BALLOT papers are like soiled tissue paper — disposable after they have served their purpose. Nothing could demonstrate this more pointedly than three recent elections — held in China, in Russia, and for our own Senate.
In China, President Xi Jinping, impatient for immortality, decided not to wait for his second term to expire in 2023. It would have been his last. Instead, the National People’s Congress (China’s supreme legislative body) obliged by removing the constitutional hurdle limiting him to two terms. He can now remain China’s leader for life.
Xi Jinping is 64 years old. His predecessor Hu Jintao is still alive, a vigorous 75-year-old. An earlier leader Deng Xiaoping retired at the age of 84 and then lived to be 93 years old. President Xi’s hero Mao Zedong died at the age of 83. Given the known longevity of China’s gerontocracy, it is not inconceivable that President Xi could remain the undisputed leader of China for the next 20 years. In 2038, he would still be only 84 years young.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 1999 (almost half his adult life), has been elected as president of the Russian Federation for a fourth term. He is a virile 65-year-old. He sports a black belt in judo and takes winter dips in freezing lakes. The West envies his physical fitness. It is less complimentary about his fitness to govern Russia.
The public interest has become a Rubik’s Cube rotated at will.
Putin will be in power until 2024. Future US presidents-to-be should watch out. Putin might find it difficult to resist influencing their next presidential elections, scheduled for 2020 and 2024.
Both Putin and Xi Jinping seem to have taken a leaf out of Mao Zedong’s little red book. Chairman Mao was once asked by the visiting French savant André Malraux whether he did not think of himself as the heir to the last great Chinese emperors of the 16th century. Mao replied: “But of course I am the heir.”
Chinese emperors like all emperors expected to remain emperors for life, until stronger rivals deposed them. Russian czars intended to remain czars for life, unless they were imprisoned by a fellow Romanov or assassinated by a nihilist. Modern leaders use voting acolytes to affirm their claim to indispensability. They see the final ballot box as the grave.
The recent election to the Senate — Pakistan’s upper house — has plumbed new depths to which our public electables are prepared to descend. A seat in our Senate and National Assembly has less a value than a price. How much money was circulated to lubricate the last Senate elections? Who knows for sure, for the movement of slush money is heard but rarely seen. There is no official meter to measure its flow. That its quantum has ballooned into the billions over the years has become increasingly obvious. That it comes from pockets too deep for audit is a matter of recurring national shame.
Remove the peel of hypocrisy and what lies exposed is a maggot-ridden reality that public money is being used by government institutions and agencies to procure decisions from public servants or to appoint public representatives — all in the name of the public. The public interest has become a toy, a plaything, a Rubik’s Cube rotated at will, each façade a different aspect of self-interest.
Two hundred million people deserve better than an echelon of self-appointed Caesars without conscience, lurking Brutuses without conviction, and loquacious Mark Antonys without courage.
In Pakistan, those who are still optimistic look towards the heavens for deliverance. Wiser, more experienced folk know better. They have seen that being a democrat is to find oneself at the wrong end of the barrel of a gun. It does not matter how many votes you can command. It no longer matters whether you have been labouring for the public good. It will cease to matter whether politicians need to contest elections. Results will be pre-determined behind screens curtained to look like polling booths.
Anyone who has survived in this country for the past 71 years, any Pakistani who has a shred of patriotism left in his or her DNA, every young Pakistani who will grow up in the foetid atmosphere of political chaos and venal corruption dreads the next general elections. The entire country will find itself stretched yet again on the rack of expectation. Albert Einstein perhaps had the electoral experience in Pakistan in mind when he defined “insanity [as] doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.
Who has forgotten that the 1970 general elections were expected to yield a hung parliament, with Yahya Khan continuing as president? Fifty years later, forecasts of the next general elections again talk of a hung parliament. It is a euphemism. What they really mean is a prime minister fearful of being hanged.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2018