Troubling rhetoric

Published March 1, 2023

THE words may have been spoken in the heat of the moment or deliberately uttered as a rhetorical flourish. Either way, they were ill-chosen, especially coming from a political leader whose father, Nawaz Sharif, has built his party’s narrative around the slogan of ‘vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote).

On Monday, at a party workers’ convention in Sahiwal, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz delivered an impassioned speech during which she claimed that elections in the country could only be held after labels like ‘Godfather’ and ‘Sicilian mafia’ that the judiciary used to describe Mr Sharif, were withdrawn.

There would be no election, she said, before justice was done and until fake cases against the PML-N supremo were withdrawn and he was declared innocent in the Panama Papers case. Of course, it can be argued that Ms Nawaz was merely trying to whip up the party’s support base by resorting to emotive language as a counter to the PTI’s narrative which appears to have lost little of its traction.

Nevertheless, Pakistan has a troubled history where elections are concerned, and throwaway remarks about delaying polls underscore the fact that the country continues to have a tenuous relationship with democracy in general.

Political messaging must rise above immediate considerations; it should seek to educate and enlighten as well as inspire if a democracy is to evolve and mature. Certainly, a civilian leader bears little resemblance to a military dictator — whose power is unaccountable in the extreme — but Ms Nawaz should step back from the temptation to make elections even appear contingent upon anything but the Constitution.

Postponing, rigging or engineering polls are all means of thwarting and subverting the electorate’s will. These tactics have most often been employed by unelected forces to achieve political ends, yet no one has ever been held accountable for the crime of stealing the people’s mandate.

It took over two decades for the Supreme Court to deliver a landmark judgement in the Asghar Khan case pertaining to the manipulation of the 1990 elections; despite that, those involved remain unpunished.

On July 5, 1977, the day he removed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a bloodless coup, Gen Ziaul Haq declared he would hold parliamentary elections in 90 days. But then, just weeks before the scheduled polls, he abruptly cancelled them saying there was too much turmoil in the country for power to be returned to civilian hands.

Cases against Mr Bhutto first had to be decided before voting was held, he declared. Gen Zia’s 11-year dictatorship and his decimation of the political culture — one instance of which were the party-less polls in 1985 — inflicted such profound damage on Pakistan’s polity that we are paying for it even today. Elections are key to democracy; they must never be subject to leaders’ whims.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2023

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