Dr Ashutosh Misra, Associate Investigator,Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Griffith University

Though recovering from headand back injuries, former international cricketer turned political leader Imran Khan will not be able to vote in this weekend’s elections in Pakistan.

What an irony that someone whose political fortunes depend on every vote will not be able to cast his own.

The leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party was hurt this week when he fell from a mechanical lift as it hoisted him on to a makeshift stage in the city of Lahore.

The accident must have instilled a frightening sense of déjà vu in Pakistanis who witnessed the assassination of Benazir Bhutto just before the 2008 elections. On that occasion, the ensuing wave of sympathy saw the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) come to power with Asif Ali Zardari as President.

Imran’s accident is another reminder of how often unforeseen events have altered the course of Pakistan’s destiny during its 65 years of existence.

The 1951 assassination of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, robbed the nation of a visionary leader during its critical formative years. It also gave the military-bureaucratic oligarchy a hold over state-building.

Similarly, the 1979 execution of the first popularly elected Prime Minister, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, following General Zia ul Haq’s military coup, abruptly curtailed Pakistan’s democratic journey and ushered in a decade of military dictatorship and extensive Islamisation.

In 1988, the death of General Zia in an air crash again changed the nation’s fortune, paving the way for a decade of democracy and, in Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister.

Military dictatorship

Another accident of history was triggered in 1999 by the political ‘hara-kiri’ of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, allowing General Pervez Musharraf to launch nine years of military dictatorship.

Extremism also increased during this time, particularly after the military entered tribal areas to battle the Pakistani Taliban and later cracked down on clerics of the Red Mosque in Islamabad demanding sharia rule.

On both counts, Musharraf’s military decisions – while undoubtedly well-founded in policy and military terms – inadvertently made the military the target of Jihadi groups. Ongoing violence has spread deep into the urban centres of Pakistan.

The past five years of PPP rule have seen Pakistan experience a false sense of political stability beneath which the economy and inter-provincial and sectarian tensions have worsened and the centre of power has gravitated to tribal areas under Jihadi control.

The killing of Osama bin Laden, increases in CIA-operated drone attacks and plummeting US-Pakistani relations have only added to Pakistan’s international isolation. Meanwhile, this week’s kidnapping of the son of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is another example of Pakistan’s ongoing internal political turmoil.

So, the nation awaits a messiah. But is it Imran Khan?

Realistically, for Imran to leada majority government heleader will need to generate a greater swing at the polls than he ever managed with a cricket ball during his illustrious sporting career.

However, the 2013 elections should establish PTI’s credentials as a potent political alternative with a substantial role in shaping Pakistan’s future.

The elections have already seen one ground-breaking outcome, namely the Peshawar High Court imposing a life-long ban on General Musharraf contesting elections.

Rejuvenated judiciary

As much as this is a case of Musharraf’s years of extra-judicial and unconstitutional ‘diktats’ coming back to haunt him, a rejuvenated judiciary is also sending a strong message to anyone else harbouring ambitions of dictatorship.

As Pakistan clamours for respite from bloodshed and socio-economic adversities, the political chessboard remains loaded with both promise and uncertainty.

The elections promise an intriguing contest between three potent contenders – PPP, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and PTI. A recent survey revealed little separates them with regard to perceived effectiveness in enacting change, although PPP fared poorly on the issue of eliminating corruption. PTI was deemed most effective.

Aside from its worsening security scenario, Pakistan is plagued by rising unemployment, acute energy shortages, currency devaluation, crumbling health and education systems and growing inflation and foreign debt.

Much of the blame, and justifiably so, has been directed towards the incompetent and credibility-deficient Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari’s public approval remains abysmal, mainly owing to dodgy dealings during Benazir Bhutto’s tenure and his initial aversion to restoring Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. As a result, the PPP became a target of civil society, PML-N and the judiciary combined.

The party also stands accused of cosying up to the military to retain power, thus abandoning its traditional anti-military image. Conflict between Zardari and his son Bilawal (PPP co-chairman) has further depleted party morale.

But all is not lost. PPP can certainly build upon the moderate image that made it a target of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) attacks, and it can capitalise on the response to welfare schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme, through which dole payments go to thousands of impoverished families. PPP can also look to the support of the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), both also targeted by TTP.

On the other hand, Imran Khan’s PTI is poised to benefit most from rising disenchantment with democracy and the deteriorating state of affairs in Pakistan.

Once deemed inconsequential, PTI has exploded on to the political scene and is expected to make a severe dent in the vote banks of PPP and PML-N in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.

National icon

PTI’s biggest asset, of course, is Imran himself, a larger than life national icon with a clean political slate, who appeals to young voters and is admired by older ones. PTI’s reputation is also enhanced by several former ministers with good records, as well as noted journalists and representatives of the intelligentsia crossingfrom PPP and PML-N.

While Imran’s political manifesto addressing corruption and the economy seems to have appealed to the masses and floating voters, his sympathy with TTP and his anti-American rhetoric mean Pakistan’s security nightmare will continue under a PTI government.

All of which brings us to PML-N, the party most likely to form the next government under Nawaz Sharif.

Along with its stronghold in Punjab, PML-N may expect support from political entities in Balochistan and Sindh, both targeted by extremists, the military establishment and the previous PPP government.

Nawaz Sharif is also increasingly seen as a leader who has kept the cause of democracy above his political interests during PPP’s five years in power. Supporters also point to the examples of his relentless pressure on the government for the restoration of the Chief Justice, his cordial relationship with the West and support among the business community.

Furthermore, five years of PML-N rule in Punjab and two previous stints as Prime Minister add ballast to his cause, as does his recent decision to cease all anti-Imran political attacks following this week’s accident.

Undeniably, the party faces stiff competition and may lose more seats than anticipated.But it may also win just enough to prevail.

Indications are that PML-N will win, PPP will lose power and PTI will enter the parliament with greater numbers and contribute to a strong opposition.

Hopefully, this augurs well for the health and quality of Pakistan’s troubled democracy.