Who will win? That is the question as Pakistan goes to the polls on July 25, 2018 with freshly delimitated constituencies based on the 2017 census and the country under a caretaker Prime Minister and caretaker Chief Ministers in the provinces.

The elections are being held in a significantly altered political environment.

-The head of the Sharif family is not a contender;

-the Islamic parties alliance Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) has been revived; designated terrorist Mohammed Hafiz Saeed’s candidates will be in the fray through a proxy party the Allaha-u-Akbar Tehreek as his own new party Milli Muslim League has been denied registration as a political party;

-the leader of the sectarian Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat Maulana Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi has been removed from the terrorism list and allowed to fight the elections;

-exiled Mohajir leader Altaf Hussain has called on all Mohajirs to boycott the elections, and the party of which he was long the undisputed leader, the Muttahida Quami Movement, has been witnessing internecine squabbling among its leaders and losing some of its members to the Pakistan Sarzameen Party of Mustafa Kamal a former MQM Mayor of Karachi;

-the Pakistan People’s Party under Bilawal Bhutto Zardari hardly being mentioned as even a remote winner except in Sindh where it could hold on to power;

-and the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf’s leader Imran Khan’s marriages and divorces possibly of more interest than his politics. Former President General Musharraf(Retd) declared his candidacy but his nomination papers were rejected on the ground that he was barred for life from contesting elections by the Peshawar High Court in 2013 .

Who will Pakistan’s “Deep State” back could be the critical factor despite the army leadership avowing disinterest in the democratic political process.

The perceptions of the Pakistan army commanders about the different parties and contenders could influence the election outcome. The present Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has shown no public inclination to interfere in the political process but the army is a collegiate system and the views of the other top commanders would also count though the final word would be of the Chief. When Nawaz Sharif won a landslide victory after returning from exile, the then army chief General Kayani took a hands off approach despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif had earlier ousted General Musharraf.

The Pakistan Army’s priorities have remained largely unchanged over the decades:-

-The preservation of its power and privileges

-A decisive say in foreign policy matters particularly relating to India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and the USA.

-Ensuring that the civilian administration does not think it is superior to the armed forces.

-Ensuring that the instruments for implementing its objectives in the neighbourhood remain sharp, despite pressure from the Americans, and taking initiatives that could deflect American pressure on the question of terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

This last aspect has been heightened after Donald Trump’s becoming the American President especially with American actions like cutting of financial support and haranguing Pakistan on a regular basis for not doing enough to demolish the safe havens enjoyed by the Taliban and a multitude of other groups inside Pakistan. Some commentators have said that the creation of Hafiz Saeed’s political party and the permission to Maulana Ludhianvi to contest the elections are at the army’s behest to show that it is working to bring terrorist groups into the political mainstream.

These measures could also be designed to ensure a presence in Parliament of individuals who share the Army’s hardline approach on matters of importance like Kashmir and Afghanistan. No one is willing to concede that with the mainstreaming of these groups they would stop being the army’s instruments in the implementation of its objectives.

There of course remains the likelihood that the army’s choices may not match those of the general public. The Pakistan media has referred to the new status given to Maulana Ludhianvi as “ shocking”. An editorial in the Dawn has sounded the alarm saying “…The normalisation of the religious far right and the militant right in national politics ought to be of great concern to all right-thinking and democratic citizens of Pakistan.

It is not clear if a so-called policy of mainstreaming of militant groups is being surreptitiously foisted on a largely unsuspecting electorate or if the religious far right and militant groups have themselves identified a political opening of a lifetime. What is apparent, however, is that the 2018 general election will likely witness a historic participation of radical and fringe religious groups, some explicitly militarised and others less so…”

Under Pakistan’s Electoral system the 342 members of the National Assembly are elected by three methods-- 272 are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting; 60 are reserved for females and 10 for ethnic and religious minority groups; both sets of reserved seats use proportional representation with a 5% electoral threshold. This proportional number, however, is based on the number of seats won rather than votes cast. To win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats. As of May 31st2018 the major parties had the following representation in the National Assembly-- PML-N at 189 seats i.e. 55% of the total 342 seats; Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with 47 seats and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, with 33 seats.

According to the Election Commission over 11800 candidates are contesting the general seats at the national and provincial levels. Many of the leaders of the main parties are contesting from more than one constituency. There are nearly 106 million registered voters including 59 million male and 47 million female voters.

There has also been an increase in the number of non-Muslim voters with the Election Commission stating that the number of non-Muslim voters has jumped 30%, significantly faster than the 23% growth in overall voter registration in Pakistan since the last elections in 2013. 46 million voters between the ages of 18 and 36 a large proportion of whom are active on social media could influence voter turnout and parties like the PTI and the PML(N) have set up active social media teams.

Gender discrimination remains a fixture of Pakistan’s polity. The regulations demand that at least 5 percent of the general seats be allotted by a party to women at the national and provincial levels. The three biggest parties — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek­-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have issued tickets to the minimum number of women barely following the official five per cent requirement. But the five percent requirement has meant that this time more women are contesting on general seats than in any election in the past.

