General elections are less than a month away in Pakistan. The submission of nominations forms and the process of awarding tickets have almost been completed.
But the fervour of electoral campaigns is far more evident on television screens and other modes of communication – mainly social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook – than on the ground. Political parties that don’t take part in elections tend to render themselves irrelevant and, with time, are replaced by new players.
Elections are a means to bring a change in the political leadership to run the state, regulate the economy and frame policies. If they don’t come into power, the forces that seek a change in society won’t make their dreams come true. Those who run away from elections actually expose their weaknesses and give a walkover to the powerful.
In Sindh, three progressive parties are not taking part in elections: the Awami Tehreek (founded by the late Rasul Bux Palijo), the Awami Jamhoori Party (AJP) and the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM). This has left the ground open to stalwarts and electables. Their workers have to choose what they call voting for the lesser evil. It is the old reasoning in which they take refuge.
Some people don’t see elections bringing any change in society or denting the traditional power structure as they see the same old faces winning and assuming power. This partly explains why Pakistan remains among the bottom four countries, with the lowest voter turnout. It was only during the 2013 elections that the voter turnout crossed 50 percent. Since 1988, it had remained below 45 percent.
It is important to ask why some working class parties – like those mentioned above – only remain active on issues of justice and equality, and stay away from elections. Over the years, two main reasons have been identified for this tendency. First, many of these parties lack financial resources to run their election campaigns. Second, electoral constituencies are far too big for them to cover if they don’t have adequate modes of transportation.
Large constituencies suit the rich and influential. Comparative studies on the subject have revealed that Pakistan is among the few countries in the world where large constituencies still exist, which disenfranchise the working class.
Interestingly, no mainstream parties raises issues about campaign-financing expenses and large constituencies as their candidates have leverage over others. This is why these parties are dependent on ‘electables’. In the UK, the average size of a parliamentary constituency is less than 80,000 people. In Pakistan, there are only two seats in the National Assembly for a district comprising two million people.
In my hometown district of Naushahro Feroze, there are two NA seats for a population of two million. Since the 1970s, three families have competed against each other in the district: the Jatois, Syeds and Behans. When Naushahro Feroze was part of Nawabshah district, Asif Ali Zardari also contested from this seat and eventually lost to Jatoi.
In the age of social media, middle-class candidates can use crowdfunding techniques. Bernie Sanders generated a massive campaigning fund in the US with the support of ordinary citizens who contributed $25. Mohammad Jibran Nasir, an independent candidate who is contesting from a constituency in Karachi, is using the same strategy for resource mobilisation. Other candidates can build alliances and learn from each other’s experiences.
For a working class activist, it is impossible to reach out to one million people who reside in hundreds of villages. Until changes are made in the size of constituencies, the middle class will not dare to contest elections in rural areas of the country. This is the reason why the status quo remains alive and large mainstream parties serve as trade unions for the politico-economic elite. When a new party comes up with new slogans, these electables take refuge in it. While change does occur, it is only in the form of political banners, faces, tribes and electables. The names remain same.
In Sindh, where the number of landless peasants is the highest in country – particularly in the southern coastal and desert districts where over 50 percent of people don’t own any land – people seek support from the political elite who have connections in successive governments. This practice prevails to such an extent that even during droughts people have to be in the good books of local landowners to get a bag of wheat and flour. It is this structure that keeps millions in chains. Politics doesn’t liberate them. Instead, it serves as a disguise for false hope that people have lived under for decades.
Only a few working class people with meagre means are contesting in the 2018 elections. But their courage and campaigning tactics are inspiring. For instance, a former schoolteacher in Larkana’s Dokri Taluka is putting up fight against local landowners who represent mainstream parties. The GDA, which claimed to be an alternative to the PPP, did not give tickets to working class people. It has become a refuge for all those who could not join and get a ticket from the PPP. With the exception of Ayaz Latif Palijo – a lawyer who contests from Hyderabad – the rest of the GDA is one side of same status-quo coin that is time-tested and offers neither new solutions nor leadership.
Since the inception of this country, politics and politicians have been undermined and blamed for everything that has gone wrong. Through an organised campaign, their credibility had been put on question. Misleading narratives have been fed to the people. These include ideas that suggest Muslim societies are not fit for democracy or that democracy is a Western political system. All these arguments have been used to pave the way for authoritarian systems.
But have dictatorships lasted long in this country? A few generals, who subverted the constitution and ruled the country, have caused more harm to polity.
Political parties, despite all their flaws, are the future of this country. We will not develop acceptance abroad and within the country without allowing democracy to take root. Without critical debate, our democracy will not flourish. Coerced attempts to silence dissent will damage the credibility of the polls. Free and fair elections should be held without fear.