THE politics of protest has intersected with campaign politics and a potentially dangerous trend has emerged. The weekend saw two distasteful incidents against PML-N leaders: Khawaja Asif had ink thrown on him in Sialkot and Nawaz Sharif had a shoe thrown at him in Lahore. The motives of the attackers are allegedly linked to support for a group that has been agitating against the PML-N government on the blasphemy issue, a disturbing development given a penchant for violence among fringe political elements. But the upcoming campaign season was already expected to be perhaps the fiercest in a generation, with mainstream political parties launching verbal onslaughts against one another in a climate of deep political uncertainty. While robust electoral competition ought to be welcomed in a democracy, politics spilling into violence of any sort can only harm the democratic process. Perhaps the major political parties should put forward level-headed leaders from among their ranks to meet and draw up an emergency code of conduct acceptable to all parties. The Election Commission of Pakistan could consider facilitating such a necessary dialogue.
Certainly, political violence is not a new phenomenon or threat in the country. The PPP has inarguably been the greatest victim of political violence. In 2007, the party’s iconic leader, Benazir Bhutto, was attacked twice, first in Karachi on her return to Pakistan and then in Rawalpindi; the latter attack claimed her life and plunged the country into a state of near chaos. In 2013, the TTP threatened mainstream political parties, the PPP, ANP and MQM, as a result of which the PPP and ANP severely curtailed their election campaigns. The TTP threat has receded in the years since, but a number of high-profile attacks suggest that the network may still have the capacity to negatively disrupt the electoral process. It is to be hoped that the ECP along with the caretaker government that is to be installed will coordinate closely with the country’s security apparatus to prevent a repetition of the damaging events of 2013.
Also problematic, and an issue that the political parties themselves will have to address, is the coarsening of political discourse in the country. From the politics of dharnas to the age of social media and its unrestrained conventions, the decibel level in politics has reached an uncomfortable point. With several major parties, a fractured electorate and a war of attrition between the leading party and sections of the permanent state, intense political rhetoric was perhaps inevitable. But the abiding political lesson of the 1990s is more relevant than ever today: when politicians fight among themselves, the winners are the anti-democrats. Since Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and Asif Zardari do at least agree that the ballot box is sacred and the electoral process paramount, can they and their parties not find a way to ratchet down campaign-related tensions?
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018