THE recent NA-246 by-election in Karachi needs to be analysed from more angles than one as it brought into focus some of the basic challenges to democratic politics in Pakistan.
The extraordinarily noisy election campaign by the three main parties to the contest failed to bring nearly two-thirds of the voters out of their homes on the polling day. It is true that voter turnout in by-elections in Karachi has been much lower than in a general election, but this was no ordinary contest.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was fighting with its back to the wall, amidst unprecedented troubles, and had apparently been written off by both the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). All the three parties threw into their campaigns everything they had, yet they could not convince a majority of the people living in the constituency that the election was a matter of life and death for them.
The alienation of such a large mass of people from the electoral system, indeed from the democratic models presented before them, is one of the reasons that democracy has not struck roots in this country. It is essential that all political elements that are still wedded to democratic ideals make earnest efforts to persuade the people to own the system of representative governance.
The MQM’s margin of victory is quite impressive as it polled the same percentage share of the votes cast as in 2013. But the party cannot conceal the problems it is facing. There is much in the substance and style of its politics that has never passed the democratic test. The party could get away with its baggage largely due to the hothouse conditions guaranteed by its none-too-secret promoters. Such opportunities cannot be available for all times to come and MQM leaders will increase their troubles if they try to pretend that their power base remains intact. Mr Altaf Hussain’s desperate call for a new province suggests he is aware of the threat to his flock but whether he has found a correct answer is debatable.
All those who had argued that the MQM owed its political ascendancy in Karachi to the climate of fear it had created or to its Mohajir card have reason to discard such simplistic assessments of a hitherto well-knit party. Besides cultism and a strong retributive mechanism some other factors could have sustained party cohesion, such as a functional arrangement for the redressal of workers’ grievances and a fairly extended system for the distribution of spoils. Thus, all bets on the MQM’s collapse being imminent proved to be unrealistic.
While the MQM’s margin of victory was quite impressive, the party cannot conceal its problems.
In normal circumstances, the PTI should have been satisfied with its share of the vote which rose to 17pc of the votes cast as against 15.8 in 2013. But it became a victim of its own unnecessarily hyped campaign rhetoric. It failed to realise that by shouting about the MQM’s rule by fear it drove the MQM faithfuls to rally behind the party out of fear — fear of losing the pattern of life they had become accustomed to.
Mr Imran Khan should realise that his credentials as an alternative leadership will take some time to be accepted. That politics demands much more than a tankful of vitriol is a lesson the PTI must not forget. The party gained little by raising the stakes higher than the contest for a single seat warranted; this only made its loss look bigger than it actually is.
Even those who do not agree with the PTI’s politics, especially its culture of cult worship, do not want it to go on making unforced errors for the simple reason that the country badly needs strong, wide-awake opposition parties — especially because of the need to ward off the danger of Pakistan passing under a majoritarian tyranny.
The PTI would do itself a huge favour if it moved away from picnic politics and established a regular discourse with the people, particularly the disadvantaged sections. It should also resist the temptation of deriving more than due satisfaction from its fairly impressive performance in the elections to the cantonment boards. The electorate in the cantonments is in an elitist category of its own and all parties must try to do better in the wider local government elections so as to avoid getting branded as garrison favourites.
The third party in the race, the JI, also has to ponder the causes of its poor showing. Its failure to encash the 30,000 ballots that it had claimed as the size of its deposit has dented its reputation of having considerable capacity for cautious stock-taking. The party perhaps did not realise that as Karachi becomes more and more of a mercantile giant its fascination for decades-old religious slogans must decline. The party is apparently experimenting with aggressive sales promotion whose success cannot be guaranteed without substantial improvement in the quality of the merchandise.
The most worrisome aspect of the NA-246 election was the transformation of what should be a free and voluntary exercise of the right of franchise into something of a military operation. The large-scale mobilisation of the Rangers and other law-enforcement personnel for this election set a bad precedent.
The posting of Rangers inside the polling stations, and more so in polling booths, constituted an unwelcome encroachment on the presiding officers’ domain and also violated the requisites of a free casting of votes. It is hard to believe that rigging, which is mostly done by state functionaries, can be eliminated by increasing the presence of such functionaries. In NA-246, the Rangers exceeded their mandate for preserving peace and security and assumed polling responsibilities which only delayed matters.
Manipulation of elections by the polling staff, candidates and also voters themselves is not merely a law and order matter; it is a political issue. The answer lies in raising people’s political capital, accelerating political parties’ development into responsible outfits, and securing the impoverished people’s liberation from feudal and other anti-democratic bonds.
Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2015