakistan to its first and only World Cup win in 1992.
He turned to politics after retirement and has been searching for his breakthrough moment. Many believe it came at a rally in Lahore in October, 2011, that drew well over 100,000 supporters in a city the Sharif brothers thought they owned.
Now Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, is riding a wave of youth support with an anti-establishment strategy. He promises to rid the country of corruption, ensure that taxes are collected and reassert Pakistani sovereignty by opposing the U.S.-led drone program targeting militants in the tribal areas, one that has resulted in civilian deaths.
“I think still Imran is a game changer and I believe Pakistan politics has changed forever with Imran’s impact on society and politics,” said Prof. Rais.
Mr. Khan polls strongly in the urban areas of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – the province that borders the restive tribal areas where Pakistani soldiers are battling the Pakistan Taliban and where drone strikes happen.
Young voters will be pivotal in 2013 – of the 80 million electorate, about 30 million are between the ages of 18 and 29. Within this group, enthusiasm for Mr. Khan runs high.
But can he turn a token presence in the previous national assembly to a significant presence after May 11? Mr. Khan is expected to peel support from the Sharif brothers. But his talk of a political “tsunami” is unlikely. A more realistic scenario is to become a possible coalition partner in government.
Men look at a tattered shoe at the site of Tuesday's bomb blast, outside the campaign office of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party, in Karachi April 24, 2013. At least five people were killed and 15 others injured on Tuesday night after militants set off a bomb targeting a roadside election camp of the MQM in Karachi, according to local media. Athar Hussain
The rise of regional parties
A country divided
Smaller regional parties have already played an outsized role in Pakistan politics. The Pakistan Peoples Party was unable to win enough seats in 2008 and needed several coalition partners.
The prospect of unstable coalition governments stands over Pakistan.
“I think that is a trend in South Asia because the major political parties when they decline, their place is captured by regional and religious and sectarian political parties,” said Prof. Rais.
But he does not believe the “age of national parties” is entirely over yet, adding that the strongest national party contender is Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.
However, in a hung parliament, three regional parties could be kingmakers: the left-leaning secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM, United National Movement) which dominates Karachi politics; the left-leaning secular Awami National Party (ANP) of mainly Pashtuns who have sway in the country’s northwest; and the national parties of Baluchistan province where anti-Islamabad sentiments run high.
But each party faces a formidable task: rallying its base in the face of violence. The Pakistan Taliban has singled out the MQM and ANP for attacks, with the two parties and their candidates bearing the brunt of targeting killings and suicide bombings. The PPP has also been singled out.
The growing violence has many commentators and authorities worried about free, fair and secure elections.
Even a sour electorate will have to think carefully on election day over fears that the Pakistan Taliban will strike polling stations as the country tries to take another step in its democratic development.