Saturday :: Sep 4, 2010

The Electoral Politics of Pakistan

by eriposte

This is a companion piece to my post on the Ethnic/Linguistic Demographics of Pakistan. Pakistan is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society with a long history of internal strife and terrorism, despite the overwhelming Muslim majority population. The dominance of the military-bureaucratic complex in Pakistan - whose origins can be traced to ethnic/linguistic suppression rather than anything much to do with the religion of Islam - has always been a challenge to constitutional democracy, regularly raising questions about the significance or stability of Pakistan's historically unpredictable electoral and democratic processes. Additionally, high levels of corruption and vote fraud or voting irregularities associated with a on-and-off electoral process make it challenging to read too much into detailed electoral statistics. That said, given the ethnic/linguistic demographics of Pakistan, there are some broad political trends in Pakistan that can be inferred from looking at electoral data - based on the most recent national elections in 2008 as well as data on prior elections in the late 1990s. In this post, I examine some of that data to extract key takeaways about Pakistan's political parties and their bases. I have also included some commentary on the MMA political party given its close ties to the Taliban. I intend to use some of these observations to comment in my next post on possible trajectories in Pakistan in the aftermath of the ongoing, massive flood disaster.

The data used for this post comes primarily from the following sources:


This post provides a high-level overview of Pakistan's electoral politics primarily using the recent 2008 elections as the reference point. Analysis of election results is used to provide more insight into Pakistan's politics at a snapshot in time, although looking deeper suggests that historical ethnic/linguistic and socio-economic alignments have a significant role to play in the support bases of Pakistan's major political parties. We can draw the following inferences from the data presented here regarding Pakistan's most well known political parties.

1. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is considered a center-left party generally associated with the Bhutto family. As of 2008, it was a broad-based national political party, with a base of strength stretching across Pakistan's provinces, linguistic groups, rural and urban areas and across rich to poor voters. The PPP is also the current ruling party with Yousaf Raza Gilani being the Prime Minister. The PPP's Asif Ali Zardari (husband of the late Benazir Bhutto) is the President of Pakistan.

2. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is considered a center-right party umbrella that has multiple independent factions. This is the general party platform that has usually been supported by many of Pakistan's military rulers and their supporters who have had close relationships with the US. Currently there are two major factions: the PML-Q associated with supporters of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the PML-N under former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. PML-N is the lead opposition party today in Pakistan's National Assembly. As of 2008:

  • PML-Q was second to PPP in being a national party with a relatively broad provincial, linguistic, geographic and socio-economic base amongst its voters, but it has less support in urban areas and in Sindh compared to the PPP
  • PML-N is nominally a national party with support mainly from Punjab and NWFP (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), generally from middle to upper class Punjabis and Saraikis and to a limited extent Pashtuns, across rural to urban areas

3. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a left of center, secular party (formerly known as Muhajir Qaumi Movement). MQM is essentially a regional party with a national presence and as of 2008 had a support base mostly in urban Sindh largely amongst the richest voters who tend to be Urdu-speaking Muhajirs.

4. The Awami National Party (ANP) is a left of center, secular party with a long-standing pro-democracy and human rights platform (informally linked to the former National Awami Party and the Khudai Khidmatgar movement). As of 2008, it was a regional party with some national presence, with support primarily in NWFP and to a lesser extent in Balochistan and Sindh, from mostly middle-class and to a lesser extent wealthy and poor Pashtuns, across rural to urban areas.

5. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is an overly conservative Islamic party coalition of different entities/groups that have long aligned with pro-Taliban and pro-Wahhabi elements in Pakistan, supported the "jihad" by Pakistani-trained extremists/terrorists in Kashmir, been a major player in the establishment of radical madrassas in Pakistan, and strongly opposed US-Pakistan co-operation. MMA is essentially a regional party with some national presence, with its support base primarily in NWFP and Balochistan (with some very limited support in Sindh and Punjab), covering mostly poor to middle-class Pashtuns, Balochs and Saraikis in generally peri-urban to rural settings. The MMA lost serious ground in 2008 compared to its showing in the 2002 national and provincial elections.

[The Balochistan National Party (BNP) is not discussed in this post since they have effectively not competed in recent elections for various reasons].

The political parties and election results are discussed in more detail in the sections below.

