Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party protest outside the office of a Returning Officer in Peshawar on February 9, 2024, against the alleged rigging in Pakistan’s national election results. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP)

The day Pakistan voted in defiance… and hope

It was strange, and it lasted just a few moments. But it felt like democracy.
Published February 10, 2024

Writing about the Pakistan cricket team well over a decade ago, Indian novelist Mukul Kesavan realised it wasn’t quite a touring cricket side so much as an insane theatre company; that it created “more drama in a single Power Play than most sides manage in a whole tournament”.

When they were bad, wrote Mukul, they were awful — “but there’s no team in cricket that has more electricity about it”. And though he wasn’t about to bet on the men in green, he still thought they had a shot at stealing the cup, “because even when they play like the Keystone Cops, the script in their heads is always Ocean’s Eleven”.

Little of this can carry over, of course, to the far more vicious arena of politics (who better than Mukul to know this, presently writing in defiance of Narendra Modi). Nor can the stakes compare: in Pakistan, the lives and dignity of no less than a quarter-billion people are on the line.

And yet no one who white-knuckled it through the general election on February 8, 2024, would be able to deny, after such a long, bitter winter, that there was something electric in the air. It was strange, and it lasted just a few moments. But it felt like democracy.

Against all odds

Depending on your politics, that winter may have frozen over in 2022 or in 2018, in 2007 or 1999, in 1985 or 1977, all the way back to that first soft coup in 1953. But it’s the same sad song each time — that whenever the popular will comes under threat, its guardians take the path of least resistance.

Not so on Thursday, when that path was opened up to the voters themselves, millions of them brand-new. Despite decrepit boomer analysts going on and on about how low the turnout would be, the country was and is in the middle of a generational shift — with voter rolls reflecting as much.

And by the time polling closed, the people had delivered Pakistan its greatest electoral upset since 1970. Delayed in two provinces for the better part of a year — with general polls written off for an extra three months — all it took the voter was nine hours.

Nine hours, too, to get their vote right: in response to the absurd Supreme Court judgment axing the electoral symbol of arguably the country’s most popular party, people voted for pyalas and nalkas and dolphins; chimtas and charpoys and shuttlecocks. Mass disenfranchisement was met with the kind of faith in democracy that, even in this day and age, held the power to astonish.

Not that there weren’t other problems — the election commission put up its usual trash-fire of a performance, while the government helpfully cut off cellphone signals for the whole day. (As protests erupted across the land, the caretakers were busy asking after the health of a fellow figurehead with no place in a real democracy.)

Voting in defiance

Then, also, comes the fact of who the people actually voted for — a persecuted party, its jailed leader, thousands of detained workers, scores of criminal cases, rolling blackouts in the media, and police raids without end. In voting for Imran Khan and the PTI, the public chose defiance.

And by some degree, as talking heads read off returns higher than their highest projections, it became clear that the PTI had swept Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and then romped through Punjab and Karachi with two-digit leads — which magically evaporated as time passed.

For a few hours on February 8 though — the kind that will inform long legal battles ahead — the popular will was a thing to behold. For the PTI’s most major opponents, it was the sort of defeat where no selection could be claimed — Dr Yasmin Rashid pulled ahead of Nawaz in Lahore; Maulana Fazl was toppled in DI Khan; the Khattak family was routed from Nowshera; and the sugar cartel’s rolling stones were rejected via fourth-man candidates in South Punjab.

Over in Sindh, there was heartening news in the form of PPP’s Mahesh Kumar Malani defeating the formidable Arbab Ghulam Rahim. A two-time religious minority member on a general seat, it is hoped Malani sets a trend, and that Pakistan lives up to its pluralist promise.

Equally heartening was Karachi’s Jibran Nasir protecting his constituency’s votes regardless of winner, as well as concessions by heavyweights Saad Rafique and Ameer Hoti. The fact of a federation, too, came shining through: with its rivals’ bases in two other provinces, the PML-N can no longer rely on the complacency of its GT Road seats paving the way to Islamabad.

Rigging allegations

Amid all these bright spots, however, the fix came hard and fast — the system crashed itself; losers who went home at night woke up as winners in the morning; and the number of accepted votes was tallied higher in some places than the total number of votes cast.

