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Room for hope

May 20, 2013

WE are through with the May 11 elections. Given the persistent violence and the overall aura of uncertainty that marked the run-up to the elections, the state deserves credit for having pulled off the ballot.

The conduct of the elections itself was satisfactory although rigging has been alleged in a handful of constituencies in Sindh and Punjab. Of course, the allegations necessitate an impartial and authoritative inquiry by the election commission — with tangible repercussions for the individuals and parties involved.

That said, these irregularities should be situated within our context. Unfortunate as it is, the quantum of alleged rigging and more significantly the response to it marks considerable improvement over the past. What we have witnessed is a substantially constrained space for riggers now operating under the eye of the camera and in the presence of proactive citizens eager to report irregularities.

The response by those seeking to be redressed and the media has also been mature and categorical. The parties allegedly involved have been called out; even if evidence to prosecute them is found wanting this time, civil society’s focus and the media’s stance will only make it harder for them to put up repeat performances in the future.

There are a number of other positives to report from the recent ballot.

Hardly anything needs to be said about the all too apparent excitement and energy among Pakistani voters. The 60pc-plus turnout speaks for itself. All credit to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) for having sparked an election campaign focused on the traditionally de-politicised urban segments of society; this, in turn, compelled rival parties to follow suit.

The emergence of a genuine third force in Pakistani politics is also a positive sign as is the fact that both the PTI and PML-N ultimately campaigned on the message of change and hope — a much-needed communication strategy for a citizenry that is otherwise becoming increasingly despondent about its country’s future.

The results of the elections are also fairly positive in as far as they provide a genuine opportunity to the winners to govern effectively. The biggest fear of pundits prior to the elections — a hung parliament that would create a gridlock on key national issues — has not materialised. The PML-N has emerged with a healthy mandate. Its control over Punjab will provide it even greater leeway to implement its national vision.

At the same time, the results force Nawaz Sharif to work with the PTI and PPP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh respectively and to form a coalition government in Balochistan. This should be reassuring for those concerned about the PML-N’s dictatorial tendencies, manifested during the 1997-99 period when the party had a two-thirds majority at the centre. With the 18th Amendment in place and the PML-N absent from governments in KP and Sindh, Sharif will have no option but to maintain cordial relations with the provincial governments. The centre and KP will also require extensive collaboration on Fata.

Also, not to be ignored, political parties have exhibited a fair amount of maturity in the post-election week. While Machiavellian manoeuvring and lobbying continues behind closed doors in all party headquarters, we shouldn’t dismiss Sharif and Imran Khan’s desire to let the past be and work together. Similarly, kudos to the PPP and Awami National Party (ANP) for making statements that acknowledge that the results reflect the electorate’s rejection of their performance.

Now to the most crucial part: the next five years.

The message the electorate gave to the political masters on May 11 is heartening on two counts. First, the results categorically suggest that performance of the incumbents matters. There is no other way to interpret the routing of the PPP and ANP; their inability to campaign alone can’t explain the manner in which both have been decimated. In retrospect, the genius of the PML-N’s election campaign was that it managed to transfer the entire responsibility of the governance failure over the past five years to the PPP-led coalition in Islamabad.

Second, while the results in Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan suggest that the majority of voters remain traditional, the number of votes bagged by the PTI in Punjab and its performance in KP suggests that Pakistani voters can rise above patronage politics to express their preferences.

Patronage-based, politically motivated disbursement of development funds was also rejected in a number of cases in the May 11 ballot. The losses suffered by Raja Pervez Ashraf, the sons of Yousuf Raza Gilani, and Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, among others, despite the fact that they diverted an astronomical amount of resources to their constituencies during their tenures as prime minister (or their relationship to one) and chief minister is an important statement by the voters. The trend suggests that national and provincial level performance is likely to be the key for the fortunes of political parties in the next elections.

Four benchmarks underpin virtually all else required to deliver ‘good governance’: energy; tax-to-GDP ratio; ability to address extremist violence; and civil-military relations.

At the centre, the PML-N government is largely perceived to be better placed to deliver on economic requirements. On extremism, however, the party’s track record over the past five years was dismal. With Islamabad, Punjab and Fata now in their control, they have no excuse not to confront this menace head on. Sharif’s ties with the military should be observed and as predictions go, this could be a major stumbling block.

The PTI has much to prove in KP — its message and promises are attractive but they will now be put to test. Its success will cement it as a permanent force in Pakistani politics; failure may quickly send it into oblivion.

The PPP on the other hand requires no less than a fundamental overhaul. Its governance performance in Sindh may well turn out to be make or break for its future.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.