II. Electoral Shifts from 2002 to 2008 and the MMA

Pakistan's National Assembly results showed a noticeable shift going from 2002 to 2008. As shown in the chart below, by 2002, the combined factions of the PML had about 43% of the total seats in the National Assembly and the PPP about 28%. In Pakistan's multi-party system, independents often play a key role and had about 12% of seats, followed by the MQM and MMA at ~5% each.


Given the extent of violence and trouble within Pakistan today, it is worth making a few observations on the MMA in particular. In 2002, the MMA along with its coalition partners, had taken over a significant portion of the seats in NWFP and a chunk of the seats in Balochistan. In 2007, Norell provided some background on the MMA in his piece [emphasis mine]:

The October 2002 Pakistani elections resulted in a new power dynamics with the pro-Taliban Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) gaining 60 seats in the National Assembly, an absolute majority in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and becoming second largest party in the province of Baluchistan. The results would come to have profound implications for internal Pakistani politics. However, one should bear in mind that the elections were rigged in favor of the MMA. All the individual parties in the MMA have links to militant groups, hence this coalition is of great interest when examining Pakistani links to the Taliban. Additionally, members of the MMA are known to have contacts with the Taliban...Even though the MMA only became the third largest party in the National Assembly, after the Pakistan Muslim League-Qaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), its leader Fazlur Rehman was granted the role of head of opposition. Due to the MMA’s success in the elections the six-party coalition has been able to implement policy reminiscent of the Taliban regime, hence exacerbating difficulties for Musharraf.

The MMA is comprised of six political parties: the Jamiat Ulema-e- Pakistan (JUP), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S), Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith, Pakistan Isami Tehrik (ITP) (formerly Tehriq-e-Jafaria (TeJ)) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). All of the groups are Islamist in nature, but have emerged from different Islamic backgrounds. The three largest and most influential are the JUIF, the JUI-S and the JI. These three groups all stem from the Deobandi School and are Sunni Muslim. In practice this means that they lay great emphasis on Islamic morals and principles in every day life. They preach a hard-line and traditional Islamist way of thinking that is shared by the Pashtuns living along the Pakistani-Afghan border, including the Taliban. These political groups all have historical and ethnic links with the Taliban, as they are all Pashtun, which is Afghanistan’s largest and Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group. The JUP, on the other hand, supports the Barlevi School. Despite it also being  Sunni, it is more inclusive than the Deobandi School, hence less traditional. The ITP is, on the other hand, a Shia Muslim group and the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith follows the Wahabi sect, which stems from the Saudi Sharia system. What is striking about the MMA is that it is a coalition of Islamist political groups that have constantly been at odds with each other historically, but are now cooperating. It is important to note that the three Deobandi groups are the most powerful and influential within the coalition; the death of hundreds of Pashtuns as a result of the American “Operation Enduring Freedom” led to growing support for the Deobandi factions and in turn the founding of the MMA. Contrary to widespread belief, ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan did not mean the end  of the Taliban regime or Al Qaeda. Instead it simply moved large parts of its organization across the border to Pakistan.

In contemporary Pakistan the MMA is most influential in the NWFP and Baluchistan. Both regions border Afghanistan, hence they are inevitably affected by events in Pakistan’s neighboring state. Moreover, political parties within the MMA have played a prominent role in establishing and sustaining madrassas14 in Pakistan. These institutions became infamous worldwide as a result of revelations that some of the 9/11 terrorists and one of the terrorists involved in the 7/7 bombings in London had attended madrassas in Pakistan. [...]

The Pakistani government has always had a close relationship with the Taliban. Pakistani support for the Taliban originated from Benazir Bhutto’s regime in the 1970s. Pakistani interests in Afghanistan have always been great for a multitude of reasons, the key ones being that it offers “strategic depth” for the Pakistani military in its confrontation with India and that it is seen as a gateway to Central Asia. The Taliban has also received extensive support from the Pakistani military and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996 it enjoyed support from the JUI-F, which in turn gained popular support from Pashtuns living in NWFP, Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).15 This support grew steadily after the Taliban was ousted by Western troops in October 2001 and it is arguably one of the greatest obstacles to winning the “war on terror”.
Contrary to widespread belief the Taliban movement originated in Pakistan. Pakistani madrassas gave life to the movement, although it is important to note that only a small percentage of these schools have been found to be teaching extremist and anti-Western  values. Deobandi thought lays the foundation for a number of madrassas in Pakistan, just like it does for the Taliban, hence they share a religious link. Most of the Taliban leaders have in fact graduated from madrassas run by Maulana Samiul Haq and Fazlur Rehman, leaders of the JUI-S and JUI-F respectively.16 Furthermore, one of the largest madrassas in Chaman, the “Al Jamia Islamia”, is believed to be a recruitment ground for rebels. The cleric Maulena Abdul Ghani, who heads the madrassa, is also a prominent leader of the JUI-F.18 Moreover, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an al Qaeda member, was caught in a house owned by the women’s wing of the JI. Yet another madrassa that has been of great concern has been the Shaldara madrassa in Quetta. It is run by Maulana Nur Mohammed, a member of the JUI and former Member of Parliament. According to Afghani President Hamid Karzai this madrassa is the headquarters for the Taliban in Pakistan. Nur Mohammed’s deputy Maulana Abdul Qadir has asserted “we are proud that the Taliban are made and helped here”. 19 Although leaders of the JUI-F and the JUI-S have not officially admitted to cooperation with the Taliban, their support base predominantly consists of people who support the mujahideen20 struggle in Afghanistan. The JUI-F and JUI-S even received support from the Taliban in their electoral campaign. In addition, many MMA leaders are former jihadi commanders who fought alongside the Taliban in their struggle for power in the 1990s.21 The JI, the best organized party in the MMA coalition, is also believed to have indirect ties to the Taliban. It is a staunch supporter of the Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who in turn is allied with the Taliban.22

[...] Musharraf banned several Pakistani militant groups in January 2002, but this act was of little consequence, as the banned groups simply changed their names and remained active. The second crackdown took place in 2003 and was directed at the same groups i.e. Tehrik-e-Islami Pakistan (formerly known as Tehrik-e-Jafria), Millat-e-Islami (formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP))27 and Khuddum-ul-Islam (formerly known as Jaish-e-Mohammed). This spurred furious reactions from the MMA, especially as Tehrik-e-Islami is a member of the six-party alliance.28 The MMA has also cooperated with other Islamic groups outside of the alliance. The SSP is probably the most notorious one, mainly known for its violent attacks on Shia Muslims in Pakistan. The SSP has gained widespread support from various organizations in Pakistan that fear an increase in Shia power. These include support from the ISI and the Taliban. Several high-ranking leaders within the SSP are known to have attended Afghan mujahideen training camps in the 1990s, both aiding the Taliban and using their experience on the home front to kill Shias. The SSP has been run by Deobandi clerics since its formation. For this reason it has always kept close ties with the JUI. Ever since the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, links among the Taliban, Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan and Islamic extremist groups like the SSP have deepened.29

The growth in power of the MMA in 2002 in NWFP and in Balochistan, the attempts to impose Sharia laws in NWFP and their direct or indirect support for the Taliban were alarming.

Interestingly, however, for various reasons, the MMA party received a drubbing in the 2008 elections. At the provincial level in the NWFP, MMA dropped to 14 seats out of 124, with the secular ANP bagging 48 seats (to form the provincial government), followed by the center-left PPP at 30 seats. Even at the national level the MMA dropped from 60 seats out of 422 to just 7 out of 339. In addition, the more conservative PML lost ground overall as shown in the chart below, with Nawaz Sharif's PML-N overshadowing PML-Q (associated with Musharraf supporters) and the PPP became the party with the most number of seats at the national level. The PPP was initially supported by PML-N and the ANP as coalition partners although subsequently PML-N decided to end the relationship and become the main opposition party. The PPP's Asif Ali Zardari became President, Yousaf Raza Gilani became Prime Minister, and Fahmida Mirza became Pakistan's first female Speaker of the National Assembly. The ANP and MQM, both secular parties, also gained ground in 2008. While it is too simplistic to assume this was all due to a secular shift in Pakistan's electorate, there is no doubt that the 2008 elections did send a strong message against the extremist, pro-Taliban and pro-terrorist elements in Pakistan's political structure.


III. Party Bases (2008)

To better understand Pakistan's off-and-on electoral politics, it is useful to delve a bit deeper into the electoral bases for the major political parties. The following charts are intended to provide an overview of this.

