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The fair and foul vote

Updated July 31, 2018


AFTER many rumours and much uncertainty about the election, the day finally arrived when Pakistan got to vote. The dust from Wednesday past has barely settled as the PTI scrambles around to get the numbers for Islamabad and Lahore while the PML-N hems and haws between turning its nose up at an unfair election and trying to form a government in Punjab.

But even then, the results throw up some lessons and some thoughts. And they are listed here in no particular order.

Before that, however, there is a caveat: with all the allegations of rigging and stolen elections being thrown around, it needs to be said that the fairness or otherwise of an election should not prevent an analysis of it. Regardless of how unfair or flawed an election may seem, the results and numbers it throws up should be studied — because even a rigged election cannot rob an entire people of their right to choose. And that those who win or lose do reflect the will of those who get to make this choice once in every five years. Let’s not rob them of all agency or choice by attributing the entire result to the establishment.

Political parties, while kicking up a fuss, continue to fight the fight.

First, the turnout didn’t turn out to be as poor as predicted. Everyone and their aunt was convinced that with the targeting of the PML-N, the transformation of the PTI from a party of change to one of electables, the mess facing the MQM and the general despondency surrounding an uneven playing field, people would not turn out.

But they did. Perhaps not as much as in 2013 but the turnout was higher than in many other elections. And one way to look at this high turnout is to see it as a product of a tough contest rather than a feel-good factor and a fair election. The tougher a contest, the more efforts candidates will make to get voters out, regardless of how unfair a contest might be. Lahore is a case in point, where the PTI does have a support base and this has pushed it and the PML-N to galvanise its voters in 2013 and this year.

Second, pre-poll rigging upsets poll observers more than what happens on election day. The harshest criticism that came the way of elections 2018 was due to what happened in the run-up to D-Day — the corruption drive and the arrest of high-profile politicians and bureaucrats, the judgements, and reports of candidates being harassed (which were made by individual candidates as well as political parties) — and this caused much heartburn among monitoring and rights groups.

In pictures: Pakistanis head to polls in droves to make their choice

But the political parties, while kicking up a fuss, continue to fight the fight. The PML-N even went to the extent of holding a news conference in the middle of election day to request an extension in polling time. But once the results came in, it ‘rejected’ the election (only to take a U-turn later) while other losers are still threatening to stay away from parliament altogether. On the other hand, the election monitors didn’t seem to have as much of a problem with what happened on election day as they did with the pre-poll arrangements.

Is this only due to the easier identification of how the pitch is queered compared to election day ‘rigging’ which is hard to distinguish from ‘irregularities’? And why do parties find it easier to deal with pre-poll rigging? Because they still believe (or hope) that they can swing a seat despite unfavourable circumstances? Do they think that what happens on polling day is far more serious and decisive than what comes before? And if so, why do the monitors feel otherwise?

Third (and this will cause much heartburn to those who are convinced that the election was stolen), it seems as if regular elections — however flawed — don’t allow for major surprises. This election was no different.

Everyone expected the PPP to dominate Sindh, the PTI to return to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the PTI and the PML-N to battle it out in Punjab. And this is more or less what happened. Agreed that the PPP and the PTI got a higher number of seats in Sindh and KP than expected and the battle in Punjab turned out to be a lot closer than expected but there was no major ‘upset’ in terms of the trends predicted. On the other hand, Karachi on its own threw up a huge surprise.

Was it due to engineering or partly due to the fact that the city had not witnessed a relatively clean fight for some time? And now that people were given the right to exercise their choice, their decision just caught many of us by surprise?

Last, voters do not cast their votes on the basis of a single issue such as the civil-military gap — not even in Punjab. Hence, a number of ‘anti-establishment’ figures have won as have many turncoats seen to be ‘pro’. Khawaja Asif and Ahsan Iqbal who have been known to be critical of the interference of the military have been returned to the assembly, as has Mehnaz Aziz, who contested the Narowal seat once her husband, Daniyal Aziz, was disqualified. Omar Ayub Khan or Khusro Bakhtiyar clinched their seats despite having joined the PTI recently. As did Tahir Sadik in the north of Punjab and Sher Waseer in Faisalabad.

Similarly, the defeat of Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan (who till the run-up to the election was seen as another laadla), has thrown up interesting numbers. The chaudhry may have lost the contest but he was the runner-up with over 60,000 votes; his imprisoned PML-N rival whose children ran the election campaign polled around 20,000. The voter was not convinced of voting for the victimised party or its victimised candidate here. Both of them lost to a virtual outsider in this constituency, who himself switched over to the PTI from PML-Q in 2013.

Indeed, elections are messy and complicated affairs, especially where constituency politics are dominated by local issues and power politics. All of this contributes to the result. By giving the (dis)credit to one player, we rob the people and politicians of their say.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2018