The main players in the coming elections are the Pakistan Muslim League ( Nawaz) or PML(N), the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan; the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the five party alliance Muttahida Majlis e Amal which includes the known religious figures like Allama Sajid Naqvi of the Islami Tehreek, Senator Sirajul Haq of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Pir Ejaz Hashmi of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan and central office-bearers of Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith with Maulana Fazlur Rehman the Chairperson of the alliance.

The front runners remain the PTI and the PML(N) with the PPP at a distance and the MMA which could be a spoiler attracting conservative votes. The MQM has never been a player on the national scene and held sway only in Karachi—a hold that has considerably weakened with the internecine squabbles within the party and crackdowns by the authorities.

The PML(N) is a troubled party today. With Nawaz Sharif out of the game, the PML(N) has said Nawaz’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif would be the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Though known as an able administrator he has always been seen as functioning in Nawaz’s shadow. The law has been the Sharif’s nemesis.

The Supreme Court began the process of defanging the PML(N) when it removed Nawaz Sharif as prime minister last year and banned him for life from holding any public office. Now the Accountability Court, hearing the UK based Avenfields properties case, has sentenced Nawaz and his daughter Maryam to ten and seven years in prison though they have been acquitted of corruption charges.

Both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam have made defiant statements from the UK with the former saying that he would return to Pakistan to face prison and that the verdict against him is because he tried to turn the course of Pakistan's 70-year history. He has pledged to continue his struggle till the people of Pakistan are freed from the “slavery” imposed on them by some generals and judges. Both Maryam and Shahbaz Sharif have claimed that the outcome of the July 25 vote will vindicate the family.

The question remains whether Nawaz Sharif and Maryam would be able to successfully move the Supreme Court against the convictions and whether, if they return to Pakistan, they would be immediately hustled off to prison. While PML(N) supporters have staged some protests, it is unlikely that they would venture a replay of November 1997 when they stormed the Supreme Court. While the average citizen of Pakistan has lived with, and most likely will continue to countenance high level corruption, the evolution of the Pakistan psyche is such that many would believe the actions taken by the Supreme Court and the Accountability Court were with the prior endorsement by the Army.

This sentiment, even if misplaced , could affect voter and political sentiment including in the Sharif stronghold of Punjab. The Supreme Court has not spared old Nawaz loyalists like Daniyal Aziz his Privatisation Minister and a Tribunal of the Election Commission had even disqualified Shahid Khaqan Abbasi , who had taken over after Nawaz’s ouster, from contesting though this decision was reversed by the High Court.

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam have been very vocal in accusing the Judges and the army of conspiring against him to make way for Imran Khan though PML-N media cell chairman Mushahid Hussain Sayed has sought to assuage the army saying that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz will have no issue in working with the army leadership if it comes into power after July 25 vote. But many PML(N) loyalists would be uneasy with Nawaz’s outbursts since most politicians do not like to fall foul of the army.

The adverse fall out of the Sharif saga is evident from the number of defections that have taken place from the party particularly to Imran Khan’s PTI. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s PML(Q) has already announced that it would support Imran Khan in all constituencies in Islamabad. An old time stalwart, Sharif’s Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan is contesting as an independent complaining that tickets were being given to “political orphans” and the party had been converted into a “family affair”.

PML-N lawmakers from Southern Punjab have announced the creation of the Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz (JBSM) calling for a separate Southern Punjab province – a demand supported by both the PTI and the PPP but which would against the PML(N)’s interests.

Shahbaz Sharif could find the going tough in the present scenario despite a manifesto that speaks, among other things, about building a strong digital economy; ending gender wage differentiation and improving the status of women and minorities; building a strong infrastructure capitalizing on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; and creating a tolerant and just Pakistan.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf had made done reasonably well in the last general election, but public opinion had become fed up with his agitation politics, including a months long sit-in at the parliament. But Khan has always been considered a favourite of the army given his various pronouncements supporting the Taliban and his sports background. His marriages and divorces have kept him in the public eye.

This time around his party has said that its candidates would be chosen on the basis of truthfulness , loyalty, and their ability to contest the elections as well as capability to win the elections. In public meetings Imran has said that democracy can only flourish if merit was followed in all spheres of life. He said if his party came to power it would improve governance, observe merit and eliminate corruption.

Taxes could also be lowered with Imran claiming that his government would collect Rs8 trillion within one to two by reducing taxes in the country. While Imran Khan has not been known to be a great thinker or one who has clearly spelt out policy options on national issues-except the policy of protest- he has an appeal amongst the electorate going back to the days when he set up a cancer hospital in his mother’s name. With the PML(N) hamstrung, and the PPP hardly considered a challenge, Imran could benefit.

The PPP’s manifesto was launched by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in Islamabad in the presence of his father Asif Ali Zardari. As Prime Ministerial material Bilawal has not been taken seriously but the party is likely to retain its hold in its fiefdom Sindh. The manifesto titled 'BB ka wada nibhana hai Pakistan bachana hai' (We have to fulfil BB's promise and save Pakistan), pledges to curtail hunger, rebuild the country's economy and foster harmony between different institutions of the state.

