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Will calm follow the polls?

Updated June 16, 2018


WITH just under six weeks to go for the elections — the final line-up of the candidates will be in the public domain once the scrutiny of nominations papers has been completed over the next few days — the campaign seems to be heating up considerably.

In a political climate already vitiated by charges and counter-charges, one must feel a great deal of sympathy for those of our compatriots who have undertaken the onerous task of delivering a free, fair and impartial general election.

The caretaker prime minister and the interim chief minister of Sindh were both named after an agreement between the former government and the opposition at the centre and in the province. It was left to the Election Commission to make this vital decision in the three remaining provinces.

The appointment of a recently retired Supreme Court judge as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa interim chief minister was not controversial as he is seen as a constitutionalist and firm believer in the rule of law, even though he was nominated by the opposition.

The task of the caretakers is being made even more difficult due to the scrutiny of each of their statements.

However, the PTI’s flip-flops — where the party first reached agreement with the KP opposition and the Punjab government in naming two (different) caretaker chief ministers and then backing out of the decisions — did mar the atmosphere.

After one of the PTI’ s nominees was chosen by the Election Commission to head the interim administration in Punjab, the PML-N attacked the decision, saying the academic-cum-media-commentator had expressed views in favour of polls postponement and was also critical of the party.

This, the PML-N believed, demonstrated he was not impartial. If you ask me, Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi is a respected academic and commentator. I am sure his conduct will be impartial. My own reservations are more due to his lack of administrative experience.

The PML-N has been in attack mode ever since former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court, and many observers believe he may have damaged his party’s prospects by scaring away the seasonal ‘electables’ who switch sides each time the windsock changes direction.

Some of these electables have rushed into the waiting arms of the PTI, particularly in southern Punjab. Even elsewhere there has been movement, as candidates wary of Nawaz Sharif’s continued targeting of the establishment have left him, including one of his key lieutenants of more than 30 years, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

The flip side, of course, is that reporters and analysts, who have travelled across Punjab for one, suggest that the Sharif narrative is gaining momentum and may deliver the former prime minister’s party a healthy electoral dividend.

Whether this strategy will damage Nawaz Sharif or work wonders for him will only become clear on July 25 when the voters go to vote in the scorching heat. But it is clear as we speak that it is contributing to elevated temperatures.

The task of the caretakers is being made even more difficult due to the scrutiny of each of their statements and decisions and criticism coming from one side of the political divide or the other, even though they have been in office barely two weeks.

The latest examples are of two interim federal ministers. The first, Energy Minister Syed Ali Zafar, gave statistics to the media that seemed to suggest that power generation had nearly doubled over the past five years. He also refused to blame the PML-N for the current shortfall.

The PTI leader Babar Awan accused the energy minister of echoing the claims of PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif and questioned Mr Ali Zafar’s neutrality. A far more valid criticism, perhaps, could have been the cost at which this additional capacity has been created and also the fuel mix used.

The second instance was provided by Interior Minister Azam Khan when he gave permission to Zulfi Bukhari, whose name was on the government’s Exit Control List, a ‘one-time’ exemption to allow him to accompany his close friend, PTI leader Imran Khan, to Saudi Arabia for umrah.

It has been reported that Imran Khan made phone calls when his reputedly multimillionaire friend was stopped from boarding a chartered executive jet with him by the airport officials and delayed his departure till the permission was sent to the immigration in-charge.

However, it was not clear whether Mr Awan was running ‘interference’ to take attention away from all the stick his party was getting on account of the Zulfi Bukhari decision by a minister who a section of the media claimed was a board member of one Imran Khan’s charitable organisations.

This obviously caused a storm in the media, which continues till the writing of this column. Regarding the ECP decision to name the outgoing government nominee, who is largely seen as a non-entity in the province, as the Balochistan interim chief executive, the opposition protest was underreported by the media possibly because Quetta seems so far from where major media houses have their headquarters.

One earnestly hopes that these controversies are no more than a storm in a teacup and, more importantly, don’t cast a shadow over the general election and its outcome. Pakistan badly needs a period of calm.

Who will deny the need for tranquillity after the turbulence that has continued since the last election, whose results were disputed by the PTI and then the upheaval caused by the Panama Papers leaks and its fallout on Pakistani politics?

The economy, given the external deficit, needs to sail in calmer waters now. Stability is a prerequisite for delivery in social sectors too especially since staggering numbers are being denied their rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018