IT is rare for elections to leave democracy weaker, not stronger. But this is what will happen after July 25. Whether the PML-N, headed by Shahbaz Sharif wins or, instead, the PTI and Imran Khan, is a relatively small matter. The post-election certainties are far more significant — and portentous.

Controlled elections are always a blow against democracy. Among other things, democracy needs elections. And proper elections need a level playing field. Else, public confidence in political institutions and processes is undermined, and the legitimacy of those elected is weakened or lost altogether. A large cross section of Pakistanis is not seeing the next elections as free and fair.

These elections will be neither free nor fair but to vote is still important.

The banning of Nawaz Sharif from holding political office for financial corruption, though right and proper, could have stopped right there. Instead, it turned out to be the first step towards a systematic dismantling of his party. Mysterious desertions from party ranks, the sudden appearance of ‘jeep’ candidates across the country, opposition by extremists and militants newly mainstreamed into political parties, and whispers that PML-N candidates will run afoul of the ‘khalaee makhlooq’ sapped the PML-N’s strength. The party that in the 2013 elections had secured 166 seats now finds itself running neck and neck with the PTI which, earlier, had won only 35.

One could have still hoped for some degree of fairness if there had not been such determined gagging of television and the press. The slant is impossible to miss. Still, to emphasis the army’s preferences, DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor held a news conference on June 4 to praise the media for its positive role, to identify friend and foe among TV anchors and journalists, and to criticise the ‘anti-state’ feelings in the social media. Ominously, he referred to the army’s ability to monitor individuals in cyber space.

Second, while corruption was a central issue in debarring parliamentary candidates, the outcome of this election is unlikely to reduce corrupt practices. The conviction of members of the powerful Sharif family, as well as a few others, is welcome. But the obvious question is, why just them? The country teems with those whose wealth has no genuine source. These include politicians as well as judges and generals. Surely the hand of the law must reach out to all such people, not just those who have fallen from grace.

As for the messianic crusader against corruption, Imran Khan, who has moved heaven and earth in his mission: he is now freely admitting he cannot become prime minister without his ‘electables’. These are men who have pledged loyalty to him, and have amassed enough wealth and power to buy their way so that they might make still more. Cricketer Khan had pledged to eliminate corruption from Pakistan within 90 days of being elected; the reader should not hold his breath waiting for that to happen.

While politicians on the wrong side have been savaged by the media, a much bigger impediment to democracy is Pakistan’s venal political class, whose members seek only individual gain. This is a definable class. With a narrow social base, it consists of high-level politicians mostly from feudal families, serving and retired military officers, senior bureaucrats, a few businessmen, and now wealthy sportsmen as well. Social mobility is restricted; only a rare individual from the poor majority is able to climb up the privilege ladder.

Third, it is a foregone conclusion that the power to change Pakistan’s relations with the world will not lie in civilian hands. Nawaz Sharif was allowed to be seen managing relations with India but, in fact, real decisions were made elsewhere. Nuclear policy is another area to be avoided, as president Asif Ali Zardari realised after his faux pas on NFU (No First Use) of nuclear weapons. As a praetorian state, Pakistan’s national interest is defined by the military. Civilians endorse decisions, they don’t make them.

But there will be constraints other than the military upon the winner. Domestic productivity is low, exports of finished goods are stagnant, the rupee continues to slide, and external debts are mounting. The dependency knot with America has been cut but regional trade is minimal and all hopes are tied to CPEC. This new dependency means taking dictation from China. Opacity in this relationship suggests that ordinary Pakistanis will not know what is being surrendered.

I have underscored the inadequacy and unfairness of the forthcoming elections. This is important to understand. And yet, to cast one’s vote is even more important. How else can things improve, even if only eventually? Confronted with the choice of a bad local candidate and a terrible one, one must certainly vote for the former.

And there are signs of hope. A new generation of brave, educated and intelligent candidates is contesting parliamentary seats by presenting well-thought-out solutions to Pakistan’s outstanding problems. There is the Awami Workers Party with candidates having a vision, and for whom democracy is synonymous with pluralism and economic justice. There are also freelancing candidates, like lawyer Jibran Nasir, who have battled for equality and the rule of law. It is unlikely that they will win, but that may not be the point. To keep hope alive is more important than anything else.

This new development offers a promise that in times to come, democracy will be understood not as a system where feudal lords and wealthy men play musical chairs in parliaments but, instead, as a system that actively involves the population in matters of governance. Perhaps in the election after this one, or maybe one or two after that, winning will hopefully not depend upon the quantity of mud one candidate can throw at the other.

In this hopeful scenario, politicians will sell ideas of how to bring water to a country that is becoming drier by the year; clean up an environment that is filthy and polluted; create employment for the teeming millions entering the job market; figure out how to deal with the exploding population bomb; and deal with crazed religious maniacs who have killed thousands so far.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2018