Islamabad: The first general elections in Pakistan that will usher in a smooth democratic transfer of power in 66 years is likely to go down to the wire with no party expected to get a majority. With less than two weeks to go for the landmark election to choose the 342-member National Assembly, two-time former premier Nawaz Sharif appears to have an edge over others andhis group may emerge as the single largest party not withstanding a late surge by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan in heartland of Punjab.
All indications are that the country could be heading for another coalition government, analysts say. Battered by allegations of poor governance and corruption and hampered by a lacklustre campaign, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its allies, which held power till recently, are unlikely to get the numbers that had helped them capture power in 2008.
At that time, the PPP bagged a total of 125 seats in the National Assembly largely on the strength of a sympathy wave generated by the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto weeks before the election.
This time around, Bhutto's widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, has been barred from campaigning by the judiciary and the PPP has struggled while wooing voters even in its traditional strongholds in Sindh.
Attacks by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan on the PPP and its secular allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in southern Sindh and the Awami National Party (ANP) in north western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have forced them to curtail their election campaign and keep their leaders away from rallies and meetings.
Analysts say all this has strengthened the hands of Sharif in an election seen as largely as issue less. Sharif and his brother, former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, have attracted massive crowds during their campaign but these large turnouts have largely been in their traditional stronghold of Punjab, the country's most populous province and the only region where campaigning has not been affected by militant threats. In the last polls, the PML-N bagged 92 seats in the National Assembly, including 69 directly elected seats and 20 nominated seats reserved for women and non-Muslims. Under Pakistan's electoral system, reserved seats are distributed among parties in proportion to the directly seats won by them.
Analysts believe the PML-N will bag around the same number of directly-elected seats this time around though the figure will be lower if the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf is able to woo the large crowds that have turned out for party chief Imran Khan's rallies, especially in southern Punjab. Khan has also been able to make a dent in the Hazara area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where people have usually backed the PML-N.
Pakistan appears set for another coalition government, says Raza Rumi, Editor of The Friday Times. "Like India, Pakistani politics has become regionalised and more fragmented. Coalitions seem to be the future of Pakistani democracy, at least in the medium term," Rumi told
With Zardari and other senior leaders missing from the campaign trail and the PPP's 24-year-old chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari issuing only a video message,
analysts believe the party is unlikely to bag anywhere near the 125 seats it had in the last National Assembly. That figure included 91 directly elected seats and 27 reserved seats for women and minorities.
The PPP's three key allies had another 88 seats in the National Assembly, including 50 of the PML-Q, 25 of the MQM and 13 of the ANP. "Some of the gains made by the PML-N and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf will be at the expense of the PPP, which will have to struggle to win even 60 directly elected seats. Such asituation will make it almost impossible for the PPP to cobble together a coalition," says an analyst who did not want to be named.
However, they say the PPP's allies like the ANP could gain from a sympathy wave generated by the brutal attacks against them by the Taliban. Nearly 20 people were killed recently when a Taliban suicide bomber targeted an ANP meeting in Peshawar, while a MQM candidate was gunned down in southern Hyderabad city and 10 more killed in bomb attacks on MQM election offices in Karachi.
Analysts are keeping a close eye on Imran Khan, whose party had no seats in the National Assembly as it boycotted the 2008 polls. In the 2002 general election, Khan was his party's only parliamentarian.