Lessons of May 11

Published May 22, 2013 08:46am

ELECTION 2013 has proved to be an enigma. We are a people in a hurry and immediately after the polling took place on May 11 we had started jumping to conclusions.

The facts had still not been ascertained fully, and without facts (and figures in the case of polling which is essentially a numbers game) how can one form informed opinions? What we have is a babble of judgements pronounced in line with the political leanings of various observers and on the basis of reports — not all of them authentic — circulating on the internet and in the media.

A lot did happen on polling day but one has to look at the bigger picture as well as the context. Of course there were malpractices in some constituencies amounting to rigging. They could not be ignored — the vociferous protests were too loud to ignore.

There was a democratic way out. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had prescribed a procedure for seeking redress. This was adopted in some cases. But not in all. Hence it is unwise to declare a categorical opinion across the board on the fairness and authenticity of the polling exercise on May 11 and May 19. There are some observations, however, that are incontrovertible on the basis of the tentative unofficial results that have not been challenged. First, the voters’ turnout was heavy by Pakistan’s standards — said to be 60pc as against 44pc in 2008.

This is of great significance in view of the threats made by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to use violence to disrupt the electoral exercise. The obscurantists’ warnings did not deter the people and they turned out in sizable numbers. Probably even the ECP didn’t anticipate this turnout. Hence the mismanagement in places.

I wouldn’t see this defiance of the TTP’s writ as a left-right issue. People voted with their feet against what the Pakistani Taliban stand for. Another indication of their reluctance to bring religion into politics was the poor showing of the religious parties in the unofficial results.

The trend was similar to what we have witnessed since the early years of Pakistan in the elections held sporadically. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal, the Jamaat-i-Islami and some Islamic fronts hurriedly cobbled together won only 5pc of seats in the national as well as the provincial assemblies combined which means the voters would prefer that religious leaders confine themselves to the pulpit.

Given the quirk of electoral democracy even these insignificant numbers have given them a nuisance value beyond their numerical strength. Worse still, in places they have also emerged as strategic kingmakers.

The more worrying feature was that these elections did not provide a level playing field to all parties. By dubbing the PPP, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement as secular and therefore the target of their perverse militancy, the Taliban in effect restricted their electioneering.

There is another perspective in which the elections should be seen. At least the structure of democracy — howsoever imperfect — is now in place and a constitutionally elected government completed its term even though its performance was pathetic for which it has paid the price.

If the democratic process continues the flaws in our political system should gradually be eliminated. Credit for this should go to the political parties which did not try to derail the system in spite of rising passions.

We are late starters on the road to democracy and the sharks which threaten the process are far too many. It would be timely to remind those who are ready to create deadlocks and stall the process that there are forces — old and new — that have made our political process so complex.

First, the army continues to lurk in the wings and one should not sit back complacently saying that military coups are out of fashion. The PPP-led coalition government’s attempts to assert civilian control over the ISI were thwarted apparently by the security establishment itself.

Thereafter the PPP-led government had to be satisfied with a subservient, though uncomfortable, relationship with the military. The khakis were thence happy to remain in the background.

Another factor to take note of is the globalisation of our politics. Modern communication technology that allows free transmission of information has had a profound impact on our politics. This has been reinforced by our neo-liberal economics that allows a free transfer of funds across borders.

Add to this the growing strength and immaturity of the electronic media, and you have the perfect scenario which allows overseas Pakistanis to get actively involved in Pakistan’s politics.

The positive effect of this phenomenon is that it facilitates the injection of a broader perspective into national politics. But it has an extremely damaging dimension too. It allows leaders to lead from a distance without the advantage of the experience of being connected directly with the voters on the ground.

Finally, we can never enjoy the fruits of democracy until our 24/7 multi-channel electronic media shows more maturity as well as responsibility and until education becomes widespread enough to create vote banks of thoughtful people intellectually empowered.

S.M. Naseem. a former professor of the Quaid-i-Azam University, observed correctly in his article in this paper (May 17) that our democracy is heavily tilted against the poor. The fact is that the underprivileged, many of whom cast their ballot, are not autonomous to exercise their choice by force of circumstances.


More From This Section

Comments (4) (Closed)

