The deadline for the dissolution of the Assembly is fast approaching, for if it does not take place, the National and Provincial Assemblies would all come to the end of their terms. The basic difference is that a dissolution means that elections must be held in 90 days, while expiry means that elections must be held in 60. That means that the caretakers got a month less to hold office. However, the government has agreed to a dissolution to allow for the scrutiny of the candidates that it had earlier agreed with the Tehrik Minhajul Quran chief Dr Tahirul Qadri when he, in turn, agreed to end the sit-in in Islamabad.

There had also been an agreement to review the demand for the replacement of the Election Commission. It had been pointed out that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) had been only appointed last year, but that was not so much important. More important was the fact that he was a candidate on whom there had been a consensus.

It was also important that in the year he has had since taking over, his conduct has been scrupulously honest. Though Dr Qadri was not in Parliament, and his party was not represented there, his call for electoral reform had clearly struck a chord with the Pakistani public. However, his demand for the replacement of the Election Commission struck no such chord. Though the CEC has been proclaiming the need for a free and fair election, the steps he has been approving, or even presiding over, are nothing new, all being within the ambit of the constitution. That, perhaps, is the main reason why the government’s legal advisers were so adamant in telling Dr Qadri that the Commission could not be changed.

Dr Qadri also found his road blocked by the Supreme Court, which cast his Canadian dual nationality in his face, by ruling that it prevented him having locus standi. That meant that after his sit-in, he was losing considerably in political relevance, even though he was still sufficiently important to merit an alliance with the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf. This alliance of the two new kids on the block allowed the traditional parties to continue practicing politics as usual.

This has led the PML-N to form an alliance with the JUI-F. The JUI-F is still seeking an alliance that would bring it to office in the NWFP, which it achieved in 1972 in alliance with the then NAP, now the ANP, and then in 2003, when it formed the government as part for the MMA, but to which it contributed the Chief Minister. The PML-N needs the alliance to replace the one it had with the ANP, as the ANP now seems more comfortable with the PPP. The PML-N may have been able to live with a situation where the vote on the right would have been split, so long as the vote on the left was also split, but with the left vote uniting, a split on the right had to be avoided.

This alliance also shows that the political parties are still working on a new reality in the tribal areas, which does not accommodate them, but has had to include drone attacks and the USA. The impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan, or rather drawdown of forces to perform a training mission, is also a factor. Both parties have links with the militants, as well as to the USA. If they come into government, they would help the USA withdraw. The PML-N is expected to form the next government. This aspect is also being kept in view, since the militancy has now reached Balochistan, where the JUI-F has developed enough strength in the Pashtun areas to be part of the government frequently.

However, the PML-N did not just reach out to the JUI-F, but also found allies in Sindh. Its alliance with the PML-F was renewed, something that had become more crucial because of three events. First, the PML-F had a new President, who was not implacably opposed to the PPP as the late Pir Pagaro, his predecessor, as both party chief and spiritual leader, who had long had an election alliance with the PML-N. The present Pir, who took over last year, had served as Sindh Leader of the Opposition and PML-N Parliamentary Leader.

Another development that had seemed to make the understanding difficult, if not impossible, had been the appointment of Makhdoom Ahmad Mahmud to the Punjab Governorship. Not only was Mahmud the late Pir’s Punjab President, but he had also been a member of Mian Nawaz’s 1988-90 Punjab Cabinet, as well as later a Minister of State in the centre. Makhdoom Ahmad Mahmud is a relative of Pir Pagaro by virtue of being his first cousin. Also, he is the cousin of Yousuf Raza Gilani, one of whose sons is married to the Pir’s daughter. And thus, he is also a relative by that marriage. However, the PML-F pulled out of the Sindh coalition over the local government bill, which it saw as needless kowtowing by the PPP to the MQM. Not just the PML-F, but the NPP also joined the PML-N.

It should be noted that these were electoral understandings, not alliances. That meant contesting on their own symbols, and thus a readiness to join the government as a bloc, with the advantages of separate seating and separate membership of committees. In short, politics as usual. An illustration of how the politicians would like to short-circuit the prescribed process is shown by the MQM departure from the government, ostensibly over the local government law, but so that it can stake the claim to the Leadership of the Opposition. It will make the choice of Sindh Chief Minister a matter for President Asif Zardari and Altaf Hussain to decide, in which case they will seek to win the election, not have it fair. Both are strong in their respective areas, but both face unprecedented challenges. This is an ideal scenario for poll-fixing.

The Election Commission, meanwhile, has been trying to fulfil the purposes of the law, instead of helping politicians suborn it. The law intends public representatives to oversee government. Politicians, given that power, seem to prefer using it to exempt themselves from the purview of the law, and to indulge in doing all that they cannot do as ordinary citizens. Mostly, it is a refusal to pay. Legislators use their positions to avoid filing tax returns, avoid paying back loans by having debts written off, and even paying their bills, whether for utilities or for official rest houses. The parties so busy at the moment building alliances with each other will have to meet the next stage, which is awarding tickets. Here they will have to pick those who clear the hurdles that are being set for the normally rapacious. The countdown has started, with the formal letter from the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition about the caretaker government. It is no longer even a matter of time, so fast are events hurtling towards the elections. This is the last chance anyone has - government, opposition, candidate or voter - to pause and think, for ahead is a storm, a frenzy of campaigning. As in any war, the first victim will probably be the truth, as the government tries to paint its record as bright as possible, and the opposition tries to portray it as badly as possible.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation.   Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk