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While the Pakistani Taliban is running a targeted campaign of terror in three regions, it is the more populous east which holds the key to the election.
Pakistan's general election on May 11 would mark the first time one democratic government has survived long enough to ensure a transition to a second, without intervention by the country's overbearing military. However, that is as far as the good news goes since a targeted campaign by Pakistani Taliban has practically carved the country into two distinct electoral environments. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had on April 21 announced its intention to disrupt the general election, describing democracy as an "un-Islamic system which only serves the interests of infidels. " It said it would target, in particular, the liberal political parties that had been partners in the outgoing administration: the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party. True to its word, the TTP has since served up a daily diet of death in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is adjacent to the terrorists' stamping ground in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. While that was widely anticipated, the TTP has surprised most Pakistanis by striking with equal intensity and frequency at Karachi, a coastal mega-city of 18 million people that enjoys the most liberal social environment in the country. Most residents there vote for the MQM, a party representing Urdu-speaking families that migrated from India during and after partition in 1947.
A similar state of insecurity persists in the southwest province of Balochistan, where a low-intensity nationalist insurgency has been ongoing for nine years. The terrorist attacks have made electioneering in those three regions practically impossible for liberal candidates, and threaten to twist the outcome of the election, politicians and human rights activists said. "Unless the government. . . ensures that all parties can campaign freely and without fear, the election may be severely compromised, " said Ali Dayan Hassan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. The terrorist campaign has fuelled speculation that the elections could be postponed indefinitely. Conspiracy theories abound that the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year existence, might use that as a pretext for intervention. Already, the independent election commission has been called out to the army to provide security in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Karachi.
The army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, sought to lay to rest such fears on Tuesday. "General elections will be held in the country on the 11th of May. We must not harbour any doubts or misgivings about it, " he said, in a rare public speech.
"I assure you that we stand committed to wholeheartedly assist and support in the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections. . . I also assure you that this support shall solely be aimed at strengthening democracy and rule of law in the country. "
Ironically, Pakistani analysts are in consensus that the results of the May general election are likely to be determined in the populous east of the country, where the terrorists are weakest. The new administration will be voted into office by the Punjab, a peaceful province where more than half of Pakistanis live and vote for a proportionate number of seats in the national assembly, the lower chamber of parliament.
The campaign there, for the most part, is a noisy contest between Nawaz Sharif, the former two-time prime minister, and former Pakistani cricket skipper Imran Khan. Unlike their left-of-centre counterparts, Sharif and Khan have conducted traditional, busy campaigns, addressing one election rally after another across Punjab. Neither have been targeted by the TTP, another sign that the terrorists are actively working to create a "not our war" camp in the new government.
Their campaigns have focused mostly on the day-today issues faced by average Pakistanis, like massive power shortages, unemployment and corruption - and on taking rhetorical pot shots at each other.
The two appeal, more or less, to the same electorate : the 70 per cent of Pakistanis who, on average, vote against the PPP, leadership of which formally passed prior to the election campaign to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the eldest son of President Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto.
Imran Khan has mobilised young, female and middle-class voters desiring "change", adding a tantalising element of the unknown to the election campaign. But he is not expected to significantly alter the federal balance of power - not this time round, at least - but could emerge as significant player in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The outgoing PPP-led federal government has won praise for piloting the first full-term democratic parliament, and for overseeing constitutional reforms that have strengthened the Pakistani federation, despite the country's war with the TTP. It failed spectacularly at governance, however, due both to corruption and incompetence, making it very unpopular.
Nonetheless, the PPP is still expected to come a respectable second in the May 11 general election, because of overwhelming support in rural areas of Sindh province, the ancestral home of the Bhutto dynasty. It retains pockets of support elsewhere in the country, notably in southern Punjab province.
Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are both expected to yield a mandate split among regional and federalist parties.
That leaves Punjab, Sharif's homebase. His Pakistan Muslim League party is widely predicted to secure more seats than in 2008, when many Sharif supporters voted for the PPP out of sympathy for Benazir Bhutto's assassination during that election campaign.
Assuming the Pakistani pundits are right, that points to a third term as prime minister for Nawaz Sharif.
What would that mean for India?
Peace, according to real estate brokers trading in land near the Atari-Wagah border near Lahore. Rates for residential plots built there on the battlefields of the 1965 war have literally doubled over the last six months, in anticipation of Sharif's victory.
Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad
Third Time's The Charm? NAWAZ SHARIF | 63
The ex-Prime Minister is the strongest contender for the country's top post, one he's occupied twice before. Sharif has emerged as the most vocal voice against the Pakistani army's meddling in politics and is now a proponent of democratic continuity. His Pakistan Muslim League (N)'s developmental work and good administration in the key Punjab province, besides his popularity with industrialists, gives him an edge over his rivals. Sharif has made alliances with nationalists in Sindh and Baluchistan.
Sultan Of (Reverse) Swing IMRAN KHAN | 60
The former cricketer's popularity may have peaked after his October 2011 rally in Lahore, one of the biggest in Pakistan's history. But he has since lost his edge and also been bogged down with his Tehreek-e-Insaf's internal elections. His promise of change now makes him popular with urban voters and youth. Being seen as incorruptible and a politician with a great philanthropic record gives him an edge. His refusal to cut deals has endeared him to the masses but may keep him out of coalition-oriented politics.
The Heir Presumptive BILAWAL BHUTTO-ZARDARI | 24
His father and president Asif Ali Zardari's inability to campaign due to his constitutional status has brought the Bhutto scion to the forefront. He is ineligible to contest this time and has also been unable to campaign. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) chief was said to have left the country after a tiff with his father, but returned to seek support for him. He has issued video messages and brushed up his Urdu to reach the masses but left election campaigning to ex-PMs Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Parvez Ashraf. The PPP has lost ground but would remain a force in the event of a hung assembly.
The Long Arm Of The Londonstani ALTAF HUSSAIN | 59
The head of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has remote-controlled his party of native Urdu-speakers for two decades from London. Pakistan's first real middle-class party, one that challenges traditional power structures, has dominated urban Sindh for over 20 years and would remain a force in a hung scenario. But the party revolves around the cult of Hussain even as it has allied with all major parties to form governments at the federal and provincial levels.
Right Is Might MAULANA FAZLUR REHMAN | 59
The leader of one of the leading right-wing parties, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman), is known to be a wily politician who has cut smart deals with other parties. Despite being known for his anti-American stances, a Wikileaks cable described Rehman canvassing support from the US ambassador to help him become PM in 2007. His credibility has eroded over the years and his JuI-F, along with other right-wing parties, is unlikely to improve its traditionally dismal electoral performance this time around.
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