The PPP has made big promises saying it would free all Pakistani people from the fear of hunger, thirst and helplessness; open opportunities for all children and youth so that they may excel and become active citizens of Pakistan and confident members of the global community; rebuild the economy to work for all now and into the future; deepen democracy by fostering harmony among people, the people and the state and among the institutions of the state. The PPP, the manifesto says would reclaim Pakistan's rightful place in the world.

The latest incarnation of the Muttahida Majlis e Amal(MMA) , with Jamiat e ulema e Pakistan(F) ’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman as its chairperson and Jamaat e Islami’s Baloch as its general secretary, is in keeping with the previous domination of the two parties, both of which have historically drawn their support from the Pakhtun areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But Maulana Samiul Haq’s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUIS) known to have bred the Taliban is not part of the alliance. The MMA has always banked on a conservative constituency but this time its vote could be split with the entry of newer, more radical and aggressive political parties in the polls.

These include the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a Barelvi group led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi; the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen all of which could erode the Deobandi and Shia vote bank of the Jamiat ul Ulema e Islam and the Jamaat e Islami. The two traditional religious political parties have also been bickering over the distribution of tickets with dozens of senior members leaving the Jamaat protesting Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s dominating role. They blame the Jamaat Chief Senator Sirajul Haq and provincial chief Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan for the crisis and unrest in the party.

In its 12 point wide ranging manifesto released by MMA president Maulana Fazlur Rehman, in the presence of the other leaders of the five parties in the alliance, the MMA has promised to enforce Sharia and protect Islamic laws in the Constitution ; follow and independent foreign policy; ensure jobs for local people in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; not oppose the creation of new provinces; ensure independence of the judiciary; introduce constitutional reforms for devolution of power to the grass roots ; provision of education and employment opportunities and health facilities to all citizens, eradication of all unnecessary taxes and reduction in the prices of essential items along with fashioning a mechanism to stabilise prices in the long run. Other points deal with the establishment of a global bloc of Muslim nations to protect Muslim minorities; eradication of a class-based education system, provision of equal opportunities to both genders in higher studies, promotion of the national language along with development of local languages; an enhanced education budget; free treatment for heart,liver, cancer, TB and other common diseases for all citizens by upgrading hospitals at the tehsil and district level.

While the MMA has been perhaps the most adventurous in defining its agenda it remains to be seen how voters react to the manifesto given that the parties in the MMA have not been known for any kind of effective governance or enlightened thinking.

Mohammed Hafiz Saeed the well know mentor of the Lashkar e Taiba and a listed terrorist is taking these elections very seriously. Though he is not contesting himself, reports say that he is fielding nearly 200 candidates including, interestingly, Begum Saira Bano, a cousin of Nawaz Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz.

His Milli Muslim League (MML) was launched last August to contest the July 25 elections but has been refused recognition as a political party forcingit to field candidates through a proxy party. Hafiz Saeed’s agenda is well known and India and Kashmir figure at the top of the list. His organization Jamaat ud Dawaa has been present in all conflicts including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria preaching a fundamental and jehadi vision of Islam.

But within Pakistan he has earned kudos for the many relief and charity and educational programmes run under his tutelage. For many of the anti India radicals he is a hero—speaking at public rallies though technically listed as a terrorist. It is a moot question whether political registration of his party was refused to prevent American anger. The non- registration would be of no consequence if his men( and women) participate as candidates under another party’s banner.

The Muttahida Quami Movement, once a highly feared political and armed force in Karachi, is in tatters. In addition to an internal split it has seen some of its people join the Pakistan Sarzameen Party of Mustafa Kamal. Dr Farooq Sattar, a senior leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), has said he does not want to contest in the July 25 election but wanted to lead the party’s election campaign.

Meanwhile Altaf Hussian sitting in exile in London has told the Mohajirs to boycott the polls—which would leave the field in Karachi open to the PTI, the Pak Sarzameen Party, the MMA and the PPP. The two factions of the MQM in Pakistan led by Dr. Farooq Sattar and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, have however decided to put aside their differences to show their voters and supporters that they will go to the polls together under the same election symbol. But no detailed policy manifesto has been released by the MQM whose essential ideology has been to protect the Mohajirs and their language Urdu in Sindh.

As in most elections, opinion polls give the lead to different parties. A survey by Pulse Consultant has shown that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is the front runner with the support of 30 percent of respondents nationwide, compared to 27 percent for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and 17 percent for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). A separate nationwide poll by Gallup Pakistan gives the PML-N 26 percent, the PTI 25 percent and the PPP 16 percent of the vote. Both polls were commissioned by Pakistan’s Jang Media Group.

There remains the possibility of no one party being able to secure an absolute majority and that is where the MMA and Hafiz Saeed’s men and other assorted radicals could find their role.

In the recent Senate elections independent candidates had done well and they could also have the influence and potential to shape the final outcome of the general elections especially with regard to which party would be able to engineer the numbers to form a government.