EVEN after making allowances for the controversy over irregularities in polling at a number of places, the May 11 election marks a step forward in the Pakistanis’ quest for a democratic order.
The most positive development has been the people’s reiteration of their faith in representative rule. They defied the death squads as well as the preachers of theocracy and thronged to the polling stations in larger numbers than they had done for four decades. The call of democracy was answered in both rural and urban areas and no class chose to stay out of the electoral process. There was a good crop of new faces, including many women. All this augurs well for Pakistan’s polity.
However, the joy of a popular election has been diminished to some extent by the failure of many candidates to respect the electorate’s choices. That results were manipulated at as many as 100 polling stations raises serious doubts about the fairness of the poll.
Those who were determined to win regardless of means were helped by the absence/weakness of their rivals and the connivance of police/polling staff over whom neither the caretaker regimes nor the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) exercised due control.
While every effort must be made by the ECP to deal with all complaints of irregularities in accordance with the law and as expeditiously as possible, it is doubtful if the balance of power in the national and provincial assemblies will be affected.
This is unlikely to soothe the emotions of the aggrieved parties but if the present experience can strengthen the foundations of a democratic culture some good may still come out of the present controversy.
Much has been said about the significant contribution made by the youth in this year’s election. But the youth has played an important role in all critical elections. The students formed the Muslim League’s vanguard in the historic elections of 1945 and 1946 and so did the students of East Bengal, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the elections in their areas up to 1970.
In Punjab the PPP owed its victory in 1970 largely to the young men who voluntarily shouldered the electoral responsibilities on behalf of quite a few absentee candidates.
While the young activists in past elections belonged to the disadvantaged sections of society the youth that gained prominence in this year’s election came from a somewhat affluent class and often claimed superiority over their counterparts from the countryside.
This group included a good number of young women which could only be welcomed. If the political parties can retain the services of these young cadres and improve their capacity for legwork it will be a most rewarding investment in democratic politics.
Unfortunately, hopes that the election would lead to stability in Balochistan have not been realised. Polling in the Pakhtun belt and in Quetta seems to have been peaceful and relatively orderly, with a handsome turnout, but it was extremely sketchy in the Baloch areas.
If no polling was possible at a large number of polling stations, the government, security agencies and ECP are jointly responsible for disappointing the electorate and the consequences. The exclusion of a large Baloch population from the electoral process will only add to its frustration and make the task of the new government harder.
While it is too early to discuss the challenges the new federal and provincial governments will face, except for pointing out that the crises the state faces will not yield to flights of fancy or to management tricks tried in the past, it is only fair to take stock of the parties that have lost. Since the absence of properly organised political parties has been one of the principal causes of democracy’s travails in this country, the eclipse of three political parties in a single election is no ordinary matter.
The defeat the PPP suffered on Saturday is not the worst in its history. It had done worse in 1997 when it won only 18 National Assembly seats, all of them from Sindh, and in the Punjab Assembly it had only three seats. Nevertheless, the fall of this party will have a significant bearing on the course of events in the immediate future.
The reasons for its downfall are known and also evident is the possibility of fresh desertions from its ranks. Its future will depend upon a thorough purge of its inept custodians and patient reconstruction of the party structure under fresh, untainted leaders.
A greater debacle than the PPP’s has been suffered by the Awami National Party. The militants no doubt made it almost impossible for it to campaign but external threats alone cannot explain its worst drubbing ever. Its strength lay in Bacha Khan’s legacy of courage in the face of danger and integrity in both public and private lives and it abandoned both. It can be revived only by political workers who are not only incorruptible but are also capable of thinking of new solutions to the diverse ills the party is suffering from.
The party that may fail to rehabilitate itself altogether is the PML-Q. Created solely for providing soldiers for retired Gen Musharraf, the party has become an anachronism. Quite a few of its followers had joined their mother party (the PML-N) and many others took refuge in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) tent. One does not know how long this party can survive on the strength of its position in the Senate alone.
The one important thing the plight of some of the older parties and the rise of new ones establishes is that all this would have happened much earlier if the military dictators had not put the clock back four times in as many decades.
The moral of the story is that political parties will not fail to overcome their shortcomings if the political process is allowed to continue and all those who have flourished by demonising politicians and politics can find cleaner means to earn their keep.