THERE is only a difference of shade among the political parties participating in the electoral race. It is not a battle of ideas or even of political values. It is an obscenely crude power struggle among the vested interest groups that have dominated Pakistan’s political scene. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, the candidates pitched by the mainstream political parties are horses belonging to the same stock.
As in the past, political parties have placed their bets on the so-called electables or local influentials. Principles and issue-based politics take a back seat when it comes to winning the elections without disturbing the existing power matrix, notwithstanding some populist slogans. Not surprisingly, the current election campaign has hit a new low, mainly revolving around personalities with virtually no debate on the critical political, economic and social issues confronting the nation.
Of course, people’s problems matter little in this power play. Launching an election manifesto is just a ritual that political parties are mandated to perform under the election rules. There is no real conviction involved behind hollow promises and targets. It is true that the situation was not much different in previous campaigns, but one had expected things to improve as we prepare to make the second consecutive transition from one elected government to another, a significant milestone indeed in the country’s rocky democratic political journey. Real issues affecting the common people are lost in the cacophony of false promises. For young and new voters comprising almost 40 per cent of the electorate, there appears little promise for change.
For example, the PML-N’s slogan to ‘give respect to voters’ is not really about the democratic rights of the electorate; in fact, it is driven by the sense of ‘entitlement’ of an all-powerful dynastic leadership that considers itself above the law — one which has never given respect to the vote in its quest for the pedestal of power. Why didn’t we hear this slogan earlier? ‘Respect for the vote’ reminders are only issued when the law strikes the leadership.
Real issues affecting the common people are lost in the cacophony of false promises.
It is apparent that the PML-N’s campaign revolves around the defence of the Sharif family. Though the party appears to be standing united behind the disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, some cracks are visible in the ranks, given Sharif’s no-holds-barred attack on the judiciary and security establishment. The veneer of an anti-establishment stance does not run too deep in the ranks of a party that has traditionally been on the right side of the security agencies. A major question for the party would be: is the country better off today than it was five years ago when it returned to power for the third time?
Similarly, the PTI’s pledge to create a ‘Naya Pakistan’ is equally deceptive given the party’s new face and ambiguous positions on key political and social issues. Even if there was a semblance of it being a party for change in the 2013 elections, the perception has vanished as political turncoats and opportunists dominate the list of party candidates. The confusion and the growing discontent in the ranks is illustrative of the party losing its way.
One wonders where the promise of ending a dynastic political culture has gone. The growing perception of the PTI becoming the biggest exponent of status quo has a ring of truth to it. Its list of candidates reads like a who’s who of some of the country’s most dubious political figures. Many PTI candidates were members of the treasury benches in the last parliament that Imran Khan has accused of protecting the corrupt, and had refused to grace with his presence.
Not surprisingly, the PTI seems to have lost the momentum it had gained in the past with the support of the younger generation. Given the dynamics of constituency politics, the presence of a large number of ‘electables’ may have brightened the chances of the party in the coming elections, but there is little hope of it bringing any meaningful change to the system.
Meanwhile, the less said the better about the PPP’s erosion as a major national political force in the country. Most disappointing is that the party has refused to learn any lesson despite it having been virtually wiped out in Punjab. With nothing new to offer to the electorate, it has stuck to what is described as the ‘politics of the shrine’, invoking Bhutto’s legacy and martyrdom.
The pathetic performance of the party’s government in Sindh can hardly stimulate its supporters to revive the party in the other provinces. With no real challenge from any other mainstream party, the PPP is likely to maintain its sway in Sindh thus staying in the game of thrones. Political wheeling and dealing has become the hallmark of a party that once truly was a party of the masses. The PPP’s decline has left a huge vacuum that appears hard to fill.
The revival of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal appears to be a desperate attempt by the mainstream Islamic parties to regain some space in an electoral field that is wide open. But the religious alliance does not seem to be making any impact with its pledge to enforce a radical Islamic system, notwithstanding the rise of religious extremism in the country. Its hard-line religious rhetoric does not seem to hold much appeal for young voters. Its election manifesto does not go beyond old rhetoric. The record of both the JUI-F and the Jamaat-i-Islami in the last MMA government does not give them any advantage in the coming elections.
For sure, the coming elections are extremely critical for strengthening the democratic political process in the country. But it is also imperative for political parties to make the electoral process more substantive. There is a need to change the political culture that is presently detrimental to the improvement of democracy. Elections must be fought on the basis of ideas and programmes, and not for the protection of vested interests. Campaigning sans issues is not likely to take our democratic journey very far. It is time our political parties focused on the critical issues that Pakistan and its people face; they should not reduce the campaign to a fight for personal gain.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2018