The key takeaways from the first chart below, based on the 2008 national election results:

  • Ethnic Punjabis mostly supported the PML factions, but the PPP had a reasonable base of support amongst them as well
  • Sindhis mostly supported the PPP, with some minority support for PML-Q; MQM and PML-N had very little traction amongst the Sindhi community
  • Saraikis mostly split their vote between the PML-Q and PML-N factions and the PPP
  • Pashtuns split their vote many ways - with the ANP, MMA, PPP, PML-Q, PML-N and other groups/independents
  • Balochs also split their vote many ways - with MMA, PML-Q, PPP and others/independents
  • Urdu-speaking Mohajirs voted overwhelmingly for MQM, with a small minority supporting the PPP

We can look at the same results by province (below) to get a sense for which political parties have a broader base across Pakistan. The answer is that, in 2008:

  • PPP and PML-Q had the broadest base of support across all provinces and Islamabad and could thus be considered true national parties
  • PML-N had a less expansive support base with little or no traction in Sindh and Balochistan, but given the national prominence of its leadership and its strength in the most populous and wealthy province (Punjab), it is also in effect considered a national party
  • ANP had a base primarily in NWFP with a smattering of support in Balochistan, MMA had support primarily in NWFP and Balochistan and MQM's base was almost entirely in Sindh - these parties, in effect, are therefore considered regional parties with a national presence

The results from the previous chart can also be viewed a bit differently as shown in the chart below, which captures the fraction of each party's national vote that came from each province (keep in mind the population of each province also controls the vote fractions, with Punjab and Sindh being the largest and second-largest provinces by population, followed distantly by NWFP and Balochistan). In this view:

  • PPP was the national party with the broadest base, followed by PML-Q
  • PML-N had traction primarily in Punjab and NWFP, barely making a dent in the other provinces
  • MMA's support base was primarily in NWFP and Balochistan with a smattering of support in Sindh and Punjab
  • ANP's base was primarily in NWFP with a smattering of support in Balochistan and Sindh
  • MQM's base was almost entirely in Sindh

To get a bit more insight, it is worth looking at the socio-economic and geographic base of support for each of the parties in the 2008 elections. As can be seen in the chart below:

  • PPP, PML-N and ANP had a broad geographic base of support ranging from rural to peri-urban to urban settings
  • PML-Q and MMA had a mostly peri-urban and rural base of support
  • MQM's base is almost entirely urban

In terms of the wealth of the support base:

  • PPP and PML-Q, consistent with their geographic breadth of support across provinces and rural-to-urban areas, also had a support base covering the breadth of the wealth demographic
  • PML-N, despite its support across rural to urban areas, tended to be supported mostly by middle class and rich voters - with just a small portion of its vote share coming from the poorest section of the population
  • ANP mostly attracted the middle class, with a smattering of support from the other ends of the wealth spectrum
  • MMA attracted mostly poor and middle-class voters
  • MQM was supported mostly by the richest voters

The data, taken together, suggests the following general political alignments for each major party as of 2008:

  • PPP was a broad-based national political party, with a base of strength stretching across Pakistan's provinces, linguistic groups, rural and urban areas and across rich to poor voters
  • PML-Q was second to PPP in being a national party with a relatively broad provincial, linguistic, geographic and socio-economic base amongst its voters, but it has less support in urban areas and in Sindh compared to the PPP
  • PML-N is nominally a national party with support mainly from Punjab and NWFP, generall;y from middle to upper class Punjabis and Saraikis and to a limited extent Pashtuns, across rural to urban areas
  • ANP is a regional party with support primarily in NWFP and to a lesser extent in Balochistan and Sindh, across rural to urban areas, covering mostly middle-class Pashtuns with some support from wealthy and poor voters
  • MMA is a regional party with support primarily in NWFP and Balochistan, with some very limited support in Sindh and Punjab, covering mostly poor to middle-class Pashtuns, Balochs and Saraikis in generally peri-urban to rural settings
  • MQM is a regional party with a support base mostly in urban Sindh largely amongst the richest Urdu-speaking population and other heterogenous small groups

IV. Provincial vs. National Electoral Demographics

It is worth noting that the results of provincial elections in 2008 were generally similar to the results in the national elections, further confirming that local support bases and issues played a significant role in the national election results. The exception was that Independents tended to play a greater role in provincial elections in NWFP and Balochistan, but at the national level PPP won many of the corresponding seats.



eriposte :: 9:44 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!