Updated June 03, 2018


IT is a conceit of those who come later to imagine that they and the stuff happening around them are more important. That the battles they fight are fiercer, the resistance more noble, the enemy uglier, the tactics used more innovative or baser, the squalor worse.

The madness unprecedented.

Of course, the particular history of this country can help temper that conceit. Four great saviours, several robed crusaders, violent ideologues, a humiliating severing less than a quarter century in. And the circumstances of birth itself, the euphoria and cataclysm reduced to a single, awesome word: Partition.

So there’s no need to get carried away just now.

But there is need to be concerned.

The crisis is real and it’s multifaceted, and the closer we get to the election, the worse it may get.

The wild uncertainty, confusion and, yes, fear that has gripped the political process isn’t just a figment of everyone’s imagination. You don’t need Nawaz to tell you there is a crisis or Imran to deny there’s a crisis or Zardari to be sniffing around for an advantage in the crisis to know there’s a crisis.

The crisis is real and it’s multifaceted, and the closer we get to the election, the worse it may get. Because for all the manipulation and attempted control of the process, there’s a powerful unknown factor in all of this: the electorate itself.

It’s a story that’s already been told in several forms. The N-League hasn’t splintered, the PTI can’t stop getting in its own way, political intelligence from the field suggests a divided electorate and hung parliament.

Pakistan in 2018 isn’t Pakistan in 2008 and definitely not Pakistan in 1998.

Some of that is good and, in fact, certainty-promoting. Polling-day rigging is harder to pull off than ever, whether by ballot stuffing, suppressing turnout or manipulating the results announced.

Because it’s possible to say it now, the most consistently rigged elections in the country have probably been in Karachi. Not because the MQM wouldn’t win a majority of seats anyway, but the old party wanted total control.

Sixty per cent wasn’t good enough when 90 or 100 per cent could be had through brute force. And what a reign it was: organised ballot stuffing; suppressing turnout for whatever little opposition there was with violence and intimidation; dictating to election officials the final results to be announced.

That formidable machine was built on fear, the certainty of retribution and the public knowledge that the MQM would win a majority anyway. So why should anyone have risked much to try and get that MQM to stick to realistic winning margins or a more believable seat count.

That fear has never really existed at the national level and it is even less so now, even in the midst of the wildest of speculation and conspiracies. And then there’s the real change: information.

Cameras in millions of pockets, social media hungry for scandal, a partisan electronic media — good luck trying to suppress systematic ballot stuffing, turnout suppression or dodgy counting.

The game is really about the pre- and post-poll process: assembling the right weave of candidates nationally and a working majority — solo if you’re lucky, a coalition if you must — in parliament after the election.

Far from impossible in normal times that, and not entirely beyond the stretch of imagination in the election ahead. But that’s also where the problem is: even if the right weave of candidates is assembled nationally, will the electorate necessarily bite?

That this isn’t your parents’ electorate is obvious enough. Different worlds to the electorate of the ’70s and substantially different to the one in the ’90s. Age and changes in the country have guaranteed that.

But it may also be a substantially different electorate to the one in ’08.

An 18-year-old in 2008 was unlikely to have voted, the voting age having been reduced from 21 only an election before and the young generally being politically disengaged. In 2018, that man or woman is 28 — the range in which voting becomes a serious option.

New voters being pumped into the system and previously younger voters turning older don’t have to radically change electoral equations — and manipulations.

But in this time, this decade, the years between 2008 and 2018 something unusual has happened. Democratic continuity, two full-term civilian-era parliaments, three consecutive on-time elections and a second consecutive peaceful transition of power imminent — that everyone knows.

What’s less noticed is the hyper engagement and participation, and in the very places that it matters electorally. Turnout was a historic high in 2013, at 55pc nationally a distinct outlier from the historic range of 35-45pc.

But in Punjab it was 60pc in 2013, a full 12 points higher than 2008.

There’s plenty of indication that the 2013 levels will be maintained or surpassed in 2018, especially in Punjab. The February by-election in Lodhran was not an anomaly. A six-figure vote count for the winner and similar total votes for winner and loser combined in 2013 suggests a hyper-energised electorate.

It makes a kind of sense that 2018 could see a historic or thereabouts turnout.

Nawaz has been running around the country for a year, essentially in campaign mode. Imran has continued the PTI’s perma-campaign. It is difficult to recall stretches in which the PTI has been wholly inactive since essentially Oct 2011.

Now, Shahbaz has added himself to the mix.

Big turnout in a changed electorate after a decade of continuity and with systematic polling-day manipulation seemingly foreclosed — even those with the biggest toolbox shouldn’t be sure the electorate will respond as desired.

Turnout may have unleashed a powerful unknown factor: the electorate itself.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2018