Usually, by this point in time, the contours of the contest have been relatively clearly defined. Candidates have been awarded tickets, manifestos have been published, and leaders have taken to the streets of Pakistan as they swing into campaign mode. There are always some issues that continue to crop up, such as allegations of bias on the part of the caretaker governments and the ECP, but the essential nature of the competition is established; depending on your point of view, it is either a Manichean clash between implacably opposed forces of good and evil, or a more cynical exercise in dividing the spoils of power amongst an irredeemably venal elite. In either case, the major players are defined and the country braces for a month of political combat.

Not so this time. Less than a month away from a round of elections that always seems to be on the brink of being delayed or cancelled, the political arena remains disturbingly unsettled. Every day brings with it a new set of revelations and upheavals; ‘heavyweights’ disqualified, sit-ins against ticket allocations, the investigation of corruption cases, and so on. At a time when all the major parties and candidates should have settled into a familiar rhythm of campaigning, they are instead faced with uncertainty. All of this is taking place in the context of a political atmosphere that is perhaps more polarized than it has ever been before. Like fortune tellers reading tea leaves, the media and more energized members of the electorate – activists, true believers, and opportunists – pick through every scrap of information and pore over every possible signal emanating from the courts, the ECP, and NAB as they strive to gain some understanding of what is coming.

All of this uncertainty stems from two main sources. First, there are the actions of the courts, NAB, and the ECP. The rejection of nomination papers, the disqualification of candidates, and the opening of accountability cases are all actions that have been undertaken by these institutions. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Indeed, anything that strengthens the democratic process by holding those in power to account for their actions should be welcomed. The only problem, in the current context, is that it is not immediately clear that partisan bias is not animating these actions. While some are quick to point out that politicians from the PTI have had their nomination papers rejected just like their counterparts in the PML-N, the reality is that it is the PML-N that seems to have been targeted with particular vigor for the better part of a year. An inability to hold everyone accountable should never mean that those who can be prosecuted should simply be allowed to walk free, but it is not obvious why the process of accountability in Pakistan has been so narrowly focused on one party.

Matters are not helped by the rationale that has been employed to justify rejecting nominations and banning politicians. It has been said before but must be said again – articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, requiring parliamentarians to be ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’, are too vaguely defined and easily misused to be viable mechanisms through which to judge the suitability of those aspiring for public office. Other than the fact that, in most democracies, the electorate is trusted to make up its own mind about the merits of the candidates placed before it, with former convicts and individuals with dubious histories littering the global political landscape, it surely makes sense to establish clear criteria by which to determine what should or should not allow an individual to contest an election. Under the status quo, all manner of actions, real and perceived, can lead to disqualification, ranging from serious financial crimes to minor errors of omission and, as Imran Khan himself is discovering, possible indiscretions of a personal nature which should ideally have no relevance to the country’s politics can also be drudged up as potential causes for ending a political career.

The second major factor generating so much uncertainty prior to the elections is the way the parties have been allocating tickets. Unsurprisingly, the 2018 elections have opened fissures within the PML-N and the PTI, with rival factions in both engaging in sometimes open warfare over the question of ticket allocation. For the PTI, the problem stems from the old conflict between its ideological and electable wings, with the latter now appearing to be ascendant as the party’s message shifts from radical change to using the system against itself – an ambition that has parallels in history that have usually failed to deliver on their promise. The PML-N, on the other hand, is dealing with internal conflict of a different sort; the party is far from the heady days of 2015 when competition over tickets for local government led hundreds of candidates across the country to compete as independents with a view to being absorbed into the PML-N later. Now, the party’s tussles with the establishment, the fear that the latter is actively involved in cutting the former down to size, and the reported differences between the Nawaz and Shahbaz camps in the party, and resultant defections to other parties have all complicated the party’s electoral calculations and dimmed its prospects.

In 2013, contrary to the noise being made on social media and on TV, the outcome was relatively easy to predict. While few would have expected the PML-N to win as convincingly as it did (allegations of rigging notwithstanding), it seemed obvious that the party would triumph over a discredited PPP and an inexperienced PTI. This time, everything seems to be much more up in the air; it is a very difficult election to call, and the persisting uncertainty described above does not help matters in this regard.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.