Pakistan had braced itself for a ‘bloody’ election. It’s bad enough that being resigned to this reality was a prerequisite for further democratic consolidation.
But the carnage that is unfolding ahead of polls in Karachi, Quetta and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is far worse than anyone could have prepared for. ANP, MQM and PPP candidates are being mercilessly targeted by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Many have therefore rightly questioned whether an election contested under such uneven circumstances can be considered free and fair.
Pakistani democracy, still wobbly on its feet, cannot withstand such a bludgeoning. Violence that continues until polling day could undermine the credibility of election results. And in the event that the most-targeted parties do not form the next government, the next ruling coalition could be open to charges of illegitimacy and even complicity (through silence) with terrorists. Beyond these short-term consequences, recent events suggest the TTP will have a lasting impact on Pakistan’s electoral process by changing the language of the country’s politics.
The TTP’s definition of certain parties as ‘secular’ seems to have stuck. The descriptive is being widely used in the mainstream media and political rhetoric to refer to the ANP, MQM and the PPP. Coming on the heels of the Pakistani Taliban’s offer to talk peace with the Pakistani state, the ‘secular’ parties are being set up in opposition to the PML-N, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl and the Jamaat-i-Islami right-wing and religious parties that were deemed acceptable interlocutors by the TTP. By the TTP’s framework, secularity is a negative attribute while religiosity is positive and permissible.
This distinction is deeply problematic because it recasts the political landscape through a religious frame, which perpetuates a specific form of moralising. Ejaz Haider has already written about how the TTP’s political meddling seeks to “play on the fissures within Pakistan’s state and society” and place the onus of continued terrorist violence on the secularity of democratic political parties (Express Tribune, Feb 12). It is, ironically, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban rhetoric reversed and redeployed across Pakistan’s political landscape. And it is an equally meaningless construct: the TTP is not speaking of ideological and political values, but merely parties’ varying levels of tolerance for religious extremism and militancy. Dressed up in the moralising rhetoric of secularity and religiosity, the TTP’s political language in fact pressures parties to be soft on extremist violence for fear of being targeted.
Sadly, the TTP’s plan is working. Parties that have not been targeted have been the least willing to strongly condemn the attacks against the ANP, MQM and PPP candidates. They also remain open to talks with the Taliban (despite escalating levels of violence and the fact that talks have repeatedly failed to broker peace in the past). In their pre-election rallies, these parties continue to blame the TTP’s brutal violence on the US’s presence in Afghanistan and drone strikes.
Moreover, those not in the TTP’s firing line are feeling the burden of living up to their ‘non-secular’ credentials. Just last week, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) publicly denied appealing to the Ahmadi community for support in the upcoming elections. While details of the party’s engagement with members of the Ahmadi community in London remain disputed, the fact that PTI had to issue the denial at all is indictment enough of the current political environment in Pakistan.
The TTP’s religio-moral framework for the election has also had an impact beyond political party cadres. Responding to Taliban injunctions against voting, the Pakistan Ulema Council last week issued a fatwa declaring voting a religious responsibility. The long-term precedent of this decree is problematic since resorting to religious validation for democratic processes undermines the functioning of the system.
Already, exclusionary principles are being debated — although the clerics agree on women’s right to vote, they disagree about whether women can participate in political campaigns or vote in the same booths as men. If a religious framework becomes the norm of Pakistan’s electoral system, one can expect future debates about whether religious minorities or members of particular sects can vote, and under what circumstances.
Focusing on a secular-religious binary also distracts from the complexity of grassroots politics in Pakistan and stymies critical discussions on problematic electoral trends.
For example, the PPP, one of the so-called secular parties, is making seat adjustments with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat in the upcoming elections. Other parties including the PML-N have previously sought its support to secure votes — hardly a secular move.
Adopting labels such as ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ for parties washes out the ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and commercial dynamics that fuel all Pakistan’s political parties and dumbs down political rhetoric in the public sphere. Unfortunately, simplistic and moralising discourse often leads voters to make ill-informed choices.
It does not help that the situation is currently ripe for TTP’s political rhetoric of secularity versus religiosity to become the new benchmark of Pakistani politicking. Already Article 62 of the Constitution led to political aspirants’ religious credentials being prioritised over their political track record and capacity for governance during the vetting process. And this in a context of rising religiosity: according to a recent British Council survey, 38pc of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 think Sharia is the best political system for Pakistan.
It’s essential that the TTP’s new language of politics does not become entrenched. The only way to stem this is by reorienting election discourse towards governance issues. Forget secularism and religion. Let’s find out more about where parties really stand on education, environment, energy, healthcare, taxation, and more.
The writer is a freelance journalist.