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What’s in a vote?

November 29, 2011

As the US and Pakistan gear up for upcoming elections, voters are reexamining their continual support for the two “old parties” of both nations. Alternative third parties like the Tea Party and Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party are gaining popularity and thereby challenging the Democrat-Republican / PPP-PML-N dichotomy. With greater choices available to the voter, it is increasingly important to examine what rhetoric is being employed by parties in order to gain popular support.

In the US, voters have been presented with a black and white option in the ballot booth, either Republican or Democrat. This dichotomous voting does not express the multitude of beliefs and principles held by voters nor is it a true assessment of the performance of elected officials. Much of this is due to the cult phenomena amongst the parties, where a citizen follows generations of tradition by voting for a party, rather than critically examining each candidate.

For independent voters, Wood Allen stated it best, “We stand today at a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.” In many elections, independent voters feel forced to choose between a bad and worst candidate. Even though there are several independent parties running in each election, the voter feels obligated to vote for the “bad” candidate to ensure that the “worst” candidate cannot come into power.

Pakistan has a similar construct of political power, although parties like the ANP and MQM garner pockets of undying political support unlike any alternative political party in the US. Despite this substantial difference, the urban centers of Pakistan have been limited to either choosing between the People’s Party and the Muslim League.

Much like the US, both of these political parties have staked out their claim to represent liberalism and conservatism respectively. Unfortunately, neither party has adhered to its principles, as their greed for power was all-important leading to both parties adopting the same stale political strategies.

After generations of having to choose between bad and worst, some voters are elated to see the growing prospect of third parties coming to power to challenge the status quo. In many ways, Pakistan’s Tehreek-I-Insaaf and the American Tea Party gained popularity by appealing to the sense of frustration amongst the people that the political system has failed either due to incompetence, corruption, or undue influence. The meteoric rise of both parties was certainly fueled by the economic meltdown and extended wars which affected both nations.

Imran Khan, the leader of the PTI, has led an attack on the Peoples Party for its corruption and incapability. This quickly gained him supporters because it was a sentiment shared by many Pakistanis, considering the deplorable state of the economy and security of the country. In the same way, after the financial melt-down, the Tea Party was able to gain supporters by launching an anti-government campaign that blamed all woes on the “fat cats” in Washington.The power of these challenges is that the state of both nations is greatly deteriorating, and the old guard political parties have been either ignorant or unsuccessful in solving the problems confronting average citizens. While it is a positive step for these political movements to shed light on the corruption and incompetence of our current leaders, political parties should also be able to articulate a positive response as to how the nation will move forward under their leadership.

By focusing their attention on what these parties “don’t want” rather than creating positive solutions, these parties have limited themselves to a hammer and, thus, all their problems resemble nails. When it comes to the Tea Party, their dogmatic response to ‘cut government’ does not address the growing state of income inequality and deteriorating education services for the next generation in the US. When the Tea Party gained an unprecedented amount of seats in America’s Congressional elections in 2010, they mounted a campaign to cut all government programs. Since then, Congress has been unable to pass any jobs-creating bills to assist lower / middle income citizens, which has caused the economy to plunge further and popular support for Congress to hit an all-time low.

Similarly, though the PTI has presented some positive solutions to Pakistan’s problems, their new cadre of “super-star” members like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, have focused exclusively on attacking the People’s Party government. Further, Mr. Khan’s domestic and international policy has been definitively Anti-American, yet, it is hard to forecast what this will mean for Pakistan’s fight for survival against extremism. Isaac Asimov said, "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Indeed, by continually attacking and negating the current political guard without presenting alternatives, these new parties seem to relish in their anti-intellectualism or as being “outsiders” of Islamabad or Washington. Though this may gain favor amongst a frustrated public, these parties will not be able to evolve if they continue on a negativist path.

The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.