The country today is witnessing its 13th General Elections and more than 100 million Pakistanis will have the chance to cast their vote for candidates to Provincial and National Assemblies. There are a total of 342 seats up in the National Assembly, out of which 272 are general seats while the remaining 70 are special seats reserved for women and ethnic minority candidates. Provincial Assemblies including Punjab (371), Sindh (168), Balochistan (65), and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (124) have a total number of 728 seats, out of which 557 are general seats and 151 are reserved for minorities and women. According to statistics available with Election Commission of Pakistan, 12570 candidates belonging to more than 97 political parties or no political party are contesting these elections on general seats.
These general elections could lead in a new government that will continue to face economic, political and strategic challenges. There is no chance of improvement in civil-military relations and the strategic scenario will remain in a flux not only in the context of Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and other Middle Eastern countries, but also in terms of relations with the US and other global powers. It is also unclear whether the promise of a liberating spring in the air is going to endure, or it too will lead only to a dreary autumn, with hopes being swept away, in clouds of dust, like the fallen leaves on the streets. Will there be a genuine change of heart and direction? A fundamental point as to who decides what is best for Pakistan? The military has for too long arrogated to itself this right, which belongs to the people and the electorate. If there had been no military interventions, from 1958 onwards, we too might have had the kind of democracy that falters in many key areas across the border but also delivers in many others. The ‘weakening of democratic process’ through military interventions, directly and indirectly, has accentuated negative effects on Pakistan’s future and economy.
International media, political analysts, election observers, and major political parties less PTI have already raised allegations like ‘pre-poll rigging’ and ‘absence of a level playing field’ for today’s election. The obvious intervention by military in the political process has left the polls little credible. Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, in his recent article writes that “the blatant meddling of the country’s all-powerful military, with a series of assists by a partisan judiciary, has tainted the election results, and it is now clear that the outcome will not rid Pakistan of its chronic instability and poor civil-military relations”. In the midst of a galore of electronic media, the general public has acquired a certain level of independence of thought and is no longer buying official narratives. Most of the people in the country are certain that the army has changed its direct intervention and now playing its political role indirectly so as to enjoy power but no responsibility. It is believed by many national and international observers that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), the newly established Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), and extremist islamists parties like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Jammat-u-Dawwah (JuD), Milli Muslim League (MML), Tehreek-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are military’s proxies. The islamists parties are meant to divide and minimize the votes of largest parties like PML-N and PPP so as to get a hung parliament, with limited powers and controlled decision-making.
For nearly 70 years, the military has defined Pakistan’s national security priorities, be it foreign policy or defence, sometimes from the seat of government itself, with many commanders placed on prominent economic and political positions. In May 2013 after his electoral victory, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said something that for years, no Pakistani leader had dared to express. During an interview to renowned Indian journalist and anchor Burkha Dutt for NDTV, he expressed as “civilian supremacy over the military is a must”. He went a step further and said, “The prime minister is the boss, not the army chief. This is what the constitution says. We all have to live within the four walls of the constitution”. And then the nation saw his ouster and imprisonment on a technicality unrelated to the Panama Papers. On the other hand, former dictator General Perveiz Musharraf, who stands accused of high treason as well as having a role in the murder of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was allowed to leave the country with permission of the courts. This glaring double standard is what undermines our democracy. In the nation’s 70-year history, not one prime minister has served out a full five-year term. They have been thrown out by military coups and dismissed by judges.
Pakistan was created as a Nation-State to guarantee the supremacy of the people, rule of law where these apply equally to all citizens, active participation of the citizens in politics and civic life, protection of the human rights and so on. The first Constituent Assembly of the country passed Objective Resolution which still is a preamble of the 1973 constitution. It says that “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed. The State shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people”. Upholding democracy and democratic norms, Quaid-i-Azam on many occasions supported active participation of the people in electing their representatives. According to Quaid-i-Azam “Democracy is in the blood of the Muslims, who look upon complete equality of mankind, and believe in fraternity, equality, and liberty”. It is easy to forget the unsettled and confused circumstances in which Pakistan was born. Throughout his career as a politician and as a legislator, Quaid’s dedication to the rule of law and constitutionalism was unswerving. In the short span of seven decades, we have made a mockery of these values by continuously military interventions, one way or other.
Many, including those from abroad, who back democracy and applaud democratic governance, believe that civilian governments are unavoidable options to put the country on track. In a protracted struggle between democracy and the military, military has lost popular trust. The people have seen the two wrangled as economic and social problems have piled up. There has to be a future for Pakistan beyond all the skullduggery of the past and the present. This can be possible only if the basic right of the people to govern themselves is unreservedly and unequivocally recognized. Democracy is often confusing business, but it appears even more so in our circumstances because the structures that support it, the constitution, parliament, and the judiciary, have systematically been weakened. Indeed, we have so weakened the Quaid’s ideals that some people question whether they are any longer relevant as a frame of reference. But it would be a grievous mistake if we fell into the error of seeking to compromise further on his faith in democracy as the only course for Pakistan to follow. With our repeated deviations from universally accepted principles, we are often spoken of as an anachronism in today’s world moving towards political and social emancipation.
It is no pleasure, year after year, to repeat a litany of failure. We must squarely confront the challenge of discovering our direction and identity if we want the times to come to be more purposeful and productive. Do we want to be a democratic, disciplined, accommodating and legitimate country or do we want to turn ourselves into a society with a garrison mentality, unable to give people the freedom to exercise their choice freely and without restriction? This question needs to be asked today by as many of us as have not lost all confidence in the future of Pakistan as a vibrant and developed country. Pakistan can move towards stability and consolidation if the constituent units are given a strong stake in its strength and vitality. This means not only economic development in backward provinces and regions but also a proper devolution of powers from the centre downwards. For the people at large, democracy essentially means a proper sense of participation at all levels of government, federal, provincial and local. There is neither freedom from want for millions living in urban slums and the less developed regions nor would freedom for the creative urges of the people to find expression that lend dynamism to the country.
Today’s election, in many ways, will set the future course of politics in Pakistan. While the deck seems loaded to put PTI in the driving seat, electoral politics is a little more complex than organizing a marching drill, and the best of calculations can still be proved wrong.
(The writer is Ph.D Political Science, Civil Servant based in Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The 2018 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference is scheduled for April 8 to 11 in Boao, Hainan Province. The forum will be themed "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity."
— The Daily Mail - People's Daily