The South Asia Channel

All bark and no bite?

Everywhere you turn these days in Pakistan, there seems to be a personality, institution, or issue threatening to delay, steal or sweep this year's national elections. The impending return of former President and military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, announced last week, is just the latest in this series.

With elections so close, there's no time left for ambiguity about who has the power to influence and who does not. In the case of Musharraf, who plans to run in the elections, the impending return from self-imposed exile has been announced previously on several occasions. But, like all the other times, he walked his intentions back just days later, noting that he might not have enough "political support" to return.   

He's right about that one. While there is some appreciation for the strong economic growth during his tenure, no one inside Pakistan believes in his chances of electoral success. Even his home institution of the military has distanced itself from him; some say it would rather he not come at all, to avoid being in a position where it must offer him protection while in Pakistan. Furthermore, Musharraf's political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, was formed just three years ago and is simply not a major political player. One final thing: if he returns to Pakistan, he could be arrested for his alleged involvement in the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Another group that's more bark than bite for now when it comes to votes is the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), an umbrella organization of religious parties. It includes plenty of pro-Taliban, Shia-hating, and anti-U.S. political personalities, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, who plan to become more political engaged above and beyond their day-to-day militancy. After a major "coming out" rally in 2012 that condemned drone attacks and U.S. operations in Afghanistan, the DPC has sustained its focus on this agenda. Recently, it filed a petition at the Peshawar High Court challenging drone strikes in the country.  

But the newfound organization and street power of religious parties should not mislead. Very few Pakistanis will be convinced of their ability to save the nation. Religious parties have never governed Pakistan, nor are they likely to do so after this year's elections. In 2008, Pakistanis voted them out of power because they failed to deliver results on socioeconomic issues more so than anything else.     

Some of DPC's right-wing "social welfare" groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa, however, have the attention of national and provincial governments due to their access to large constituencies in critical voting areas, such as southern Punjab province. This makes speculation that candidates could potentially run under a DPC ticket in the elections all the more feasible. Despite the DPC's zero chance of coming into power, its increased political activity could have a "spoiler effect" on certain policymaking, similar to 2007, when President Musharraf refused to reform problematic blasphemy laws because they were backed by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of religious parties in his government.

Meanwhile, a demographic that does represent a true unknown in terms of its power in the elections is the youth vote. The numbers suggest that youth could make or break this election. With 35 million new voters this year, Pakistani politicians will have to figure out how to court those under age 40, which represent over half of that number. This has been the strategy of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which is banking on the fact that Khan's non-dynastic legacy, corrupt-free reputation, and star power will appeal to disenchanted middle-class youth who are looking for a third option to the Sharif and Bhutto family legacies that have come to define politics in Pakistan.   

Still, the many uncertainties about the youth vote prevent anyone from knowing just how effective of a kingmaker it can be right now. How many will actually cast ballots? If U.S. voting behavior during the 2008 election is any indication, capitalizing on the huge potential will require an extremely focused campaign and unique candidate built upon an agenda of change. Khan and PTI no longer fully embody this expectation, but neither does anyone else. Another potentially influential, but similarly unknown, aspect of youth voting behavior is how they will vote. In traditional Pakistani politics, votes typically go to the most generous patron/candidate or the one that shares an ethnic or geographic affiliation. New youth voters could simple adhere to this unofficial principle, a presumption further bolstered by the fact that most of the youth come from rural areas that rarely shift their political allegiances.

There is no good indicator of how elections will go, likely driven by the fact that there are so many individuals, groups, and issues that currently shape election politics. What we do know is that no single one of them will dominate. Pakistani politics is much too complex for that. In the wake of the government's dissolution, in the midst of the first-ever democratic transition of power in Pakistan, and at the beginning of the formal elections cycle, we are about to see just how complex it can get.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.

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