In Pakistan, the centres of power haven't shifted much despite the political upheaval leading up to this year's elections. Can elections challenge the status quo?

One could almost rewind twenty years or indeed thirty years to look back at the state of play in Pakistani politics and one would find the same players at the helm of affairs. Some of the actors may have changed but the essence and the story line remains the same.

It is very much the Pakistan Army, the Sharif family, the Bhutto legacy, the shadow of India and the game of cricket at the forefront of what drives Pakistan. As Pakistan heads into only the second smooth democratic transfer of power from one civilian government to the next, the headlines and content remain remarkably the same as they have been for the majority of the previous four decades. So what can we expect from these new elections?

There is a talk of a new Pakistan energised by the Bajwa Doctrine that no longer fears the United States. There is a renewed focus and reliance on a more strategic—but certainly not a new relationship—with China. Then there is the never ending tug of war between the Generals and the civilian politicians on who is better qualified to run the country – and finally there is cricket, whereby a former captain is poised to perhaps come to power on the back of the all previously mentioned factors.

The past is the future 

Despite the excitement of a new page in Pakistan’s history not much is poised to change in the coming elections.

The legacy of the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto carries his grandson and indeed his son-in-law to the polls. The Pakistan People’s Party still live off the family name – indeed now there is a new family that has muscled its way into the Bhuttos by way of marriage, that of the Zardaris.

It is remarkable that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the latest heir apparent, can lay claim to be future prime minister despite having lived the majority of his life abroad and speaks Urdu in a heavy foreign accent. Yet his name is enough to win votes in feudal Sindh – and the corruption and negligence of the previous PPP governments shall matter not, the votes shall be his.

Similarly despite being removed from office a remarkable three times and been sentenced to ten years imprisonment – Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N is poised to win the most populous province of Punjab.

His brother, Shehbaz Sharif, is front-runner to win Punjab which more or less determines who forms the central government. Nawaz’s impending jail term is garnering a sympathy vote and at worst if not this time, then next time his daughter shall be poised to win an election after her prison term.

Imran Khan the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf was deemed a favourite even in the 2013 elections only to lose at the federal level. And finally in that very defeat Imran Khan accused the Pakistan Army of helping Nawaz Sharif rig the vote and form a majority government. Imran Khan ironically is allegedly the army’s main man despite his allegations against the army’s interference. The fact that the Generals’ favourite also crosses path with the army means one thing – that the perceived guardian of the state and nation shall remain at the helm in one way or the other – so nothing has changed there.

The Generals, China, India and the Gulf 

The main reason for the Pakistan Army’s overbearing position in Pakistani state and society has been the Indian threat. It is this that also drove the initial relationship with China in the 1950s – that relationship has always flourished whereby now, China is seen as the guardian of the economic future of Pakistan.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is seen as the linchpin in China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project to complete China’s ascent to the top of the global economic ladder. Yet now China is encouraging Pakistan to talk to India and under a confident Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Army has also reached out to India.

General Bajwa became the first Pakistani Chief to invite the Indian Defence Attache to the Pakistan national day this year – he also said that Pakistan desires peace with India. So whilst the army continues to see India as a threat and menace – it is also prepared to work with India and the ball is very much in India’s court at the moment.

Similarly it is the army that maintains the relationship with the Gulf countries and has tried to play a neutral role between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under General Bajwa, the army has reached out to Iran yet given a security guarantee to Saudi Arabia should it be under any sort of threat. All this while Nawaz Sharif in his four years as prime minister could not even be bothered to appoint a foreign minister.

The umpire’s finger - more of the same 

A lot is to be said of two full civilian terms being completed over the last decade – the office of prime minister and the parliament has taken a stand in some foreign policy issues such as refusing to send troops to Yemen and calling to account the power of the Supreme Court. However as the current favourite, former cricketer Imran Khan, keeps reminding his opponents that the umpire’s finger is ready for the final call. This finger whilst retreating to the barracks remains ever watchful over the country’s future.

Generals Zia ul Haq and Musharraf both used cricket as a means to reach out to India in the 1980s and 2000s, such is the push and pull of this game over politics in the subcontinent. Pakistani Generals also remain unique in so far as that to date the only two times American Presidents paid attention and attended some sort of cricket was in the presence of General Ayub Khan and General Musharraf. This cricket diplomacy both inside and outside could define the outcome of these elections. After all cricket is a “gentleman’s game” and at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, the first and foremost thing taught to the young officer cadet is to be a gentleman.


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