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Lessons of May 11

May 22, 2013

ELECTION 2013 has proved to be an enigma. We are a people in a hurry and immediately after the polling took place on May 11 we had started jumping to conclusions.

The facts had still not been ascertained fully, and without facts (and figures in the case of polling which is essentially a numbers game) how can one form informed opinions? What we have is a babble of judgements pronounced in line with the political leanings of various observers and on the basis of reports — not all of them authentic — circulating on the internet and in the media.

A lot did happen on polling day but one has to look at the bigger picture as well as the context. Of course there were malpractices in some constituencies amounting to rigging. They could not be ignored — the vociferous protests were too loud to ignore.

There was a democratic way out. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had prescribed a procedure for seeking redress. This was adopted in some cases. But not in all. Hence it is unwise to declare a categorical opinion across the board on the fairness and authenticity of the polling exercise on May 11 and May 19. There are some observations, however, that are incontrovertible on the basis of the tentative unofficial results that have not been challenged. First, the voters’ turnout was heavy by Pakistan’s standards — said to be 60pc as against 44pc in 2008.

This is of great significance in view of the threats made by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to use violence to disrupt the electoral exercise. The obscurantists’ warnings did not deter the people and they turned out in sizable numbers. Probably even the ECP didn’t anticipate this turnout. Hence the mismanagement in places.

I wouldn’t see this defiance of the TTP’s writ as a left-right issue. People voted with their feet against what the Pakistani Taliban stand for. Another indication of their reluctance to bring religion into politics was the poor showing of the religious parties in the unofficial results.

The trend was similar to what we have witnessed since the early years of Pakistan in the elections held sporadically. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal, the Jamaat-i-Islami and some Islamic fronts hurriedly cobbled together won only 5pc of seats in the national as well as the provincial assemblies combined which means the voters would prefer that religious leaders confine themselves to the pulpit.

Given the quirk of electoral democracy even these insignificant numbers have given them a nuisance value beyond their numerical strength. Worse still, in places they have also emerged as strategic kingmakers.

The more worrying feature was that these elections did not provide a level playing field to all parties. By dubbing the PPP, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement as secular and therefore the target of their perverse militancy, the Taliban in effect restricted their electioneering.

There is another perspective in which the elections should be seen. At least the structure of democracy — howsoever imperfect — is now in place and a constitutionally elected government completed its term even though its performance was pathetic for which it has paid the price.

If the democratic process continues the flaws in our political system should gradually be eliminated. Credit for this should go to the political parties which did not try to derail the system in spite of rising passions.

We are late starters on the road to democracy and the sharks which threaten the process are far too many. It would be timely to remind those who are ready to create deadlocks and stall the process that there are forces — old and new — that have made our political process so complex.

First, the army continues to lurk in the wings and one should not sit back complacently saying that military coups are out of fashion. The PPP-led coalition government’s attempts to assert civilian control over the ISI were thwarted apparently by the security establishment itself.

Thereafter the PPP-led government had to be satisfied with a subservient, though uncomfortable, relationship with the military. The khakis were thence happy to remain in the background.

Another factor to take note of is the globalisation of our politics. Modern communication technology that allows free transmission of information has had a profound impact on our politics. This has been reinforced by our neo-liberal economics that allows a free transfer of funds across borders.

Add to this the growing strength and immaturity of the electronic media, and you have the perfect scenario which allows overseas Pakistanis to get actively involved in Pakistan’s politics.

The positive effect of this phenomenon is that it facilitates the injection of a broader perspective into national politics. But it has an extremely damaging dimension too. It allows leaders to lead from a distance without the advantage of the experience of being connected directly with the voters on the ground.

Finally, we can never enjoy the fruits of democracy until our 24/7 multi-channel electronic media shows more maturity as well as responsibility and until education becomes widespread enough to create vote banks of thoughtful people intellectually empowered.

S.M. Naseem. a former professor of the Quaid-i-Azam University, observed correctly in his article in this paper (May 17) that our democracy is heavily tilted against the poor. The fact is that the underprivileged, many of whom cast their ballot, are not autonomous to exercise their choice by force of circumstances.