On 3 February, the people of Pakistan will go to the polls for the fourth time in nine years. They are expected to vote, once again, for a change of government. The story is by now a familiar one. The president has used constitutional powers to dismiss four prime ministers and dissolve four National Assemblies. Each time, the move has come in response to the government’s widespread unpopularity, perceived corruption and incompetence.

Such a lack of continuity in politics raises serious questions about the governability of the Islamic Republic. With a change of administration in prospect but no likelihood of more fundamental reform, continued instability seems the most likely outlook for the medium-term future, analysts say. The country’s political system simply seems unable to deliver successful solutions to the increasing problems of the economy and law and order.

Some analysts argue that the weakness of the system lies in the political parties which purport to represent the people. The fact that the populace has largely welcomed the dismissal of each government and the introduction of temporary periods of non-party rule supports such a view. ‘If people welcome the dissolution of parliament this must be a sign of the weakness of the political parties,’ says David Taylor, lecturer in South Asian politics at London’s School of Oriental & African Studies.

Part of that weakness lies in the fact that the parties are focused on a range of religious, ethnic and regional identities, rather than policies. Political loyalties also tend to be centred on personality and the ability of a politician to hold sway with members of Pakistan’s land-owning and military elites. This means that many of the country’s politicians are part of that land-owning elite. It also means that positions of political power are passed down within families. ‘They [the parties] are based on the ambitions of the politicians and not on policies,’ says Taylor.

Credibility

This is borne out by the example of the country’s religious parties, which have wide public appeal and command support on the street, but fail to attract a substantial vote. ‘The religious parties tend to reflect public sentiments,’ says Mohammad Waseem, Quad-i-Azam Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. ‘But they lack credibility.’ The leaders of these parties wield little influence with Pakistan’s select few. ‘People vote for people who can get things done,’ says Waseem. Recognising their exclusion from this category, the main religious parties are boycotting the forthcoming election.

With voting patterns focused on regional and traditional identities it is Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) which have dominated the electoral process since 1985 (see box). In the run-up to the February election, opinion polls are putting Sharif firmly in the lead and he is widely expected to be the next prime minister.

Observers will also keep a close eye on the performance of Imran Khan. Polls indicate that Khan’s Tehrik-e- Insaaf party has enough support to gain a handful of seats in the National Assembly. Analysts see him as a possible influence in the longer term. ‘Khan is likely to continue in politics and will probably gain strength. He has charm, influence and is a national hero,’ says Waseem. The breakaway Pakistan People’s Party-Shaheed Bhutto will also provide a point of interest. Led by Ghinwa Bhutto, the widow of Benazir’s murdered brother Murtaza, the party is attracting support away from the PPP. This is in part attributable to Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, being questioned in connection with the murder of Murtaza last September.

The elections promise to be full of drama and spectacle. But how much influence their outcome will have on the future of Pakistan is debatable, analysts say. The manifestos of the PPP and the PML show few policy differences and give scant attention to the problems of the economy, ethnic violence and regional foreign relations.

Both parties have accepted economic liberalisation as a necessary part of receiving financial aid from the IMF. ‘There is hardly any difference between the two parties on economic policy,’ says Waseem. ‘But Sharif has more credibility as an industrialist himself.’ This credibility gives the PML leader wide support in the business community. However, assuming Sharif wins the election, analysts do not see him at the helm of a strong government.

The new Council for Defence & National Security, introduced by President Farooq Leghari during the administration of the caretaker government, is expected to wield considerable influence after the election, providing some continuity in policy. The council has been given a formal advisory role which covers economic policy, amongst other issues. ‘The council gives Leghari and the army a continuing role after the election,’ says Taylor. The local media has even speculated that Sharif has reached understandings with Leghari, the military or the caretakers about how a PML government will rule.

Wary investors

In addition to implementing economic reform, a new government will be faced with continued ethnic violence. Feuds between militant Sunni and Shia groups led to about 170 deaths in 1996. Clashes in the country’s financial capital, Karachi, between the Mohajir National Movement (MQM) and the authorities are still making potential investors wary.

Some analysts argue that the more fundamental issues of political reform must be tackled first. Kenneth Wollack, president of the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which is monitoring the elections, recently put forward the case for change. ‘There is a danger that if the parties do not come together…to implement political reforms, prospects for further democratisation and economic development will diminish,’ he said.

Areas of reform include the weakening of presidential powers and a committed drive against corruption. Such measures could lead to more stability and the growth of policy-based politics, analysts say. But it is precisely the need for the parties to co-ordinate on the issue that has prevented change in the past and makes it unlikely in the near future.

Wollack goes on to talk about the impact of the political pattern of the last decade. ‘[It] has contributed to cynicism and disenchantment and has led many citizens to conclude that elections do not resolve the nation’s systematic problems.’ The country is still set to have another go at solving those problems through the electoral process. A victory for Sharif is the most likely outcome. However, Pakistan looks set to continue treading an unsteady course, analysts say, as reforms to the political system which would allow Sharif to complete his five-year term look unlikely.