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Turning Khyber into Karachi

May 17, 2013

enter image description hereThe voters of NA-250 are known by now to nearly all of Pakistan. Their collective misfortunes, the absent ballot boxes, the missing polling staff, the unopened polling booth and the pre-stamped ballots have since Election Day last week, dominated every discussion and each conversation. These disgruntled folks, the most educated voters in the country’s most educated city, tweeted, blogged, shouted, and protested the unfairness they witnessed. For the week following, their woes were splayed on television screens, tweeted from computer screens and broadcast in every way possible. They had faced unfairness, and in the manner of those unused to it, fed up of it and able to speak against it, their voices rose the loudest and clearest in the post-election melee of sit-ins and denunciations. Many of them were supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the party that had promised change and had it not been for massive rigging they alleged, their party would surely have won, and change been on its way.

On the other side of the country, in Pakistan’s most embattled province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the election also took place. In the land most riddled by bombings by the Taliban and illegal drone strikes by the United States, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf prevailed. Since cell phone cameras have led to more than a few deaths here, and been banned by the ever encroaching Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan more than a few times, there were fewer citizen produced records of what happened at the ballot box. Either there was no unfairness at all, or the people who experienced it failed to document it and speak out against it. Indeed, it was only after the election that one and then another agreement surfaced revealing the price of the peaceful vote. All the parties contesting the election, it turns out, including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, had signed an agreement. In exchange for free and fair elections, they had agreed that no women would vote in Upper and Lower Dir.

The results of the election in Karachi are still up in the air, with re-elections promised in the beleaguered NA 250 and possibly several other constituencies. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, however, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has announced that it will form the Government in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami. According to the division of the electoral spoils between the two, the Jamaat-e-Islami will receive two province ministries and one senior ministry. Unconfirmed rumors have alleged that the Ministry given to the Jamaat-e-Islami will be the Ministry of Education.

The supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, especially the social media warriors that the party has so adeptly deployed for its cause are trying very hard to sell the victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as an opportunity for the party to model positive change inside a province. This positive change, in the radically reformed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province they argue, will be a model that will pave the way to the nationwide victory that was promised this time but will certainly come next time. They explain away the party’s collusion with the agreement to ban women voting in Dir as something that was done by everyone (and hence okay for them too?) they ignore the lack of attention to the voting issues in Khyber as a product of the dire security situation in the state.

The rationalisations are likely to continue. Indeed, an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has publicly and routinely taken up positions in Governments past against the passage of legislation that would criminalise domestic violence, prevent rape victims being prosecuted for Zina and reinstate women as equal witnesses to men, does not at this time seem to be bothering any of PTI’s supporters. These are the requirements of Parliamentary compromise they argue, the needs of forming a coalition Government. In the euphoria of PTIs first provincial victory, everything seems justifiable.

This may prove harder to do in the coming months and years that stretch out before the newly elected PTI Government. Stuck in a touchy compromise with an Islamist party in the most conservative province in the country; PTI will likely have to face the real obstacles to change that it could easily ignore when “change” was just a nifty electoral slogan. Will it for example be able to institute its promises for education for all Pakistanis, in a province that has seen hundreds of girls’ schools burned or bombed or shut down since the beginning of war on terror? Indeed, since PTI signed an agreement to ban women from voting, will it also and just as easily capitulate to signing a similar agreement that bans education for women, again in the name of necessary compromise?

And if the compromise with the Jamaat-e-Islami sounds difficult, another even trickier one may await them. It is well known that the end game of the US/Nato withdrawal in Afghanistan is to include a brokered peace deal between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and whoever controls the Government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If a deal to hold elections without the Taliban bombing voters required a ban on women at the polling booth, a longer, durable peace may involve even more noxious compromises; permission for public floggings perhaps and a ban on all women in all public spaces? Just as they did when they were prevented from voting, the women of Upper and Lower Dir and perhaps all of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will quietly digest this bitter morsel delivered to them by the “change” peddling Government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.

None of this has happened yet but considering it underscores the grim choices before Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. In choosing the task of reforming a province whose conservative culture, debilitated economy, and incipient Taliban problem and forming a Government instead of an opposition, PTI may be setting itself up as the fall guy destined to bear the political cost of a peace deal with the Taliban. The voters of urban, progressive NA-250 in Karachi may at present squarely be in the party’s corner but five years of failing to change Khyber into Karachi may change their minds. The women of Karachi may not be much concerned about the shut up, banned and forbidden from voting women of Khyber today, but tomorrow may be another story.