Pakistan Elections: Blood, hope and democracy

By Akrita Reyar | Updated: May 25, 2013, 14:42 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

For a country repeatedly scarred in its independent history, May 11 will appear to be a watershed in Pakistan. It would be the day when one democratically elected government would transition into another through the ballot for the very first time.

Earlier each attempt at democracy had been prematurely terminated by military coups or marred by political instability. But nothing comes easy in this troubled land; not even something as natural as electing a government. Already over 100 people have been killed in what has been termed as the bloodiest run-up to elections.

Among the high-profile victims has been Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was the state prosecutor for the Federal Investigation Agency in the 26/11 and the Benazir Bhutto assassination cases. And just two days before elections former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s youngest son Ali Haider, who was running for an Assembly seat from Multan, was abducted.

The warning had been rung at the onset - Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had said it would specifically target Awami National Party, Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Quami Movement. They have remained true to their word.

Besides collecting corpses and providing medical aid to the injured, the authorities have their task cut out. Providing infrastructure and security at polling stations will be no mean task as voting will take place for not only the 14th National Assembly of Parliament, but also for the 577 seats of all the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the national level, a party would need to get 172 seats for a simple majority in the 342-member Lower House of which 272 are directly elected. Another 70 are reserved for women and minorities.

Meanwhile, this election will mark an end to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government spearheaded by the controversial Asif Ali Zardari and will lead to the possible election of Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). However, unlike the past when elections were a two-party contest, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is likely to play a pivotal role and may spring a surprise. Imran’s slogan of a “New Pakistan” has energised the youth like never before and that is likely to have an impact, especially considering the fact that about 35% of the electorate is under 30 while 60% are under 40.

In terms of regional bearing, the most important Punjab province is the stronghold of PML-N whereas PTI is extremely popular in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Awami National Party (ANP) also has clout. PPP has for long been considered the only truly ‘national’ party in the sense that it is influential in all the four provinces, but Sindh remains its home turf.

Besides the youth appeal, the factors that are likely to determine the outcome are things like power supply, education, healthcare, unemployment, governance, measures to alleviate poverty and of course, most importantly security.

But to address these basic issues, the new government would have to fix Pakistan’s economy. Imagine, in a country with a large fiscal deficit and low investments, only 1% of the population pays taxes. Even the globetrotting, landed and Hermes flaunting Hina Rabbani Khar paid a measly Rs 1,45,142/- in tax for the year 2012.

As per the latest US Congressional report, “economically, trouble looms” for Pakistan due to “its small tax base, poor system of tax collection, and reliance on foreign aid”, and the country faces “no real prospects for sustainable economic growth”. The report further blames the government for being unwilling to address economic problems or bring about “much-needed policy and tax reforms”.

Besides finding ways to fill the country’s coffers, the new government will have to find ways to tackle militancy and determine its stand vis-a-vis America’s ‘War on Terror’. Already Imran Khan has been very vocal about absence of “home grown terror”. It may seem like an amusingly ostrich approach where he cannot see what everyone else can see, but this position suits his strategy enormously with him having aligned with Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.

While Imran is fiercely opposed to American drone attacks, Nawaz Sharif is also borrowing a page from the same book, saying that he will also disallow US military action within their territory.

Lip service apart, Pakistan seems at its wits’ end when it comes to finding ways to deal with hardline Islamists and terror. If people like Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi of the Sunni sectarian group Sipah-e-Sabah Pakistan can be given a ticket and also have good chances of winning, what can the realistic expectation be of belling the cat?

Moreover, the situation looks grim all across the country, with over 20,000 of the total 73,000 polling stations being deemed as a security risk.

Over and above this, retired judges deployed by the Election Commission as permanent election tribunals for disposal of election-related cases have been giving brazen judgements. Sample this, as per reports many candidates have been disqualified for being not Islamic enough including for not supporting beards or consuming alcohol!

At least the Pakistan Army this time around seems content with staying behind the barracks. It is believed to be deploying over 70,000 personnel along with police and paramilitary, but does not seem to be directly interfering with the election process. That seems to be General Ashfaq Kayani’s style, who has openly pledged non-interference.

Even the life-long disqualification of the candidature of former Army chief and president General Pervez Musharraf by the increasingly assertive judiciary under Iftikar Chaudhry only evoked a only a verbal “we won’t take this” response from military.

The other interesting angle that is being played up is the pertinence and influence of social media and televisions channels. While these mediums are visible, 24/7 and make for good talking points, it is unclear whether these will really make a significant impression given the low literacy rate and miniscule internet penetration in Pakistan.

The violence and myriad of these complex factors apart, there is still a likelihood of higher turnout than the 44% of the previous 2008 elections. The country may be feudal and strife torn, but the people are aching to give democracy a real chance.

Because deep down in their hearts the people of Pakistan must know that democracy is probably their only chance.