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With none of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan expected to get absolute majority in the upcoming general elections, smaller parties will call the shots. These parties, commonly referred to as ‘pressure groups’, are already gearing up for such a scenario.

The three major political parties which are pitched against one another in a race to form the government include: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by Shahbaz Sharif, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan.

Pertinently the election campaign across Pakistan has touched a peak for the July 25 polling to elect the ‘right’ candidate to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. But it is not going to be an easy task for any of the main political parties. This time the game is in the hands of small political groups and independent candidates.

A party needs 172 seats to get simple majority required to form the government at the national level but given the current political scenario, none of them is capable of winning the required number of seats. So, a coalition of smaller groups and independents with major political parties is inevitable. Historically, smaller groups often arm-twist the bigger parties in return for their support, asking them for big favours and demands to appoint their candidates as ministers. Some minor political groups even play the role of ‘king makers’ because their support is crucial for bigger parties to be able to form the government.

Although more than a hundred parties are taking part in 2018 elections but when it comes to the real contest three main political parties matter — Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Any one of these three mainstream parties is expected to form the next government.

Some other smaller but significantly strong parties, which can play a key role in this elections include: the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and Grand Democratic Alliance (JDA) in the Sindh province. In Punjab, Pakistan Muslim League-Q and strong independent candidates from rural areas play important roles. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, grand alliance of religious parties called Mutahida Majlis Amal (MMA) and secular group Awami National Party (ANP) plays significant role in making alliances. These groups have also managed to form their own governments in the past in the KPK. In Balochistan, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and Balochistan National Party (BNP) are the forerunners which may collaborate with one of the national mainstream political parties.

Independents candidates will also be key players in the elections. Surprisingly, more than 100 candidates in Pakistan including at least 65 in Punjab alone (contesting elections under the election symbol of ‘jeep’). They are being referred to as candidates of ‘aliens’ — a reference to the Pakistan armed forces. Even Pakistan’s former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan — who deserted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif — and many other influential candidates who defected either from the PPP or PML-N are using the ‘jeep’ election symbol as independent candidates. It is now widely believed that these ‘jeep’ candidates are going to play an important role in forming the next government.

Right-wing outfits

Notwithstanding the role of smaller parties as a pressure group where they have been most effective, these parties can help shape legislation, and hence, impact government policy.The growing influence of smaller political parties, especially the religious groups, can be seen in the movements, protests and campaigns being reported in Pakistani media over the last one year.

Such an environment will also bring into play seats won by Islamist groups: while right-wing groups in the county have never gained a large number of seats in parliament, the relevance of a fairly small number of national assembly seats will be crucial for any mainstream political party to make it to Islamabad. The recent surge and participation of the hardline right-wing religious outfits such as Jamat-u-Dawa of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed and Tehreek Laibaik Pakistan (TLP), who blocked Islamabad for weeks recently on blasphemy law, in the upcoming elections is also alarming. The sudden launch of these groups right after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif gave rise to speculations that they have been created to play a role of a spoiler where the contest among the major players is neck-and-neck. It is believed that the establishment wants to bring such elements into the mainstream politics so that they could be engaged in a ‘positive’ way, but these groupings are exploiting the religious sentiments of the public, which could be detrimental to the social fabric in the days to come.

Any electoral outcomes that fail on these dimensions will not only bring in a weak federal government, which will be a result of electoral and political compromise, but will also offer opposition parties space to weaken an already fragile government. The current environment of intrigue, prejudice, victimisation, defection, harassment in a bid to manipulate the election to get the desired results has the potential to undermine democracy. All political parties should be given a level playing field to show their strength and let the voters decide their fate — otherwise the next government will continue to work for its survival instead of tackling the Herculean challenges of governance.