Politics often consists of paradoxes and Pakistani attitude towards general elections offers an interesting and perhaps painful example. Pakistani people, rival political parties, institutions and media share an enthusiasm that elections will throw up solutions to their problems though past elections have seldom lived up to their promises and today there is often little agreement on what those problems are.
Like Sisyphus’s plight, Pakistanis carry their democratic boulder up the hill, only to be pushed back. Once again July 25 elections mean different things to different political parties.
For Imran Khan’s PTI, which is supposedly the main challenger of the status quo that exists since the 2008 elections (London APC, lawyer’s movement, Charter of democracy, Murree Accord, etc.), this election is about end of dynastic politics, corruption in high places and better governance; for Nawaz’s PML-N (considered dynastic by PTI) this is an election about democracy, civil-military divide and what the world thinks about Pakistan (vote ko Izzat do and burying the debate about corruption and dynastic politics).
Perhaps to those who wonder why the journey towards democracy looks so different in Pakistan from that of India supposedly the other part of same country till August 1947 these differences of history and geography have never been important or obvious.
For the third main party, PPP, which has brought a manifesto with aspirations of social reform, this is mainly about maintaining control on interior Sindh, re-entering Punjab, (and maybe forming a central government in a coalition).
For the MQM, this is a struggle for survival, in the increasingly fractious politics of Karachi, where its traditional vote bank is now split between different competing interests and for the Pakistani establishment (often considered the undeclared political party) this represents a battle for national sovereignty from creeping foreign influences, fear of IMF and Pakistan’s economic future – others don’t matter, at least not to the extent of changing the bigger picture.
A coalition of religious parties is attempting to revive the old glory of “Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal” (MMA of 2002) and several religious factions like Milli Muslim League (supported by JUD) are trying to enter the electoral fray directly or indirectly but the public and media have shown little interest in their slogans. Ironically, none of the political parties has shown any serious substantive concern about the real issue underhand; the ‘economy’ and how its myriad challenges will be met after the July elections.
Read more: Elections 2018
For the common man on the street this is about prices of vegetables, food grains, chicken, mutton, goods and services; for the middle classes and businesses, its about the rupee/dollar parity and for manufacturers its about the costs of electricity, fuel and other inputs. Pakistan could not hold countrywide general elections on the basis of universal adult franchise till 1970.
Provincial elections on adult franchise were held in Punjab, NWFP (now KP) and former East Pakistan in 1950’s often producing results that frightened the ruling elite of the then “Muslim League”. President Ayub Khan held an indirect election, through an electoral college of 80,000 electors, on the basis of “Basic Democracies (1962-65) though it was believed to be widely rigged.
Similarly, 1977 elections were again believed to be rigged by Bhutto and his party, PPP, in order to get the two-thirds majority. 1985 Elections were on a non-party basis, subsequent elections of 1990, 1993, 1997 and 2002 were all engineered one way or the other the only exception to this norm that led to transfer of power was in 2008, which warrants a detailed comment because this was the only election after 1970 in which incumbents were replaced by the electoral process.
Why the different Election Trajectories in the Subcontinent?
Since the ill-fated elections of December 1970, (that led to civil war, Indian intervention and creation of Bangladesh) this will be the 11th general election of Pakistan on the basis of universal adult franchise and in many ways, it could prove to be decisive for country’s future.
India has so far held 16 general elections since 1951-52, however, unlike Pakistan, the history and concept of elections was already much deeper in the areas of the sub-continent that constituted India in August 1947. Though, formally first Indian general elections were held in 1920, (after the Government of India Act 1919) followed by 1923, 1926, 1930, 1934 and then 1945 and provincial elections on much larger scale were held in 1937 and 1946.
July 2018 elections in many ways will be Pakistan’s most important elections in almost half a century – since 1970; these elections will determine what kind of Pakistan will emerge as a result of the battle between the forces that are now arraigned against each other.
However, this school textbook history ignores that a culture of some sort of modern albeit grossly imperfect institutional accountability started to grow in the south of India from the middle of 18th century soon after the Battle of Plassey and defeat of Siraj ud Daulah in 1757.
Read more: Elections 2018 in Pakistan and Afghanistan: Critical juncture ahead?
After the Battle of Buxar in 1764, when the combined forces of Mir Qassim of Bengal, Nawab of Awadh and Mughal Emperor Shah Alam-II lost to East India Company, a new system of governance started to shape around the plains of Ganges, between the presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
No doubt officials of East India Company effectively portrayed by William Dalrymple in his writings were often rapaciously corrupt, cruel and self-motivated, but despite all their failing,s they were ultimately part of a remote and rough system of accountability to shareholders, directors and the Crown in London.
By the time Sindh (1842) and Punjab (1849) along with NWFP (now KP) fell to the English, an initial culture of accountants, clerks, lawyers, record keepers, and modern tax collection had taken hold in Delhi and beyond.
