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Pakistan’s RIGHT Swing?

Election May 2013 marked another huge step forward in Pakistan’s democratic transition. The Punjab spoke out for Sharifs, Sindh for Bhuttos and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Imran Khan. Balochistan once again ended up politically and ethnically polarized, making almost every party represented in the provincial assembly a claimant to power. The MQM, as feared, conquered Karachi again with an unmistakable warning from Altaf Hussein and his followers that “Karachi belongs to us and we will do whatever it takes to retain power there.”

The results at the national and provincial levels though raise three fundamental questions: firstly, did the establishment interfere with the electoral process to get numbers and parties of its choice? By implication, one may also ask whether Pakistan has swung rightwards by default or by design. Thirdly, does the universally acknowledge role of vote as a panacea apply – at least partially – to Pakistan or not? Does the majority of Pakistanis – liberal intellectuals, political and social activists included – at least partially believe in the “voters’ revenge” as the cardinal principle of democracy or will they keep cockcrowing in their rejection of the entire electoral exercise, administrative.

As expected a virulent and parochial debate has unfolded and continues to dominate all forms of media with speculations on the role of the establishment in the unexpected success of PML-N and PTI. The establishment succeeded in Punjab and KP but failed in Sind, according to the skeptics. This mindset belies the hue and cry that most Pakistanis raised over corruption and mismanagement of the PPP and its allies. This also undermines the positive side of the incumbency both in Punjab and rural Sindh; Sharifs did create the myth of “good governance” in their stronghold, and the PPP succeeded in “buying, pulling” votes through the controversial Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) that went to some 7.5 million households in various forms (certainly a positive outcome accruing from incumbency).

The results also prompted the ANP and PPP losers to meakly suggest, if not brazenly allege, that both establishments – Pakistani and the US – colluded to put in place governments that would be helpful in facilitating the 7 billion dollar bulk withdrawal of US-ISAF troops from Afghanistan via Pakistan. They cite the example of the MMA government between 2002-2007, when the Taliban-Al-Qaeda militancy was low, with nominal threats to the NATO cargo. Militancy had begun picking until early 2007 as the MMA government neared its completion, and escalated to new levels within days of the Red Mosque crisis, culminating in bloody resolution in July. This operation left indelible marks on memories and also provided the trigger for almost 40 suicide bombings between July and December 27, when Benazir Bhutto and dozens others became victims of a deadly attack in Rawalpindi.

Now, regardless of the accompanying skepticism, the results do merit a dispassionate dissection of Pakistan’s disparate, fragmented, and at times alarmingly worrying socio-political landscape, particularly now that all major parties have largely accepted the results, because they do underscore some factors inherent in the democratic transition.

Firstly, the Zardari-Chaudhry factors most probably weighed heavily on their parties. The PPP lost most big wigs – all three sons of ex-PM Gilani, sons and scions of Punjab governor (who displayed some integrity by resigning), Raja Pervez Ashraf, former information minister Qaira, Dr.Firdous Ashiq Awan, Anwar Saifullah (Provincial

PPP -KPK president), Saleem Saifullah, almost entire Punjab PPP leadership. Crushing blows indeed. In 2008, the PPP had won 17 seats in Northern and Central Punjab.

Secondly, devout PPP voters, it seems, punished their party also for embracing Q-League – which Benazir Bhutto and her associates had always denounced as Killer-League for all the conspiracies that it believed the “Kings Party” hatched against PPP in league with General Musharraf.

Did the establishment engineer the murder of what was its most favorite child under Musharraf? Let us leave it to the detractors of the Establishment.Or did voters abhorrently spurn symbols of opportunism and a decadent political culture? While PML-N embraced newcomers like enterprising and energetic Danial Aziz as well as many turncoats, Jamshed Dasti and other independents, several symbols of political opportunism – Manzoor Watoo, Saifullahs, Chaudhrys, Chatthas,– were treated with contempt by an increasingly conscious voter. Those who minted money and abused authority – at least in public perception – like all three Gilani sons (people often spoke of their story from rags to riches between March 2008 and March 2013) , Raja Pervez Ashraf, Hanif Abbasi, also received fatal blows.

Thirdly, the PTI bagged massive vote in Punjab but obviously failed in outnumbering the PML-N which does enjoy massive support at the grassroots level. The party undoubtedly emerged as the third major force, displacing the MQM, which had occupied this position since 1988.

Much before the polling day (as reported in TFT “betting on the bat”) circumstantial and some empirical evidence had almost foretold the swing in favour of the PTI in KPK.

The majority of nearly 47 percent of the country’s youth between 18-37years, it seems, who qued up for hours to cast their vote, particularly in Punjab and KP, swung the pendulum in favour of the PTI, reflecting a clear rejection of, and fatigue with, the status quo.

The question confronting the skeptics is whether they concede that common man is sick of the status quo and recognize much of the vote as a rejection of symbols of that status quo, or do they attribute numerical turnaround to socio-political engineering by the establishment? How should we explain resignations by Aitzaz Ahsan, unjab governor, Anwar Saifullah, Yousuf Reza Gilani? Voluntary step-down or coercion by the establishment.

Another development to ponder is the lower Dir constituency PK 95; it represents a disturbing, though spine-chilling, ground reality of parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; the all- party agreement to prevent over 47,000 women of that constituency from voting. Will the election commission take note of it and punish all those who signed the single-page document, or will it accept this as a sad reflection of the mindset governing some of the KP regions? This phenomenon of course is not restricted to Dir only. Similar moves in many other regions inside FATA and KPK either were not reported or under-reported but the reality on ground suggests that men, mostly fearful and unsure which way their women might vote, consciously keep them away from polls on the pretext of security. The new parliaments have multiple challenging tasks at hand, including how to create and expand space for women participation in the democratic process.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India Email: [email protected]

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