An Imran wave – not a high tide, though – has risen from the general elections held on Wednesday and, finally, the old warrior is set to realise his dream of becoming the prime minister. On Thursday, 22 hours after the polling had ended, he made his victory speech. Forsaking his campaign persona, Imran Khan now sought to wear the garb of a statesman. The words he spoke made eminent sense.
But this incentive for bringing down the temperature and promoting a conciliatory environment was promptly lost in the angry response of political adversaries to what they alleged was a rigged election. On Friday, a multi-party alliance rejected the results and demanded a fresh, ‘transparent’ re-election.
While the PPP did not join the group, it had its own huddle and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari rejected the ‘entire poll process’ and called for the resignation of the chief election commissioner. However, he urged the other parties protesting against rigging and irregularities to not shun parliament. The parties were divided on whether they should boycott the initial oath-taking of the elected members of the federal and provincial legislatures.
This means that the antagonistic polarisation that had contaminated the campaign is refusing to wind down to allow a peaceful and lawful induction of a new administration. Whatever clarifications the elections have yielded are being put in doubt. And in this process, it is bound to be a hard task to inspire peoples’ confidence in democratic values and practice.
Meanwhile, a lot of attention has been distracted by political encounters that have not yet been resolved, the most electrifying being the battle for Punjab. Both the PTI and the PML-N are laying claim to the largest province. Unofficial results show the PML-N just five seats ahead of the PTI, with 127 members, but it is the largest party in the directly elected house of 297. Obviously, the 29 independents and other parties such as the PML-Q (seven) and the PPP (six) have the power to tilt the balance.
Since the PTI is set to form government at the centre, it is in a better position to win the support of a larger number of independents – so it claims. But the PML-N is claiming its mandate to be asked to first prove its majority, and that would surely give it an edge in the ensuing bargaining. Hamza Sharif has recalled how Nawaz Sharif had respected the PTI’s mandate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013 as the largest party even though an attempt to form an anti-PTI coalition was very possible.
Anyhow, the overall political situation worsened on Friday when an All Parties Conference – sans the PPP – rejected the results of the July 25 polls and demanded fresh elections. The conference was chaired by the PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif and the MMA president Maulana Fazlur Rehman. They announced that a joint protest movement would be launched against the rigging and massive irregularities in the polls.
Though this is not an unexpected development, the emerging crisis has the potential of generating large-scale tension and disorder. Incidentally, it was the shoddy performance of the Election Commission on the only day that justifies its existence that has boosted the anger of all the parties except the PTI.
Because of how the Election Commission failed to perform its assigned function in an orderly manner, there is room for allegations of foul play. Essentially, the disarray was blamed on the failure of the recently introduced Result Transmission System (RTS). Then there were other shortcomings. In any case, the process of counting the ballots and announcing results led to unnecessary suspense and misinformation. The nation was kept on the edge of their seats for more than 24 hours.
There is this example of the PTI candidate Zulfiqar Khosa being declared the winner in the NA-190 constituency of Dera Ghazi Khan. But his joy lasted only for a few hours when the returning officer said that it was a ‘clerical error’ and the winner actually was another Khosa who contested as an Independent. Results announced by the media also projected a few similar examples when the names of winners and runners-up kept alternating.
In 35 constituencies, mostly in Punjab, the votes rejected were astonishingly higher than the margin of victory. A few petitions for a recount have been accepted but it does not seem possible for the ECP to attend to all the complaints.
One measure of the credibility of an electoral exercise is the findings of foreign observers, and their initial reports were available on Friday. We had two observation missions, from the European Union and the Commonwealth. There is a tradition of these observers being very cautious and moderate in their pronouncements.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, EU chief observer Michael Gahler said in his preliminary statement: “Despite positive changes to the legal framework with the new Elections Act and a stronger and more transparent Election Commission, we consider that the electoral process of 2018 was negatively affected by the political environment.” He added that in Pakistan, media outlets and journalists “suffer from severe restrictions and curtailment of freedom of expression, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of self-censorship.”
Irrespective of how the electoral process is to be judged, the protest launched by the political parties is making it difficult to patiently review the results of the July 25 polls and analyse the trends that emerge from this monumental exercise. We do have some very striking revelations about the changes that are taking place in our political and social milieu and some of the messages planted in the results are worthy of a deeper study.
In passing, I would just like to mention the surge of Barelvi religiosity in the guise of the TLP. Its premiere, in a sense, was staged last year with a sit-in at the Faizabad interchange, with Khadim Hussain Rizvi playing the leading role. In Khawaja Saad Rafique’s constituency, the TLP got 7,000 votes and the PML-N candidate lost by 600.
We should also take note of the unexpected debacle of the ‘electables’. Many of the traditional winners who had changed their loyalties just a few weeks before the election have also been defeated. Also, many prominent leaders and heads of parties fared badly. Chaudhry Nisar Ali deserves an exclusive chapter in our political history.
All said and done, the 2018 elections have left us with some forbidding thoughts about the evolution of politics and prospects for democracy in Pakistan. Imran Khan personifies certain features of this state of affairs. So does Nawaz Sharif. We need to decipher the future of the rising young leaders like Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. So when we talk of ‘tabdeeli’ and of ‘naya’ Pakistan, we must contend with realities that do not look so pretty.
The writer is a senior journalist.