When Allan Octavian Hume conceived Indian National Congress in 1885, less than 30 years after the War of Independence (or Sepoy’s Mutiny, whichever way you interpret it) he had a nascent culture of modernity around him the likes of Jinnah, Motilal, Gokhale, Gandhi, Chandra Bose and Nehru were all progenies of the same culture originating from the south.
vote managers of important constituencies, too act inside a clear system of belief, a visibly perceived reality, since they are financially and politically invested in the outcome and a wrong judgment as to who the winner will be can deprive them of their access to centers of power.
Political parties and elections are ultimately a part of western-style democracy and modernity; a new process of change that crept upwards in the sub-continent from the south towards the north, reversed the two millennia-old tradition of Central Asian horsemen bringing innovations of stirrups, guns, and cannons into the plains of the Indus and beyond.
Perhaps to those who wonder why the journey towards democracy looks so different in Pakistan from that of India supposedly the other part of same country till August 1947 these differences of history and geography have never been important or obvious. In most instances their single-minded focus on “Pindi” and GHQ has prevented the larger understanding of the tyranny of history.
Read More: Elections 1977 and 2018: A comparison – Farid A Malik
Pakistan more Democratic than its own Neighbourhood?
But despite its many electoral failings, its much talked about democratic deficits Pakistan as a polity is far more democratic, open and plural society than its own neighborhood that extends through Central Asia towards the Middle East.
This reality is ignored or misunderstood because comparisons are drawn with its eastern and southern neighbor, India, which in most ways (if we ignore the recent rise of Hindu extremism in the form of BJP) is definitely more democratic, more plural than Pakistan.
But Pakistan’s neighborhood is not merely India; it has Afghanistan, Iran, China in its immediate borders and then the historical and geographical continuum extends into Central Asia, Gulf and wider Middle East. Once you grasp this map (and realize that territories that constitute Pakistan have been part of British India for only 70-100 years) a totally different picture emerges.
Read more: Waqar Younis vows to support Imran Khan in Elections 2018
Why the 2018 elections will be the most important since 1970?
July 2018 elections in many ways will be Pakistan’s most important elections in almost half a century – since 1970; these elections will determine what kind of Pakistan will emerge as a result of the battle between the forces that are now arraigned against each other. This contest is different from all past elections; to begin with there is no one in real control like in 1970.
Though it is widely accepted that 1970 elections were the fairest, cleanest elections ever in the history of the country. However, there is much evidence to suggest that the regime of General Yahya Khan distributed massive troves of cash to political parties in West Pakistan to weaken chances of Bhutto’s PPP and to stem the tide of Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League in the eastern wing and counter India’s deep penetration– none worked.
The Government in Islamabad had actually less and less control on the dynamics on the street, instruments of law and politics in its eastern wing after January 1970 – and in the western wing, slogans of “Roti Kapra aur Makan” played havoc in the minds of all those teeming millions who had been deprived of growth in the 1960’s crony capitalism.
Pakistan’s neighborhood is not merely India; it has Afghanistan, Iran, China in its immediate borders and then the historical and geographical continuum extends into Central Asia, Gulf and wider Middle East.
When a political game of musical chairs was being played out between 1988 and 1997, with first Benazir and then Nawaz thrown out in turns by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan (supported by the then establishment) it was always clear that one who has been kicked out will not be coming back.
The interim governments that were set up in 1990, 1993 and 1996- 97 were thus clear as to what was expected of them, and what kind of results they had to produce.
In the June issue of Global Village Space, Asim Imdad Ali, a former senior District Management Officer (DMG) explains the dynamics, of election management on a macro level and how the machinery police, district administration, Election Commission, Education Department officials, etc. perceive who will win and play their part in ensuring the desired outcome.
The local notables, sometimes described as “vote managers” of important constituencies, too act inside a clear system of belief, a visibly perceived reality, since they are financially and politically invested in the outcome and a wrong judgment as to who the winner will be can deprive them of their access to centers of power for the next several years.
Read more: Elections 2018: A massive political exercise
The outcome of the 2013 elections in which status quo parties won everywhere in Punjab, Sindh, Karachi, and Baluchistan – except KP can be easily understood in the context of these power dynamics.
PML-N had been ruling in Punjab and PPP in Sindh since 2008, MQM controlled all levers of administrative power in Karachi since their Faustian bargain with Musharraf in 2002; two-month interim set up of 2013, was thus a convenient smokescreen, a cosmetic cover to the actual power dynamics wielded by the political parties PML-N, PPP and MQM – on the ground and results often described by local and international media, governments and donors as a transfer of power in a romantic facade of democracy were plainly misleading.
PML-N that effectively controlled the bureaucratic and administrative machinery in Punjab, from March 2008 onwards, not only won Punjab but by virtue of its control on Punjab ended up controlling the center. (Punjabi bureaucracy had the additional fear that PML-N might have been able to form the government anyway) The argument given by all those who benefitted from this outcome was that PPP lost the center and PML-N won because the public had realized that PPP had not delivered.
