ELECTION season is in full gear in Pakistan. Nomination papers are being filed and rejected; claims are being made about the future and the past; inroads are being carved with candidates such as the courageous Badam Zari; and old names are surfacing again.
Many of the usual suspects, members of cabinets past and parliaments gone, are hoping to be players in the power conglomerations of the future. Each day brings news of the construction of electoral choices for the Pakistan of the future.
In the backdrop of all these iterations of democratic participation are the terrors of bomb blasts, suicide attacks and targeted killings.
A chilling report published recently in this newspaper detailed how Karachi has become a hub of activity for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with several Pakhtun neighbourhoods having come under the influence of the TTP; nearly 30 of the group’s many factions are now said to have a presence in the city.
According to this report, nearly one million of the city’s residents who live in the areas affected may now be under the shadow of this emerging presence.
The report’s claims were substantiated only a few days later when 11 militants — all of them reported to be members of the TTP — were arrested from the Manghopir area and caches of rocket shells and other ammunition were recovered during the raid.
In this way the parallel narratives — one of a democratic election and the second of a well-armed militant group fighting the state and controlling increasingly more territory — continue to write new episodes of their sagas on the bloodied soil of the country. It is the distance between the two that posits a conundrum for Pakistan.
Against their reality is the emerging contention, proffered by some groups, that elections themselves are by definition Western and hence inauthentic and undeserving of participation.
The proponents of this argument hold up the corrupt practices of rulers past and the institutional weaknesses of a young democracy to argue that choosing leaders through elections is somehow inherently flawed as a form of governance relevant to Pakistan. To give credence to this view, they paint the democratic project as somehow inherently modern and inapplicable to a true Islamic republic.
While proponents of such arguments may not overtly be supporters of the TTP, their efforts to de-legitimise the democratic project serve ultimately to substantiate the group’s refusal to participate in any sort of democratic discourse.
The situation seems to have caused some consternation even at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Recently, returning officers functioning under it began to use sections of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution to ensure that every electoral candidate was a good Muslim of integrity and honesty who practised Islam and was knowledgeable about the religion.
In enforcing the articles, a number of candidates’ papers were rejected, including those of past president Pervez Musharraf who has several criminal charges pending against him and columnist Ayaz Amir, allegedly for having once penned a column that went against the ideology of Pakistan.
While the rationales provided in one or the other case may vary, the modus operandi of the ECP is clear. With attacks on the idea of democracy in terms of religion by non-state groups such as the TTP that do not believe in the electoral process, some among those given the task of vetting candidates have decided to give dubious interpretations to constitutional articles in order to create a religious test that can claim some inclusion of faith in Pakistan’s democratic process.
Feeble and overtly discriminatory, the use of this religion test reveals just how complicated the situation of the country is as it goes into the election season. The TTP, whose influence now extends from the faraway recesses of Fata to the urban slums of Pakistan’s largest and highest income-generating city, have threatened the electoral process.
Their constant onslaughts on the state mock the elected government’s purported monopoly over state power. When you add to this mix the ideological attacks on elections and democratic processes as somehow being un-Islamic, you arrive at a situation where the very procedures of choice that are meant to save the country and provide it with a representative system stand to be spurned by its population.
With enough non-state actors operating outside the democratic system and uninterested in the processes of consensus and compromise that come with the act of elections, the legitimacy of the system is threatened not simply (as in past years) by the allegations of corruption or interference by the military, but by the validity or relevance of the system itself to the state of Pakistan and its dismal conditions.
The doubts are not merely hypothetical; a much-cited survey of young voters carried out by the British Council found hefty percentages of the country’s emerging generation expressing a lack of faith in the democratic system.
It is undoubted that for an ultimate return to health, the country requires a unification of narratives through which all important actors participate in the electoral process and do not threaten its legitimacy, either by ideological attacks on the basis of its relevance or authenticity, or terrorist attacks that reveal the state’s incapacity to maintain a monopoly over violence.
For Pakistanis, the impetus to vote in this next election means not simply a choice of the next leader but a reiteration of the fact that democratic processes are good in themselves, applicable and relevant to all religions and to all countries that are interesting in forging a just and representative polity.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.
She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria
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