Mohammad Arslan Ali - Oxford
There is, I feel, a moment in the history of nations where fate hangs elegantly in the balance. For Pakistan, several such moments exist in its young past: the wars with India, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the dizzying heights of 28th May 1998 when the country publicly tested its nuclear weapons and that most significant of days on 12th October 1999 when the latest in an array of military dictators deposed a civilian government. Perhaps the most recent was the afternoon of 9th March 2007, when that same dictator, Pervez Musharraf, stood in front of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and demanded his resignation. It appeared the Chief Justice’s independent stances on a variety of issues were starting to become problematic for the general. Behind Musharraf stood the heads of several intelligence agencies, as well as high-ranking military commanders. The judge looked the solider in the eye and said: “No, I will not resign.” It was perhaps at that point that a nation of 180 million woke up.
Suffice it to say, in the weeks and months leading up to the 2013 general elections, I felt, many times, that perhaps another one of these moments was upon us. The crowds at Imran Khan’s rallies may have felt the same; his army of supporters, on the ground, in the media, around the world, surely did. The wave of jubilation that greeted him everywhere he went and the almost hysterical excitement permeating through the social media lead many pundits to start contemplating the impossible: could Imran Khan, criticised equally by the left- and right-wing, called at times naïve and a political lightweight, a former cricketing hero in a country where cricket is more than a passion, incorruptible in a land where politics and corruption is almost synonymous, could this same man finally succeed where so many other well-meaning individuals had failed? He went from being a laughed-at impossibility, to an annoying thorn in the side of many analysts’ electoral calculations, to being considered by many, very seriously, as the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. That Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI; the Movement for Justice), had failed to win more than a single seat in the national parliament in its 17 years of electoral politics makes this transition in the months, weeks and days leading up to the elections particularly remarkable.
The PTI’s slogan was one of change. Khan and his supporters used the metaphor of a ‘tsunami’ that would wash away corruption and ineptitude and bring about the type of meritocratic and just society that the country’s founding fathers had envisaged. The party pointed to South Korea, and Malaysia, to China and Turkey to show what strong leadership can achieve. Its detractors, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who was then in government, and the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by the former two-time Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, criticised its lack of experience. Khan was a cricketer, not a politician. Yes his charitable projects were admirable but running a country the size of Pakistan’s wasn’t child’s play. They also levelled allegations that PTI’s rise in popularity was due to its support from the military establishment, which, more often than not, has been the kingmaker in Pakistan’s politics. This is something PTI vociferously denies, and points to its rallies as a reminder that the establishment, powerful as it is, cannot gather crowds of men, women and children, from university students to office workers to Rickshaw drivers, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In any case, 11th May has passed, and many things have changed. Many have not. As for the first, the voter turnout for this election, 55%, was higher than many of the previous ones, especially taking into account the new, computerised voter lists. For many, this itself was a huge change from previous electoral exercises in Pakistan where one would find the deceased, multiple entries of the same individual and indeed, completely bogus identities in the lists. Put simply, the majority of the 80 million or so eligible voters did not historically vote. For the few that did, they would often turn up at the polling station to find their vote had already been cast. For the masses, there was no participation, or indeed interest, in the political process. Now, with a vibrant print and electronic media, numerous 24-hour news channels, increasing participation in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, the electorate has become politicised to an unprecedented degree.
This in itself is positive but it has lead to other changes: this became the first election in which party performance was a core issue and politicians were forced to defend their stint in government. This was a novel occurrence in Pakistan’s history where both the civilian and military leaderships have treated governance as a right and not a responsibility. Constituents often complain that they only see their local representative at the time of elections where profuse pledges are made, only for them to disappear until the next elections. It is no surprise then, that the PPP has suffered a large defeat at the hands of disgruntled voters (winning only 42 out of 272 seats) and not, as has happened in the past, at the hands of an overarching establishment. Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PMLN, won a large majority (166 seats), meaning it will not need to enter into a coalition to form the government. The PTI bagged the second most number of votes but the first-past-the-post system in Pakistan restricted its number of parliamentary seats to 35. It has, however, entered into a coalition government in the north-western province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, and will have a chance to prove its credentials to those who have criticised its lack of experience.
Of course, there is still much that hasn’t changed. A friend of mine jokingly commented that someone falling into a coma in 1999 and waking up now could be excused for missing the fact that nearly 15 years had passed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inner circle is the same then as it is now; his cabinet is dominated by politicians from Central Punjab, a point of unease for those in the smaller provinces who have typically complained of Punjabi hegemony. The PMLN has a strong majority in both the federal government and the provincial government of Punjab, headed by Shahbaz Sharif, the Prime Minister’s second-in-command and dear brother. Something else that didn’t change was the allegations of rigging and election irregularities that started to appear during the election and in the days following it. In some constituencies, the Election Commission ordered a recount or a re-election altogether and there are still decisions pending for several seats. The PTI, in particular, while broadly accepting the results of the election, has claimed that its electoral success was dented by rigging, both in seats in the province of Punjab and in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
Moving forward, one cannot help but feel a sense of sympathy for the PMLN: it inherits a country whose very foundations have been threatened by a catastrophic energy crisis (with blackouts regularly surpassing 18-20 hours a day in some areas), militancy, corruption which has pervaded all segments of society and one of the most incompetent periods of governance in the history of the region. One struggles to find an institution or industry which five years of the PPP-lead government hasn’t weakened. Furthermore, PMLN’s success at the federal level is limited exclusively to the populous province of Punjab; it won hardly any parliamentary seats from the other three provinces. The challenge for it will be to establish itself as a national party and not solely as a Punjabi party, a label it has never seemed to quite shake off. The fact that is has won such a strong mandate is both a blessing and a curse: it now has the authority to implement its manifesto without the compromises that a coalition set-up would entail. On the other hand, in the event of failure, it will have no justification to present before the electorate.
For this reason, there will be those in the PTI breathing a sigh of relief: they will feel a stint in a provincial government will prepare them for a future in which they may well form the federal government and take on larger responsibilities. But for a first-time party, which has still to learn the intricacies of bureaucracy and the technical processes of governance and legislation, the country’s current problems may well have been too large and too numerous. It is no doubt that the new culture of transparency and high expectations will mean that the PMLN’s years in government will be difficult. It will have an opposition constantly breathing down its neck and a public watching it with the keenness of a hawk. That the PPP has been all but wiped out as an electoral force other than in its traditional powerbase in interior Sindh is an experience the PMLN will not like to suffer. And indeed, the expansive promises made by the party in the last few weeks during its election campaign are still prominent in the public imagination.
The supporters of Khan may still feel a great disappointment but it now increasingly comes with the recognition that there is good in everything. The PTI has left a deeper impression in Pakistan's electoral culture than the seats it has won: more than anything, it has politicised a large segment of the population which has lived in apathy for most of the country's history. For the first time, it has brought to the fore campaigns based on issues and performance. It has also bagged itself a provincial government, and has emerged as the second largest political party of the country. Going ahead, it needs to assess its electoral campaign and learn from its mistakes. And most of all, it needs to show the country that it can rule and successfully implement its manifesto. It is no surprise then, that for many in the party, the preparations for the 2018 general elections have already begun.Güncelleme Tarihi: 03 Temmuz 2013, 12:09