Challenges for democracy

The road ahead

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his farmhouse in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore on May 13. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party chief Imran Khan during a campaign rally in Karachi on May 7. The party won 28 seats in the National Assembly and enough in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly to lead the government there. Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP

In Rawalpindi on April 15, students walk past Pakistan People's Party campaign posters. Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP

A security forces vehicle destroyed in a bomb blast on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, on May 23. Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Pakistan courageously voted for democracy, but the new Prime Minister has a minefield of problems facing him. Will he be able to deliver on his promises, particularly when the Army holds the veto?

OLD habits die hard. Universally true, but more so in Pakistan where habits feed on conspiracy theories besides deep-seated and often well-founded suspicions of a hidden hand at work. So even before the results of the May 11 general elections sank in, rumours and allegations of rigging began to spread thick and fast.

What was lost in the din of these allegations was the chance to take in and celebrate a historic moment for Pakistan. No doubt, statements like this was the first democratic transition in the nation’s history in an election conducted under civilian watch were done to death in the run-up to the elections. But now that the deed had been done—and fairly well at that—this was, indeed, a feather in the cap of the beleaguered nation that is often criticised for its tendency to make tall claims.

More than the transition through the ballot instead of the boots marching in, it was the turnout that was impressive. With 55.02 per cent turnout recorded for the National Assembly elections, this was the fourth time in Pakistan’s oft-interrupted attempt at democracy that over half the voters exercised their franchise. What makes this even more significant is that they did so in the face of a clear and present danger of terrorist attacks as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had reportedly asked its suicide bombers to target polling stations. And, the TTP seldom makes empty threats.

The subtext in the turnout was a clear vote for democracy despite the fact that the previous dispensation had failed to deliver on the bread-and-butter issues of the people. And, this time it was not just the poor who were lining up outside the polling stations as has been the case before. The elite—dressed in designer labels—thought it worth their while to drive down in their swanky cars and 4x4s to the polling stations and wait in long queues in the sweltering heat to cast their vote.

The credit for bringing this section of Pakistani society—that has traditionally remained indifferent to politics—to the polling station goes mainly to the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and partly to the concerted effort by various organisations through media campaigns to drive home the importance of the vote. Imran Khan’s rallies in the cities attracted the hip-hop crowd, with even PYTs (“pretty young things”) finding them a safe hangout. But so convinced were they that their chairman (that’s how Imran Khan is referred to by members of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI) was going to become Premier just as he had brought them their only cricket World Cup that the Insafians proved to be sore losers.

Though the party with zero legislature presence until now did well—picking up 28 seats in the National Assembly and enough in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly to lead the government there—the PTI and its essentially apolitical support base were quick to pull a sour face and cry foul. Given the traction Imran Khan has always got in the media, mainly because of his iconic status as a cricketer, the cry built into a crescendo, with every party accepting the results where it won and complaining of rigging in constituencies it lost.

As the media jumped onto the bandwagon, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) formed in 2006 to monitor elections, made matters worse by hurriedly putting out a statement that 49 polling stations had recorded over 100 per cent polling. The network withdrew this statement the following day—attributing the mistake to human error by voluntary election observers—but the damage had been done. For nearly a week rigging became the big-ticket issue to the extent that there appeared to be a concerted effort to delegitimise the elections themselves.

The gathering storm brought back memories of the post-1977 elections when the opposition coalition, the Pakistan National Alliance, accused the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of manipulating and rigging the elections. “The inability of the government of that time and the opposition to handle the rigging issues enabled the military to assume power under General Zia-ul-Haq,” recalled the political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. And this time even the party that got a near clear mandate at the national level—the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)—cribbed about rigging in Sindh, something that does not augur well for Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

The protests over rigging across the country have ebbed after the PTI won Karachi’s NA-250 following a repoll in some polling stations, but the murmurs remain. The PTI pushed hard for recounts primarily in the hope of picking up a couple of more seats in the National Assembly and thereby pip the PPP to the post of Leader of the Opposition for the next five years since the latter has only a lead of three. The PPP may have bagged more seats in the National Assembly, but the party, long considered the only national party in Pakistan with representation in every province, went down in vote share and ranks third on this count. After the PML(N), the PTI has the largest vote share. With the PTI prone to heaping scorn on the PPP and its patronage politics, the opposition in Parliament is likely to be a house divided.

Belatedly, President Asif Ali Zardari, who has practised the politics of conciliation throughout his tenure, reached out to both Sharif and Imran Khan, nine days after the elections. For his part, Sharif sought to keep up with the image of a mature politician that he has acquired over the past few years. In his victory speech, he said he had forgiven all those who had cast aspersions on him and articulated his resolve to have an inclusive government. In keeping with that sentiment, he visited Imran Khan in hospital at the height of the PTI protests over alleged rigging. That visit took the sting out of the protests, but floor management in the National Assembly is likely to be a demanding task for the Prime Minister, particularly given the “kaptaan’s” (captain Imran Khan) unbending nature.

