The game is on

Published January 3, 2024
The writer is an author and journalist
The writer is an author and journalist

IT has been a year one would like to forget. But for a country caught in the vortex of volatility, what lies ahead doesn’t look very hopeful either. It has not been an auspicious start to the new year, with fresh allegations of persecution of dissenting voices. With about a month left to the polls, the elections already appear to have been stolen.

The mass rejection of nomination papers of PTI candidates has compromised the legitimacy of the polls. The entire electoral process is tainted. The shameful spectacle of Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister, being pushed and dragged into a police van, gives us a glimpse of the ongoing repression of PTI leaders. The crackdown seems to have intensified with the approach of the Feb 8 polls.

What has reportedly happened to the family of Jamshed Dasti, a former National Assembly member and a PTI candidate, is yet another example of the reign of terror that has been unleashed in an effort to suppress the political opposition. In a video message that has gone viral on social media, Dasti, who fled his home to escape arrest, has accused the security agencies of ransacking his house and stripping his wife in front of the children. Police have rejected the allegations.

This sort of alleged brutality has not been seen even under military rule. At the start of a new year, it makes for grim reading. The shadow of the security establishment looms larger with a compliant caretaker administration in place. The farce being played out on the political stage cannot bring political stability to the country.

It is not just about the PTI’s candidates. The candidature of many Baloch politicians, including Akhtar Mengal, has also been rejected on flimsy grounds. The main objective appears to be to weaken the PTI and other political parties seen to be presenting a challenge to the establishment’s selection process. Under these conditions, there is little hope of the election tribunals overturning the decision to reject nomination papers.

It is clear that the electoral contest is not rooted in any programme or ideology.

This raises questions about the independence and impartiality of the Election Commission of Pakistan. The Commission’s decision to take away the ‘bat’ election symbol from the PTI reinforces the allegations of foul play. Interestingly, the ECP has appealed against the Peshawar High Court’s ruling that restored the PTI’s election symbol.

It is not too hard to guess who is calling the shots. Such actions can only undermine the federation. A manipulated election will accelerate systemic collapse. With the increasing fragmentation of the entire political edifice, we seem to be heading towards a shipwreck. The role of the PML-N and some other mainstream political parties in going along with the establishment’s game, for their own vested interests, is equally despicable.

However, given our wretched history of power games, one is not surprised by this politics of co-optation. Apparently assured of a return to power, with the major challenger being contained, the PML-N leadership is now busy building a future ruling coalition. But the party has yet to come out with any concrete programme to deal with the enormous challenges faced by the country. Its entire narrative is built around its unenviable past performance.

It is all in the family for the PML-N as the party prepares for the hustings. The list of probable candidates is packed with old faces, with members of the Sharif family dominating the lot.

There has been no induction of fresh blood, giving the impression that the party is stuck in the past and there is no hope of change. It would be extremely hard for an ossified party leadership to mobilise youthful voters who constitute almost 65 per cent of the voting list.

Despite the fact that the majority of its first- and second-tier leadership is either behind bars or being hunted down, there seems to be no diminishing of the PTI’s support base, particularly among the youth. That is perhaps one of the reasons for the continued crackdown on its supporters.

It also seems to be the reason behind the ECP’s desperate attempt to deny the party its ‘bat’ electoral symbol. But the electoral process generates its own political dynamics that would make it harder to completely manage the outcome.

It is apparent that the electoral contest is not rooted in any programme or ideology, but is all about power and maintaining the status quo. It is curious that with just weeks left to the poll, the mainstream parties have yet to reach out to the public. The entire narrative is based on personalised polemics and there is no serious debate on the issues that present an existential threat to the country.

What we have witnessed so far are some populist slogans and unattainable promises. In fact, there is no realisation among the major political parties about the severity of the problems. Issues such as the worsening economic plight of the underclass, growing inequality, the disastrous impact of climate change, and population explosion do not even figure in their discourse.

There is not even talk about the rising incidents of terrorism. These political parties have for long left national security and foreign policy issues to the military, which has been the major reason why the country finds itself on a one-dimensional course.

With the security establishment now deeply entrenched in every aspect of the power structure, there is not even an illusion of civilian control. There is fear that the fragmentation of the civilian political power base could fuel further instability. Moreover, a manipulated system cannot deliver on major governance and economic issues. It remains to be seen how much power the future civilian administration can wield in a military-backed system.

A blatant power game and manipulated elections can push the country further into the abyss. The situation can only be salvaged through free and fair elections. But there seems to be little awareness of the gathering storm.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

X (formerly Twitter):@hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2024

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