Ubaid Niaz
May 22, 2013 05:46pm
I totally agree with your observation. We have atleast tired to stand on our weak limbs (Past 5 Years of Democratic Era) but with time we will make it through. I will however slightly beg to differ with your point that we are late to democracy, considering if we look into British Era or Americans or Other Developed Nations, if they are enjoying democracy, took century atleast to stand on their feet. Keeping those prospects in our mind, we are far ahead than them, we need to, however, measure the relative demographic, economic, politic aspects and all those external xyz factors hitting on us from multiple directions, not to forget War on Terror which has done more damage to us than providing us with any constructive fruit. We need to unite and yes education is the fundamental thing which is the backbone of any country which when will be imparted to all the segments impartially, things will begin to change and we will eventually come out of "Black Spiral" and shine right on world's horizon.
Sue Sturgess
May 23, 2013 05:01am
the fact that you think any degree of electoral malpractice is acceptable, is alarming
May 23, 2013 08:49am
Can not in all honesty agree with you. If you think that the vote cast was a reflection of the wishes of the people, then you are dead wrong. The author appears to say ' ..things were not altogether right, but what can we do. Lets make the most of what little good we can see and move on '..................not acceptable.
Ali Hashim
May 23, 2013 10:15pm
I agree that the recent elections results in Pakistan are largely representative of the sentiments of Pakistanis. There have probably been incidents of electoral fraud but these were not on a scale that they could change the results significantly. I also agree that the fact that people showed up in the elections despite severe threats against the PPP, ANP and MQM and several murders committed by the Taliban in the days running up to the elections, showed that PPP, ANP and MQM shows that the majority of Pakistanis rejected the Taliban philosophy. PML(N) won hands down in Punjab. PPP lost badly on an overall basis but retained their hold on Rural Sindh. MQM took Urban Sindh as they have been doing in the past several elections. ANP were rejected countrywide. Jamata-e-Islami did not get the comeback they had expected. Maulana Fazlur Rehman got enough seats to continue to be a power broker as he has been in several elections. However in addition to this we see the rise of a new force that of the PTI and Imran Khan. PTI did not get the support it had expected from Punjab but did get good support from KPK and will likely head the provincial government there. The positive side of the elections is that it had very good voter participation. The negative side is that the electoral vote was cast on an ethnic / provincial basis. This does not auger well for Pakistan. However, the way out is that main winners i.e. PML(n) and PTI state clearly that they will respect the election mandate demonstrated by the various political parties. PML (n) headed by Mr. Nawaz Sharif who is a seasoned and pragmatic politician has done so. PTI is significantly delinquent in this area. My advice to PTI is focus on the positive. Unfortunately PTI’s campaign had focused too much on the negative to start with. They tried to generate a Tsunami based on allegations against the Peoples Party and PML(N) even though their technical agenda was excellent and could have generated the same support on its own merit. They succeeded to some degree in the urban areas and in those areas where their message addressed a pressing local problem – e.g. KPK. Also they secured more votes from the more affluent and the more educated who could see the merit of their technical solutions. This was so even in the urban areas of Lahore and Karachi where they secured seats or at least a significant number of votes from in the most affluent areas, but lost in the poorer areas. However it is not reasonable to blame the failure of a country wide Tsunami on whole scale vote rigging. May be they would have gained a few more seats but this would probably not have changed the electoral balance. This is specially so in Punjab and Urban Sindh. It is unreasonable to say that MQM wins Karachi due only to violent techniques. The reason why they win Sindh is that no ther political party offers them a choice. The MQM voter was originally part of two vote blocs- the PPP which in Mr. Bhutto’s time obtained the votes of the progressive and left leaning voter and the Jamaat e Islami which secured votes form the more traditional and religiously inclined voter. Both of these parties showed very little if any ethnic bias at that time. Over time this changed and the emphasis of both these parties, mainly the PPP and less so the JI, focused on different groups. The Karachi voter turned to MQM when both these parties seemed to cater to other more powerful interest groups and offered very little to the local Karachi Voter. Also MQM came out as a defense against the terrorism first initiated by Mr. Gauhar Ayub after the electoral defeat of Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan when he headed processions of truck loads of armed tribals in the poorest areas of Karachi which were at that time completely disarmed. This behavior continued in the 70’s. MQM was formed from the poorest Urdu speaking urban class of Karachi. Unfortunately over time as the grievances of this class continued unaddressed and the State tried to label MQM as just a violent ethnic group, they did become increasingly violent. However they were not then and are not now the only armed violent group in Karachi. Musharraf tried to bring them back in the main stream and gave them some responsibility in Karachi. MQM did deliver to the extent they could keeping in view their structural educational and skill weaknesses. Mr Imran Khan initially started a barrage against the MQM but soon realized that his voice does not get any traction in Karachi. Then he entered into a peace agreement with them and was able to to get the Educated Karachi voter to vote for him and he got a significant number of votes though not enough this time to win him seats. Had he continued with this strategy he would have been more successful in the next elections. Instead he started a smear campaign against the MQM which the Karachi voter still looks upon as their best, second best option. This has unfortunately exposed his ethnic biases. You cannot win an election by blaming others. The failure is of the PTI which did not generate enough traction within the poor urban class and even less in the traditional rural masses. PTI has a good technical team who can provide good technical solutions. The problem is that, in Pakistan, as in many other countries people find it difficult to overcome their own personal prejudices and see beyond their personal interests to vote for the best technical team. For the most, people vote for the team which they think conforms to their own local interests not the best technical solutions. The way out of this conundrum is to give the political parties responsibility in the areas in which they have won. PML N has won overall and should head the center and also Punjab. PPP and MQM need to get clear responsibility and authority in Rural and Urban Sindh respectively. PTI should get the responsibility for KPK and get a chance to demonstrate the feasibility of its innovative solutions. PTI gets a smaller sand box to play in but this will give them more credibility n the next elections. If he can eradicate terrorim, corruption and introduce good governance in KPK and rewamp the revenue system there he will have a tremendous ground sewell a true Tsunami. in the next elections. Hopefully PTI is here for the long haul- 5 years is not too long to wait for another chance. Specially when he is getting a chance to show his capabilities in KPK. He needs to demonstrate to the Karachi voter that he is truly free of ethnic bias. I wish him luck. We need a third force, but we also need this party to first build up some credibility, not so much of its intentions but its capacity to bring change.