THANK heavens election 2018 is over, though the bitterness and acrimony it generated will take long to subside. Many people have won the contest, many times more have lost. The real winners seem to be the much-maligned and resourceless citizens who remained true to their commitment to democracy, a system whose benefits they have never enjoyed. They braved all kinds of hardships yesterday, including bad weather, and trudged long distances to uphold the majesty of the ballot box. They were also keen to prove the political pundits wrong.
The Election Commission of Pakistan had a gigantic task on its hands. Except for its undue and unusual reliance on military personnel — contrary to its assurances, military officers were present in polling booths — the commission managed the polling fairly well. The training of polling staff and security contingents was, however, inadequate: at a number of places observers carrying ECP cards were denied entry into polling stations by presiding officers and security men.
The suicide bombing in Quetta, in which more than 30 people died, and the killing of an activist in Swabi, could only be unreservedly condemned. There were scuffles between rival activists and between them and the polling staff but, considering the state of polarisation and the tensions generated by the rival parties, the election could be described as more or less peaceful and orderly.
Throughout the polling period reports kept coming in, mostly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that women were not being allowed to vote. A few days before the poll the ECP was approached with a complaint that in four districts of KP, the various political parties had signed a compact, ie they had conspired to keep women away from polling stations. Election 2018 did not bring an end to the organised denial of women’s right to franchise.
The question now is where do we go from here?
It was, as usual, a contest limited to privileged moneybags and owners of hereditary privilege. But there were also in the field at least a few who tried to remind the people of what a democratic election should be like.
I felt sorry that I was not a voter in Islamabad and could not vote for Ismat Shahjahan or Ammar Rashid, who were considered crazy activists by most people and utopians by some because they solicited votes on the strength of service to the people of Islamabad and their understanding of their problems. They could not win but they did succeed in exposing the most fatal flaw in the election system, namely, that in most elections, people with modest financial means have had little chance of making it to the assemblies.
I wished I were a voter in Karachi and had been able to accompany Jibran Nasir on his canvassing tours and seen his tormentors threatening him with hellfire. In fact, I was more unlucky than my Christian neighbour, Javed, who belongs to a village in Kasur district, lives in Lahore, has a Lahore address on his CNIC and has his vote registered in Karachi. Why didn’t he get his vote transferred to Lahore? He is one of the millions of marginalised Pakistanis who have to work, or keep looking for work, round the clock to stay afloat. The stark fact is that a large number of poor citizens were unable to cast their votes because of mistakes in the electoral rolls.
Quite a few other issues on the electoral reform agenda remained unresolved. The need to make arrangements so that the Pakistanis living abroad could exercise their right to vote was recognised many years ago. Nothing came out of the half-hearted gestures made during 2014-2016 and one hopes the matter will be pursued in the coming years with the seriousness it deserves.
There are reports that a large part of the jail population could not participate in voting. The main reason is that the prisoners were asked to vote by postal ballot. A bit too much was expected of them. More efforts should have been made to guarantee prisoners’ democratic right to elect their representatives. Voting is essential therapy for prisoners, a message to them that while they have been punished for an offence, society wants them to reclaim their status as law-abiding citizens.
The question now is, where do we go from here?
In the invective-driven election campaign, there was little room for discussing the multiple crises of the state. The election manifestos issued by the mainstream parties were wish lists compiled on the basis of citizens’ frequently voiced grievances. Nothing wrong with that if credible ways of meeting these grievances had been spelt out. The gaps in these manifestos were extremely wide. Nothing serious about overcoming the economic crisis, the growing balance of payment crisis, the burgeoning external and domestic debt, the energy shortage, and growing unemployment. Nothing meaningful about foreign policy and the imbalance in civil-military relations.
What this means is that the new government will receive little guidance from the election campaign rhetoric and it may have to fall back on the same rusted bureaucracy that has dragged the state down in almost all moments of trial and is incorrigibly addicted to ad hocism. Much time may be lost in finding a way out of the mess created by decades of bad governance.
Besides, the election has pushed the state further to the right. The forces of pseudo-religious extremism unwisely fostered by the establishment are unlikely to slow down their campaign for curtailing whatever little freedom is allowed to women and the media. The persecution of minorities could increase. There is no indication that civil society will be allowed to work in peace, which means its counsel will not be available to the government.
Difficult times lie ahead for the people of Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2018