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Celebration of democracy?

Published May 13, 2013 03:17am


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VOTE for Pakistan. This was the slogan that many heard before heading to the polls on Saturday. All through last week, I met people who hadn’t decided who they were voting for, but knew that they had to vote.

Many were first-time voters, nervous about negotiating queues, thumb prints and white-and-green forms, and yet eager to participate. The message preached by political parties and amplified by the media had resonated: voters were the true winners of the elections; the ones who stayed home, the only losers. The vote itself was pitched as the key to change — the ballot an alternative to the bullet, the surest way yet to defeat terrorism.

Even before polling started on Saturday morning, it seemed the rousing call to vote for Pakistan had worked. About 50pc of all registered voters had used the Election Commission’s SMS service to verify their polling location and, according to a British Council poll, 62pc of Pakistanis under the age of 30 were readying to vote — both good omens for high voter turnout.

They may not have been able to articulate it as such, but those who heeded the call to vote for Pakistan were casting ballots in favour of democracy itself. Rising above political, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian differences, many — especially the young, the urban, the middle-class, the first-timers — were voting for the continuity of civilian rule in a country plagued by military dictatorships, and for a chance to renegotiate the elite political bargain in a way to make the public genuine stakeholders.

It is unfortunate that pre-election sloganeering did not directly celebrate democracy since, in one of those strange contradictions typical of Pakistan, enthusiasm for the political process continues to be accompanied by scepticism of the democratic system. Rather than a basic democratic right, voting was framed as a hard-won prize awarded at the end of a long fight, the ultimate privilege in an evolving Pakistan.

Nothing underscored this idea more than Imran Khan’s iconic speech from his hospital bed, an emotional plea for Pakistanis to vote. “Whatever I could have done for Pakistan, I have done,” he said. “Now it is up to you.” His sentiments were echoed on the eve of the election by Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin Ebrahim, who declared that 60pc voter turnout on Saturday could forever change Pakistan.

The excitement about enfranchisement is a game changer in a country where the public has not only tolerated, but often welcomed, military rule for years on end. But old habits die hard. Pakistan on Saturday voted for saviours, not for systemic change.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the election campaigns — aside from the mudslinging and bigotry — was that all the political parties asked of the public was to come out and vote. Voting was rightly held up as crucial, but it was also portrayed as the extent of the public’s responsibility to the country. Wallowing in their post-ballot euphoria, how many voters are now willing to recognise that their part has only just begun?

Saturday’s election was no doubt a milestone, but many challenges lie ahead. Pakistan this year will see the entry of a new chief justice and chief of army staff, important shake-ups in institutions that in the past five years have sought to undermine or encroach upon the government’s mandate. Institutional clashes are likely to persist in the months ahead, and it is up to the electorate to stand firm in its commitment to the civilian administration.

This will entail demanding that each arm of government (and the military) functions within its constitutional remit and, more importantly, staving off the temptation to be wooed by other would-be saviours, whether attired in robes or uniform.

A more urgent challenge, one that requires significant public buy-in, is mending Pakistan’s broken economy. Whatever the outcome of the election, the new government will have to prioritise fiscal management and economic growth. However, it is likely to find international finance organisations less indulgent than before. Handouts are sure to come laced with demands for greater austerity, higher taxation, fewer subsidies and more.

What was missing in the run-up to the election was a reminder to the public of all the sacrifices it will have to make going forward. As of now, many Pakistanis have voted for change without understanding what the change might be, or what is needed to bring it about. Most of the big campaign promises — decreased dependence on foreign aid, greater spending on education, measures to address the energy shortfall — will require the government to raise revenues. That means more taxes and other serious economic and policy reforms that will affect ordinary citizens in multiple ways.

Having failed to remind Pakistan that its sacrifices and commitment to democracy will be required well beyond polling day, the new government risks disillusioning the electorate. This is particularly true of young first-timers, comprising up to 34pc of all registered voters. This youth demographic has been led to believe that casting a vote was its end of the new bargain; it was told little of systemic change or the pain of policy implementation, and is therefore likelier to become disgruntled with the next political dispensation no matter how much more effective it is than the last.