Imran Khan’s style of politics

People who have worked with the man—referred to by some as “Im the Dim” and others as “Taliban Khan” or “Talib in jeans”—say he is an akhrot (walnut, which is difficult to crack). Analysts fear that Imran Khan will continue with his confrontational style of politics to keep his otherwise apolitical support base engaged in the process. But there is that sliver of hope that being in government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will make the PTI leader realise that governance is not the same as leading a cricket team or setting up the state-of-the-art Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore. The party has not taken charge of the provincial administration and already it has struck more than one discordant note. During talks with coalition partners on portfolios, word had it that the Education Ministry would go to the Jamaat-e-Islami, triggering a wave of criticism. As if that was not enough, Chief Minister-to-be Pervez Khattak of the PTI is reported to have said that “we have no enmity with the Taliban” and the province belonged to them also. Given that the TTP did not target either the PTI or the PML(N) during the election campaign and attacked the Awami National Party (ANP), the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement at will, several red flags went up with Khattak’s statement.

Definitive right turn

Many observers feel that with this vote, Pakistan’s politics has taken a definitive right turn. Though religious right-wing parties have still not picked up that many seats, the PML(N) and the PTI are both perceived as right of centre, particularly given their stated positions on terrorism. Add to this the behind-the-scenes agreements the PML(N) has with certain sectarian outfits and their fronts.

While there may be some merit in this observation, the fact remains that every political party in Pakistan has at some point or the other spoken in favour of talks with the terrorists. Few have taken on right-wing organisations. Even the formerly Left-leaning ANP, which was battered by terrorists and the electorate alike in this election, had suggested peace talks with terrorists a couple of months ago. So, if there is a definite rightward turn politically, it is only a reflection of the society these parties represent. The past couple of years have thrown up examples galore of how impossible it is to take even one baby step towards secularising Pakistan. Every attempt at revising textbooks to remove hate-mongering content and amend the blasphemy law to avoid its abuse had to be withdrawn for fear of bloody repercussions.

Talks with the Taliban

Apart from his pro-India statements, one of the earliest issues on which Sharif revealed his mind is regarding talks with the Taliban, which has been attacking Pakistan at will. Earlier this year, while extending an olive branch with the barrel of a gun to the then PPP-led coalition, the TTP had named Sharif as one of the three politicians who could act as guarantors for the process.

Nothing came of that offer as the TTP continued with its attacks. But even when there were peace deals with various terrorist groups in the past, it was the state that ceded space. Referring to the “bloody track record” of talks with the Taliban, the newspaper Dawn warned in its editorial: “The Taliban have used the peace interregnum to shore up their defences; they continue to host terrorists from all parts of Pakistan and abroad, and they reject the democratic process.”

Besides, this is not an arena where the civilian leadership has the final say. The security establishment has always called the shots, and the ball is lobbed onto the political leadership for “consensus” whenever the powers that be want a fall guy. The Janus-faced policy towards terrorism has come to haunt the nation, but the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban mindset persists. On a recent visit to Quetta, a group of foreign journalists were told that terrorist groups close to the establishment were being introduced into the province to counter the Baloch insurgents.

Given Sharif’s recent history of being ousted in a military coup, many expect him to correct the civil-military imbalance. But doing that proved to be his nemesis in his second stint as Premier when, too, he had got a huge mandate at the hustings. His recent statements are indicative of a man who has learnt his lesson well the hard way. He has been careful to delink the Army from the coup against him, maintaining that it was the handiwork of then Chief of the Army Staff Pervez Musharraf alone and not the Army as an institution. “I never had trouble with the Army. The coup was staged by one single person,” he said after his election, indicating the pragmatic approach of a survivor.

From the recent developments on the issue of Musharraf’s ongoing house arrest on the outskirts of Islamabad, a theory fast gaining currency is that the former military dictator will be allowed to leave the country on some pretext. Already cases against him are being withdrawn and Sharif is unlikely to want to begin his tenure answering a Supreme Court question the caretaker government left for him. When the court asked the caretaker dispensation to state its position on pressing treason charges against Musharraf for subverting the Constitution, the caretakers said they did not have the mandate to decide on this.

This is just one of the many problems Sharif has inherited, others being crippling gas and power shortages that have ruined industry and forced Pakistani capital out, terrorism, the Baloch insurgency, the fallout of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) drawdown in Afghanistan, and so on. And, on most of these issues, the veto power still lies elsewhere.

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