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The people speak

July 27, 2018

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AMIDST all the acrimony about the extent to which what took place on Wednesday was actually democratic, it is worth dwelling at least briefly on the most important element of the electoral exercise — the ‘demos’ or people themselves.

Imran and the PTI will say that the people have spoken, the rest of the mainstream contenders will say that the people’s voice has been stifled. Neither position even scratches the surface of a burgeoning global debate about actually existing democracy. Those of us interested in social transformation need to think deeply about what our democracy looks like in a broader context.

First, money and power are what matters: it is not only in Pakistan that democratic procedures and institutions are hostage to capitalists, military establishments and the corporate media. Ordinary people, no matter how much they are moved by inspiring campaigns run by those outside the mainstream, often end up choosing accommodation with the status quo because surviving the daily grind of state and market typically requires ingratiating yourself with those in power.

There are of course notable exceptions to this rule. On Wednesday, people in North and South Waziristan voted Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar respectively into the National Asse­m­bly. In recent times, anti-establishment parties and candidates in countries as diverse as Mexico, Spain and Nepal have been voted into power. These exceptions are explained by prior mass mobilisations that convinced ‘the people’ to confront money and power and put their weight behind progressive forces promising structural transformation.

Those who want change must make themselves seen and heard.

In short, Pakistan’s people spoke on Wedn­esday and this is what they said: we are willing to challenge the status quo but the necessary condition is a political movement that brings working people together across ethnic-national, gender and other divides. In the absence of such a viable alternative, we have to choose between the mainstream contenders because we need powerful mediators to help us negotiate the unjust and inegalitarian political system.

Second, the forces of reaction are making hay by depicting themselves as pro-people outsiders: Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election was the most obvious indicator that right-wing populists are garnering increasing space amongst ‘the people’ to preach their exclusionary messages and give wind to xenophobic herd behaviour.

Similarities between the PTI and the Trump brigade have been observed; Pakis­tani progressives would do well to take a leaf out of the book of their comrades in the US who have mobilised impressively in the wake of Trump’s victory.

The more general fallout of right-wing sloganeering is that the cynicism amongst the wider voting public grows once it becomes clear that self-proclaimed messiahs are as beholden to money and power as those who they claim to have displaced.

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s polls many ordinary voters with whom I came into contact were already clear that Imran and the PTI are anything but ‘outsiders’. Accordingly, the promise of ‘change’ seems to become even more remote. One hopes that sooner rather than later it is recognised that genuine options for change exist even if they are still in the teething phase.

Third, those who want change must make themselves seen and heard on the ground: there is little doubt that we have entered an era where informed individuals can have an impact on political processes in the comfort of their own homes via social media platforms. The PTI’s victory owes itself in part to the support it generated on social media, esp­ecially amongst younger segments of the population.

Progressives were also quite visible on social media, and were lauded for running im­­­­pressive electoral campaigns. But it is telling that most of these campaigns were unable to translate support on the cloud into votes on the gro­und. When the Faiz­abad dharna happe­ned, I wrote about the problem with progressives in this country — that they simply do not put their lot in with political organisations, whereas conservatives align themselves open­ly with reactionary political ‘alternatives’.

On Wednesday, Khadim Rizvi’s TLP secured tens of thousands of votes in constituencies all over the country, and while this owes much to the patronage of the powers that be, progressives do themselves and their cause no favour by limiting their political expression only to social media. Coming out to vote is of course only one way of making oneself heard and those who did not do so on Wednesday must think hard about dedicating time and energy to building a progressive alternative to status quo on the ground in the weeks, months and years to come.

In sum, we have been reminded yet again about the realities of capitalist democracy. Those who want to build a genuinely democratic, egalitarian and ecologically sustainable social order will have to put in the hard yards to make ‘the people’ believe an alternative is possible.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2018