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Celebration of democracy?

May 13, 2013

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.