New bottles and old wine

August 04,2018

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This adage also holds good for the 2018 elections. Beneath the sparkling illusion of ‘Naya Pakistan’ lurks the deep, dark reality of the old regime.

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. This adage also holds good for the 2018 elections. Beneath the sparkling illusion of ‘Naya Pakistan’ lurks the deep, dark reality of the old regime. All that the elections have done is replace one political party with another at the helm. While this transition may make a lot of difference to the winners and losers, society at large will continue to be sucked into the status quo – ‘same shift, different day,’ as Americans would put it in a rather whippersnapper manner.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, brush aside all allegations of pre-and-post-poll electoral manipulation, and assume that the recent elections were the fairest ever. Wherever the Election Commission fouled up, it was not by design but by default. We may also make the related assumptions that the PTI romped home because it outclassed the rest of the contenders on the scale of popularity, and that it has a ‘Mr Clean’ in the van, whereas the leadership of other parties is corrupt to the bone.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Doesn’t the fact that the PPP and the PML-N’s wins in 2008 and 2013 respectively signify that these two parties were as popular in those years as the PTI is at present? You can’t attribute the high performance of one party to a genuine expression of popular mandate and that of others to a ‘stolen’ election – unless, of course, a backstreet electoral business is established beyond doubt.

By the same token, since even now the PML-N and the PPP have finished first in Punjab and Sindh respectively, they remain the most popular parties in these provinces. If the PTI’s victory is set down to Imran Khan’s character, then the logical question is: was his saintliness any less in 1997, 2002, 2008 and 2013?

Seeing in the electoral triumph of a particular party the dawn of a new era, while in the same breath dismissing the victory of others as a matter of course, shows biased judgment. Yes, one may, like the founder of Naya Pakistan, contemptuously compare the followers of rival leaders to donkeys. But such an analogy is an index more of a morbid mindset than of political sagacity.

Sticking to the assumption that the 2018 elections were not a funny business, it can be shown that their outcome is not qualitatively different from that of past such exercises and that similar factors were at work in each case.

The most notable of such factors is money. Nothing drives a wider wedge between the theory and practice of democracy than money. The constitution doesn’t prescribe any property or pecuniary qualifications to run for a public office, which means that social class is irrelevant to taking part in elections. Hence, whether you have an empty or a full wallet, or you belong to the high or low end of society, you are equally eligible to get elected as a parliamentarian. But in practice, constitutional equality breaks down with a thud.

In the electoral race, money spinners enjoy an unassailable edge over others. Independents or political parties in order to disseminate their narratives or programmes must have enormous funds at their disposal. The funds are contributed either by the candidates themselves or by their financers. All else being equal, the more a candidate is capable of and willing to fork out, the brighter are his or her prospects of victory.

The Election Act, 2017 prescribes a Rs4 million ceiling for expenditure by a National Assembly (NA) candidate. But this stipulation is hardly adhered to. A typical NA constituency comprises some 250 polling stations. On the day of the election, a candidate is supposed to provide meals to polling agents and supporters, and transport to the voters. In the run-up to the polls, he has to campaign all over his constituency. Tens of thousands of posters, not to speak of banners and billboards, have to be printed and pasted and replaced at least twice a week. Staff and transport have to be hired for door-to-door electioneering.

These are all ‘legitimate’ items of expenditure. Even the cost of these things goes up to millions, making a mockery of the statutory limit on electoral spending. But seldom has a candidate been disqualified for having overshot the ceiling. As money continues to talk, for the citizens living at the bottom, or even the middle, of the economic heap, winning an election remains out of their league in this ossified system.

Over the years, wealth and influence have changed hands but only from one set of elites to another. In the beginning, landlords called the shots. During the late 1950s and the 1960s, they were challenged by merchant capitalists and industrialists. Alive to the growing power of trade and industry, many landlords turned into businesspersons. Since the turn of the century, a new corps of movers and shakers has emerged. These are the people who thrive on speculative ventures, viz investment in stock market and real estate.

In the eyes of Naya Pakistanis, Asif Zardari and Sharifs, two potent symbols of old Pakistan, have always worshipped at the temple of Mammon. For the sake of argument, let’s agree. But what about our new heart-throb? Has he been less susceptible to the power of money? We only need to look at the people to his right and left – who have earned the sobriquet ‘ATMs’ – to answer the question in the negative. The PTI (it’s too fresh to slip off our memory) conducted arguably the priciest electoral campaign. It seems fair to then assume that those who primed the PTI’s pump will hold sway as well.

Electables continue to tip the scales in electoral combats. According to a report published in this paper’s July 29 edition, the 9.28 million surge in the PTI’s vote bank is underpinned by 4.28 million votes secured by the electables. A good many of the electables used to be sitting ducks in the PTI’s moral tirade. In the wake of the elections, many other electables, who didn’t have the wisdom to jump on the PTI’s bandwagon, have been wooed into throwing their lot with it. All this guarantees that the electables will have a long and prosperous life in Naya Pakistan.

The Election Commission continues to draw fire for the way it conducted the elections. Allegations of massive rigging, which may be nothing but old wives’ tales, are doing the rounds with the same, if not a higher, order of magnitude as in the past. The delay in announcing the results may have been stampeded by system failure, but the losers are convinced the election watchdog dragged its feet on announcing the results by design. Thus, as the nation enters into a new era, the repute of the Election Commission is as much tainted as it was during any other period in the country’s history.

As the economy is up the creek, the new government is set to lead its innings by going to the IMF for a hefty loan. The two preceding governments, as well as those which took office in 1988 and 1993, also did this for similar reasons. The situation, of course, is not of the ruling party in-waiting’s making. Yet, it prefigures that Naya Pakistan is likely to be set on the same economic course as old Pakistan. We do hope these new masters of the nation’s destiny don’t turn out to be the despair of the people.

The writer is a freelancecontributor.



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