Pakistanis, especially the newly politicised urban middle-class, may prove quite willing to endure the hardships needed to bring about a change. But they will not tackle the country’s multiple challenges unless they see each effort as part of a coherent national vision of which they are an integral component.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


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Comments (15) Closed

Khan of Kalabagh May 14, 2013 01:42am
Long Live the Democracy
khanm May 13, 2013 04:56am
It is simple. It is straight... The change can only be from the people. We are not ready yet... our criteria are not based upon honesty integrity and credibility. It all about people
fr May 13, 2013 05:46am
May I ask who was paying for media to urge ppl to vote?? and there is no winner all are losers except the same old faces with a few mutually changing their offices or labels. I wish this lie is exposed and laid uncovered in front of all.
Fazal Ahmad May 13, 2013 07:32am
"Voters were the true winners of the elections; the ones who stayed home, the only losers." We all witnessed a reasonable number of "Winners" were casting multiple vote(s) by virtue of power, mean and cheat. This simply converts the Losers into Winner; at least they didn't commit any sin. No one has right to label the Home Sitters as loser. People love their home, families, and don't want any of their family member to be violently ruined in society.
Tahir May 13, 2013 08:19am
The crooks have won again. Where does Imran Khan stand now? He needs to do a reality check too. Is he still the same person that he was 5 years ago after adulterating his party with a mixture of imported corrupt politicians included for the sake of getting some importance. I think it backfired on him big way.
Abhishek Verma May 13, 2013 11:14am
Congratulations to all Pakistanis brothers and sisters for ushering a new era in their homeland. May peace and prosperity bestow upon you. Celebrate this moment of joy as you deserve it. Abhishek Verma India
concerned212 May 13, 2013 02:03pm
Miss writer. Do you care to mention 'rigging' even once in your article?
iqbal carrim May 13, 2013 02:33pm
The heart of Mauritius beats for a successful transfer of power through democracy in Pakistan.
Shafqet Ahmad May 13, 2013 07:02pm
What democratic elections? the ruling parties rigged elections in Punjab to benefit PMLN, in Sindh to benefit PPP, in Karachi to benefit MQM, all at the expense of Imran Khan. If fair elections were held, Imran would have been the only leader. I am afraid that a massive civil-disobedience may become the norm to change governments. What a shame!
naseem May 13, 2013 07:03pm
Mature and movr on.
karamba May 13, 2013 07:36pm
Is this the same guy whose answer to economic and social reform was to waste tax payers money on a failed yellow cab, motorway, laptop, metrobus etc scheme while asking help and looting from overseas pakistanis for their hard earned dollars while running away with their own at the time of crises. There was never provincial harmony when Mr Nawaz was in power. Make the most of the honeymoon period.
SAGAR May 13, 2013 08:28pm
Dear Pakis, The face of Pak has changed suddenly with the emergence of Mr.Sharif.Majority of Indians are happy that Mush is out & NS is back!Hope both countries could go forward from where him & ABP left in 1999.
javaid bashir May 13, 2013 10:16pm
Huma has written an excellent article. The youth is in a big surprise after the po;;s and the general electorate tuurned out in greater numbers to effect the change. The skings aside it has real been a vote for Pakistan. Now we face tremendous challenges to fix the econmy, overcome baalloning energy crisis. The economy is on the verge of collapse, and must be turned around with the better management of revenus spending and increased collection pf taxes, austerity measures, less subsidize and increased tarrif and indirect taxes. The change will evapotate in the thin air, and we will have the continuation of the system and preservation of the elite's interests. The slogan of change will renain A dream and disappointment will set in. The system needs drastic changes, and thinking by the administration to keep the promises. We can easily get disillusuoned by the status quo. The change is needed in every sector to gove relief to the people. The electoraye must do its real parafyer the elections to strengthen the democracy. Javaid Basgir
S.S.A May 14, 2013 02:15am
After watching several reports, there is just no question that a lot of rigging took place in Punjab & Sind. And, after getting the majority, if any one feels that there will be any change for betterment of a common man in Pakistan, under Nawaz Sharif's leadership, he is living in a fool's paradise! Unfortunately, the linguistic prejudices are so deep-rooted in our system, that there can never be any meaningful change, unless all Pakistanis think, work, support and vote for a united and strong Pakistan. I am afraid that day is not far, when there will be a lot of chaos, disturbances and lawlessness. May Allah save Pakistan & Pakistanis from ALL evil. Ameen.
MOHAMMAD May 14, 2013 06:42am
ALL SPOKEN by him is good. but no revengeful approach towards musharaf is acceptible to the nation. HAVE A RECONCILIATORY POLICY TOWARDS BALOCHS , MQM, PPP, MUSHARAF AND OTHERS. united we stand and we should not be divided at all. WE HAVE ONE ALLAH, ONE PROPHET, ONE NATION(PAKISTAN), ONE QURAN, ONE AIM( PROPSPERITY HERE AND JANNAH HEREAFTER). let us progress towards technological development fast, insha-ALLAH.