On a Thursday morning, I casually strolled into a cafe near the Dawn office for a cup of coffee. As I waited for my order, I couldn’t help but overhear two young men engaged in a heated debate around the upcoming elections.
“The 2024 elections are so predictably scripted; the festive excitement seems to be missing,” lamented one of the men, who appeared to be in his early 20s.
“Yeah, gone are the days when there was genuine competition among politicians, creating a sense of anticipation,” added the other.
Interrupting their conversation, an older gentleman seated at a table close to them piped in: “Every election has been like this — same players, same umpire, same teams. The only change is the shifting positions of the audience in the age boxes.”
As I slipped out of the coffee shop, I found myself pondering whether this cycle of predictability had persisted throughout history. Was there truly never any change?
Thus commenced an unexpected journey to untangle the threads of electoral history. The vast expanse of articles proved daunting, leading me to seek the perspectives of journalists — storytellers who had witnessed the political drama up close in newsrooms, on the roads and on screens.
I interviewed five journalists who were kind enough to share with me the nuances of the last eight general elections, unravelling a tapestry of political highs and lows in Pakistan.
1990-1997: ‘Rigged elections’
When the seemingly never-ending dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq finally reached its conclusion, it seemed like democracy would at last return to Pakistan.
However, political parties elected in the subsequent elections found it hard to retain power long enough to complete the constitutionally mandated five-year term. Hence, over the next decade, Pakistan witnessed four elections.
Pakistanis elected a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, twice. However, both times her governments were dissolved. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif also held power twice — once with a two-third majority — but his fast-paced amendments in the Constitution caused disagreements with the judiciary and the military, eventually ending his terms pre-maturely — his last tenure in the 90s ended in 1999 via a coup by General Pervez Musharraf.
Discussing the series of elections that were held during the 90s in an interview with Dawn.com, journalist Mazhar Abbas shared the reasons behind Benazir’s dismissal, her familial ties, and the violence in Sindh that led to the death of her brother, Murtaza Bhutto.
2002: ‘A general’s election’
After removing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from power in 1999 and throwing the Constitution out the window, General Musharraf decided to legitimise his presidency with a referendum and an election.
Hence took place the 2002 election in which the Pakistan Muslim League — Quaid (PML-Q) seemed to be the only one running in the race.
Journalist Zarrar Khuhro provided invaluable insights into the intricacies of Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal, the referendum, the elections, the lawyers’ movement, and the policies implemented by Musharraf that ultimately led to his downfall.
Reflecting on the electoral events, Khuhro mentioned a quote from Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
2008: ‘Democracy returns to Pakistan’
It all started in January 2007 when Benazir went to Washington to lobby for her return to Pakistan for the 2008 elections. A day before she was scheduled to address a press conference in Washington, a news item was published in the Pakistani newspaper, The News, suggesting that former PM Benazir was on the verge of divorce from her husband.
“To counter the rumour, Benazir brought Zardari to the conference who sat there without uttering a word,” said Shahzeb Jillani, who reported for the BBC in 2007.
While dissecting the 2008 elections, Jillani delved into Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary’s tumultuous removal and reinstatement, the red mosque operation which was broadcast live on TV, Benazir’s audacious campaign in Pakistan, which continued even after the Karsaz rally attack.
While the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) grieved the loss of another leader in Rawalpindi, Zardari swiftly assumed power, leveraging a handwritten will.
According to Jillani, in 2008, ‘democracy returned to Pakistan’ albeit at the substantial cost of losing a pivotal leader. This sacrifice compelled higher powers to reluctantly permit a more authentically unfolding political process.
2013: ‘Bloodiest civilian transition’
It was the first time since Pakistan gained independence that a civilian government in power was handing the reins to another. However, instead of celebrations in the streets, there was fear and violence — there were 128 terror attacks in the days running up to the election.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) which was previously considered to be a fringe party emerged as one of the biggest contenders. Their iconic rallies titled as ‘tsunami sweeps’ took everyone by surprise. However, it was the Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PLM-N) who with their promise to tackle the electricity problem in the country won the elections.
Journalist Amber Shamsi, who was reporting for the BBC in 2013, discussed the rise of Tehreek—Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the struggle of Awami National Party (ANP) candidates while campaigning and Bilawal Bhutto’s soft launch into politics which according to her, wasn’t very successful.
“It was the bloodiest civilian election,” Shamsi summarised.
2018: ‘Project Imran’
In the 2018 elections, Pakistanis brought the PTI and its leader, Imran Khan, into power. Khan’s campaign centred on the promise of transformation with the slogan ‘Naya Pakistan,’ asserting that the country had long suffered from corruption and the only way forward was to remove the corrupt ruling parties.
The youth, inspired by Imran’s 1992 Cricket World Cup victory, emerged as PTI’s fervent supporters, turning out in large numbers to attend his rallies. Despite the appearance of a democratic process, scrutiny revealed a different reality.
Journalist Zaibunnisa Burki highlighted media censorship before and after the elections, shed light on the trials of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, and the pre-election violence that claimed numerous lives.
Summarising the election, Burki noted that “it was Project Imran Khan”.
Maybe it’s impossible
Having delved into the rollercoaster of the last eight elections in the country, I returned to my desk where we report the daily saga of the nation, leading up to the 2024 showdown.
It struck me then — indeed like the man in the coffee shop said, “Every election has been like this: same players, same umpire, same teams.”
It was a bit of a reality check, a gentle nudge from the universe, prompting me to think if we’ll will ever witness a truly democratic election or if we’re simply destined to experience an eternal loop of deja vu in the democratic realm. Will we ever get a front-row seat to a democratic spectacle or is that just wishful thinking in the grand cricket match of politics? Only time, and perhaps a dash of electoral magic, will tell.