By Beena Sarwar
31 July, 2018
As dust from Pakistan’s general elections and Imran Khan’s victory settles, it is time to re-assert that democracy is messy business. It is a process, not an event. Controlled democracy, while not quite democracy, is better than dictatorship. It’s complicated.
Despite the surface optics, this may well be the best of times for Pakistan – a time of despair, but also uplifting. The country is moving in the right direction politically, but the process is marred by interference from within and outside its borders.
Noteworthy within the larger picture is that Pakistan has recently completed an important cycle in the democratic political process: the peaceful transition of power from one elected government that completed its tenure to the next. This has happened only the second time in the country’s history.
The first time was when the government elected in 2008 (the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, PPP) handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N). Both governments completed their tenures despite noisy, distracting opposition often seen as having military support.
Now, the PML-N is handing over power to cricket legend Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”, PTI). Most political parties have rejected the election results, but hopefully they will stay in the system. As Benazir once said, “Boycott, and then what?” There are many factors behind the election – or “selection” – results.
First, there is Imran’s charisma coupled with his emotive rhetoric that appeals to many who came to political consciousness during General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008). They include youth as well as adults who initially supported the “liberal” dictator seen as symbolising a change in ideology from his predecessor General Zia-ul Haq’s oppressive rule (1977-1988).
Coupled with this is the disillusionment with the old political parties – “desperation” as one PTI supporter put it. PTI’s slogan “Tabdeeli” (change) and its anti-corruption rhetoric speak to the desire for change among such people.
These factors together could well have made the PTI the election frontrunner in any case. But the process was not allowed to take place on its own. Various other elements pushed the PTI past the finish line further and faster than it may have reached on its own.
These include massive, unprecedented censorship in the run up to the 2018 elections that helped forge a narrative loaded in favour of the PTI. Journalists, particularly in the broadcast media, were forced to not only virtually black out the PPP and the PML-N, but also mention their leadership only in a negative light. Of course, the dominant narrative does not determine how people vote – party loyalists will vote for their party regardless – but it certainly can influence the undecided voter or one who is on the fence.
Additionally, the judiciary was deployed to disqualify candidates belonging to these parties. Further, candidates (especially from PML-N) were threatened, coerced or blackmailed into giving up their party tickets at the eleventh hour and either withdrawing from the race or contesting as independents.
Perhaps, the most significant factor behind the electoral results is the lack of electoral transparency and post-polling manipulations. Polling agents in dozens of stations were not allowed to be present for vote counting. Many also complained of not being provided copies of Form 45, a document containing data about each candidate with names as well as number of votes they received, which is to be signed by Returning Officers and polling staff after the vote count.
Results for some constituencies came in an unprecedented 72 hours after polling ended, causing further suspicions about this most “rigorous” election process as columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sarcastically termed it.
Significantly, all the parties except for the PTI have complained of these manipulations and irregularities. Imran has magnanimously promised to look into all electoral complaints. Not a word about the censorship and other pre-poll manipulations though.
But whatever be the factors behind the PTI’s electoral win, Pakistan must ride this wave. There are positives to focus on and strengthen. For example, the clear desire for change among the people – beyond the superficial “tabdeeli” promised by the PTI.
These aspirations have led to the emergence of some promising electoral candidates, including women and representatives of religious communities other than Muslim. Some have won provincial and national assembly seats against daunting odds. Others, even if those like lawyer Jibran Nasir in Karachi did not win, continue to challenge the dominant narrative, raising important questions about identity, inclusion and pluralism.
It is such real changes taking place on the ground that are so threatening to the establishment and the politico-religious forces. Citizens are no longer satisfied with treading the path they are expected to follow because of where they were born and into which community. A groundswell of growing awareness about basic rights and human dignity is leading more and more individuals to reject the old order and to cross or aspire to cross socio-economic, class, caste and gender barriers.
This is the real “Tabdeeli” that is taking place, regardless of Imran’s rhetoric. Changes on the ground will continue to challenge the status quo in ways that only make news when there is violence.
As Pakistan braces for the next phase in its polity, there are lessons to be learnt from countries like India and the US where fear of change has led to the emergence of similar ‘strongman’ leadership.
Those who voted for Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not all bigots, misogynists or racists. Many are just ordinary people desperate for “better days” and to make their country “great again”. This is not too dissimilar from Imran’s supporters seeking “change”.
Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event. And so, we continue to march along that road.
Beena Sarwar is a Pakistani journalist, editor, filmmaker and teacher.