Soon enough, the elections of 2024 had flamed into a visual disaster — there was Nawaz Sharif’s uniquely embarrassing Form 47 doing the rounds on social media (journalist Mansoor Ali Khan compared the effort to a five-year-old child armed with crayons). There were next-day reversals in Karachi, thousands upon thousands of rejected votes from Multan, and the extraordinary story of grandmother Rehana Dar in Sialkot, whose huge lead flipped at first light.

Violence is also bleeding back into the headlines — there are horrendous reports of a PTI protester being critically injured in Shangla and, as this goes to press, the NDM’s Mohsin Dawar being shot in the leg in Miranshah.

Other outrightly blatant turnarounds included Salman Akram Raja and Taimur Jhagra’s, both of whom had recorded soaring numbers. And some areas in Balochistan that had witnessed no polling, per Dawn’s reporter, had the good manners to post results anyway.

But the scale of such a rig is now becoming self-apparent. With Congresswoman Ilhan Omar leading the way, even the State Department has stirred itself awake to tut-tut Pakistan’s polling process.

What next?

That said, domestic problems require domestic solutions: every last instance of ballot-stuffing must be challenged under the law and, more long-term, the returned candidates must abide by some basic rules of the road.

These include, first, that the largest party forms government — the PTI denied that privilege to the PML-N in Punjab in 2018, despite the latter boasting the most seats in the provincial assembly.

Second, elected governments must be allowed to serve out their full tenure. In torpedoing the PTI via a vote of no-confidence, the unity regime upended a convention established the hard way; the wreckage is still before us.

Third, for any democracy to prosper, it would be best for the Centre to accept an opposition, rather than have the deep state jail its leaders or manage its votes. That would mean restoring Parliament to its rightful place and, rather than place the entire onus on civilians to guard their turf better, also punish those that subvert democracy beyond its reach.

Finally, it’s high time for our representatives to rise to the occasion. Shocked in Lahore and trounced in Mansehra, it didn’t quite behoove Mian sahib to run a victory lap around the entire country. His speech betrayed no signs of personal growth — far from conceding defeat, he sketched out yet another rickety unity setup; a 10-party circus with as little legitimacy.

Hence, also, the tragedy of Nawaz’s rise, fall, and rise — handed the same Punjab in earnest in 1986, when General Zia stared down Pervez Elahi’s boys from launching their own vote-of-no-confidence against his young chief minister, Mian sahib was supposed to have traded in the secret phone call for people’s power. Or, he was supposed to have learned from the Musharraf coup. Or, he was supposed to have recommitted to the vote during his latest stint in exile (mocked by PTI fans as having spent his Avenfield conviction inside Avenfield).

None of it has come to pass. All Nawaz could offer the youth yesterday was a bunch of laptops and rule by his own blood. While the kids may yet prefer his discarded slogan — vote ko izzat dou — the three-time premier seems to have been restored to factory settings, ’80s synth playing on the speakers. Without understanding how this country has changed, Mian sahib will end his career the way he began it: a pawn that made it to the end of the chessboard.

Which brings us to the prisoner he wouldn’t name. Imran Khan wrote once, after getting walloped in his first election in 1997 (ironically, it was Nawaz that had won a landslide back then) how people “lost faith in my leadership …This political rout had shaken their confidence in me. These people did not realise that when I first played cricket, I was not successful at all. In fact … it took me five years before I consolidated my position on the team; after my first tour, a lot of newspapers called me “Imran Khan’t”.”

Two decades and five elections later, newspapers across the world — from The Guardian to Time to FT — are unanimous that Imran can — that his popularity has, against all odds, prevailed against the establishment. As of this past week, he is at the centre of one of the greatest popular fightbacks this country has ever seen.

But it will matter only if it’s on the way to a new compact — to embracing Parliament, to working with an opposition without the police showing up to their door, to rejecting the shadowlands as this country’s main means of ascent.

Of course, all of that remains to be seen. But for now, February 8 — as a moment in time — is more than enough. It is hope. Arrayed on one side was the deep state, absurd verdicts from the courts, relentless police brutality, the re-laundered and reloaded class of 1985, their boomer cheerleaders in the press, and the weird, Orwellian silence of the Biden administration.

On the other was some kids voting for baingan. It’s hard not to be proud of them.

Header image: Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) protest outside the office of a Returning Officer in Peshawar on February 9, 2024, against alleged rigging. — Photo via AFP