The power to choose

July 25, 2018

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TODAY belongs to the voter. Political parties have campaigned for the people’s vote, but the campaigns ended at midnight on Monday. Institutions of the state have shaped the pre-election landscape, but an on-time election has been achieved. Anti-democratic forces, inside the democratic process and outside, may attempt to distort the electorate’s verdict, but polling day distortions could be more difficult to execute than before. Shocking violence indelibly marred the campaign phase; a vast and unprecedented security net that has been thrown around the polling process could help reassure the public about safety concerns. Today, the voters of Pakistan, whoever they choose to vote for and wherever they cast their vote, will have an opportunity to demonstrate that the power to choose can at least partially counter the controversies, allegations and undeniable interference that have tarnished the run-up to the election.

Certainly, much will also depend on how the ECP, the caretaker administrations and the security apparatus conduct themselves today. A raft of constitutional and legislative changes this decade was designed to create an effective ECP and neutral caretaker set-ups. Unhappily, even the significant autonomy and powers given to the ECP have not encouraged it to emerge from the shadows of state influence. The ECP has unprecedented administrative and legal tools at its disposal to, realistically, hold elections that are progressively free and fair as compared to previous polls. Thus far, the ECP has not lived up to the elevated democratic expectations of it as an institution; but it can repair some of the damage to its reputation by conducting a smooth polling process, from voting to counting to the announcement of results starting later today. Similarly, the caretaker administrations have been more visible and controversial than they ought to have been thus far, but assisting the ECP smoothly in the background today could help demonstrate that wholesale change and perhaps the disbandment of the caretaker system is not necessary.

On polling day, thoughts must necessarily also turn to what happens after 6pm, when voting ends and the counting begins. The political, economic, security and long-standing social challenges in the country undeniably require a strong mandate at the centre. In a post-18th Amendment federation, however, the role and responsibilities of the provinces are substantial, and it is possible clear mandates to govern will emerge in the provinces. That could help mitigate some of the tensions at the centre of the federation, but the risks to national political stability cannot be ignored. Two factors could dominate. If the PTI wins, its declared primary focus on combating corruption will need to be built on rule-of-law and impartial foundations. Fighting corruption is necessary and vital to a stable and prosperous Pakistan, and, therefore, it is important that anti-corruption be firmly rooted in transparency and fairness. If the PML-N wins, the party must not make the legal fate of de facto party leader Nawaz Sharif the centre of its political and governance agenda. Mr Sharif’s trial and appeals process must not be tainted by political interference by his party. The democratic process is more important than the legal or political fate of any one individual, and must remain so.

Finally, all sides must reflect on why democracy has suffered reversals and lost strength and vitality in recent years. Anti-democratic forces have played a part and an activist judiciary must also take some responsibility, but so should the political parties. A consistent failure to strengthen democratic institutions and the willingness of political parties to allow anti-democratic forces to weaken political opponents will need to be addressed relatively soon by the next parliament. For today, however, a simple message: please vote.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2018