But the PPP had not even delivered in Sindh, the only difference was that it controlled the administrative levers and thus the minds of “notables” and “vote managers” in Sindh and had no influence whatsoever in Punjab.
The interim governments that were set up in 1990, 1993 and 1996- 97 were thus clear as to what was expected of them, and what kind of results they had to produce.
Why 2008 Elections stand out?
The electoral outcome of May 2013 was in marked contrast to that of Feb 2008. Then, the PML-Q, the incumbents in Center, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan lost in all the four places to the PPP, and PML-N who came from outside the power corridors. 2008 elections were thus a rare, perhaps the only, example of a sitting government, the incumbents, losing out to challengers a real transfer of power.
But even that is easily explained by the fact that Musharraf, in understanding with the US administration, was trying to stay on as President with the support of the PPP. He was given assurances through the broader deal built into the infamous NRO and there is reason to believe that his supporters in Washington had made it clear that a PML-Q victory will not be acceptable.
Musharraf was thus willing to sacrifice his political contraptions for his own continuation as president till 2013 it did not work, when Nawaz supported Zardari (with tacit support from Washington) to get rid of him which is another chapter. The Chaudhries of Gujrat and other ex-leaders of PML-Q, some of whom later joined PML-N have been sharing these juicy details, these hints and sometimes conversations with whosoever wanted to cross examine their stories and their plight.
Read more: Elections 2018: Who is winning & how much?
Electoral Reality of the two Contenders
None of these certainties, of the past, the days of easy predictability, now exist. No one is in full control of the administrative system and the overall picture is mixed. Nawaz, the former Prime Minister, was thrown out, by the Supreme Court, (which had in July 2017, no other option) under tremendous political, media and public pressure stirred by Panama papers scandal.
His expectations of deriving support from a JIT dominated by Army officers failed though his approval of JIT was predicted upon his assessments that he will be able to bail himself out this way through a compliant and unsettled new Army Chief.
Once the Army did not bail him out, he cleverly shaped a media narrative that the whole Panama case (and corruption of his family) was the Army’s creation, he even for a short while tried saying it was a Western conspiracy against him to sabotage his vision of CPEC.
But after the initial setbacks he played well; most of his party is intact, he sold his slogans Mujhay keon nikala & Vote Ko Izat do well, displaying a deep penetration into country’s large print and electronic media and the generation of current police and district officers across Punjab swarm with his loyalists, giving him tremendous influence on the outcome of the coming elections.
Nawaz Sharif has been selling himself since 2013 or perhaps earlier to the western world as an antidote to the Pakistani military, strategic community and nationalists and as someone who understands the imperatives of accepting New Delhi’s suzerainty over Pakistan.
Most of the western media and perhaps key western governments along with a political establishment in Delhi support Nawaz as an instrument against Pakistan’s establishment. He has been selling himself since 2013 or perhaps earlier to the western world as an antidote to the Pakistani military, strategic community and nationalists and as someone who understands the imperatives of accepting New Delhi’s suzerainty over Pakistan.
Many amongst his supporters believe that PML-N will still be able to win around 80 seats from Punjab and Begum Kulsum Nawaz’s state of health about which a carefully controlled mystery exists – will be used to thwart the Accountability court process, and a possible conviction in the corruption case of ‘Avenfield Apartments’ and for generating a sympathy wave, days before the elections. Courts have been ridiculed so consistently by media, supporting Nawaz, that they are visibly on defensive and unable to take decisive actions to enforce the writ of law.
Read more: Elections 2018: Pakistan’s dirtiest elections or the fairest?
So while general elections are only 25 days away (by end June) accused can still endlessly dodge the court process through fake or questionable medical certificates. Perception of power and control matters and for the first time since 1970, total uncertainty prevails in the minds of administrative machinery about the outcome of July Elections.
Asad Umar, PTI leader tipped as next Finance Minster by Imran Khan, had recently claimed in a Dunya TV program, that PTI hopes or aspires to win 100 seats of its own out of 272 directly elected seats.
But Prof. Shahbaz Gill, of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne, studying Pakistani electoral dynamics on ground across Punjab, gives more specific calculations: he claims that PTI will win from 28-30 seats out of 39 in KP, around 80 seats out of 141 in Punjab, 8 seats out of 61 in Sindh, 6 from FATA and 2 from Islamabad making a total of around 125 by itself clearly in a position to form a government with the help of independents and smaller parties.
If this happened, if his calculations are sound, and a party that is driven principally by the support of educated middle classes like Bhutto’s PPP in 1970 despite its controversial embrace of electables was able to form governments in Islamabad, Punjab and KP, then Pakistan will surely enter in the next phase of its history.
But the future like history is unpredictable; there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip and whether Pakistan will remain wedded to its history of “Democracy Sans Democracy” like King Sisyphus of Greek mythology or will move beyond it will become clear in the morning of July 26.
Moeed Pirzada is a prominent TV Anchor and Editor Strategic Affairs with Dunya News Network and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. He studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, the UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue, has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute and many others.