Independence Day is a time for introspection, and to deliberate on the country’s past, present and future. This Independence Day has more to it; its significance is highlighted by the recently held election, and elections results. While the election activity is a major event for any country, the results carry a major significance. In the case of the recent elections, the victory of PTI, in terms of winning a majority on the mantra of change could be read as a major development. The slogan of change or ‘tabdeeli’ really charged the nation, especially the younger generation and this was what led them to vote. Thus, the Independence Day would coincidentally be marked by the inaugural of the new government, led by PTI.
It is worth mentioning here that this would be the second time in the Pakistan’s history that a democratic transition would take place after the elections. It is also worth keeping in mind that while elections have taken place in the country, and the ‘transition’ has mostly been peaceful, it has not been democratic. This needs to be seen in historical context.
While the country came into being after a valiant struggle by the Muslim League under the leadership of the Quaid-i-Azam, who was very clear on the future set-up or system of the government, the Quaid saw Pakistan as a liberal democratic country, meaning a liberal society. Pakistan was to be an amalgamation of different regions, ethnically diverse, with one province geographically discontiguous. In the short time before his death, Quaid remained busy in nation-building all across the country. Liaquat Ali Khan went along the same path of nation-building, but his assassination bode ill for the political (democratic) dispensation. Political chaos and instability led to the introduction of Martial Law in the country under Gen Ayub Khan.
Under the new order, while lip service was paid to democratic norms, the country veered away from democratic dispensation. Parliamentary elections were held in 1965, but the results strengthened the rule of Gen Ayub. The political culture came to be premised on the assumption that elections formed part of democratic activity, and holding elections in any form meant its continuation. This flawed assumption would become a norm in later years.
The elections of 1970 were a watershed; while the mandate was split between the two major parties of the two wings, viz., the PPP and the Awami League, bickering over transfer of power led to open confrontation between the two wings, which further led to use of force to quell insurgency. India’s armed intervention put a seal on the political drama that started with the elections. The eastern wing, where the peoples’ mandate was blatantly ignored, was a new country as a result of war.
To this day, discussions on the separation of Eastern Pakistan focus on the political developments after March 1971, and the India-Pakistan war. Hardly anyone brings up the democratic-or anti-democratic element, linked to the 1970 elections, and disregard of the election results.
Democratic set-up and dispensation is incomplete without political parties. While political parties have many roles, elections are both an end and a means to fulfill their function of participation and representation. Unfortunately, under authoritarian regimes in the country, elections held in 1985 and 2002 were a means to fulfill the political agenda of the military rulers. After these elections, transition (to a quasi-civilian government) took place but it was not truly democratic. The new governments were pseudo-democratic who did not subscribe to any real democratic norms.
Under the new democratic dispensation, from 1988-1999, frequent elections were held, but the elections as well as the transfer of power were not in true democratic spirit. The whole exercise remained tainted and a series of suspects (the recent development in the Asghar Khan case brings to light the unusual and ugly details surrounding one of the elections). One sad aspect of the whole prolonged interlude was the distrust of the people in the politicians, as well as disdain of the democratic process. This has persisted in some quarters.
The political dispensation following the 2008 elections may not have been very strong, but it paved the way for the first smooth democratic transition in the country’s history. Additionally, it reinforced belief in elections, and the democratic process. With some reservations over the results in 2013, the public became skeptical about the democratic process. But despite political turmoil, the government was able to complete its term, and elections took place as scheduled. The elections gave the people a ‘choice,’ and they were able to vote for ‘change’ in the form of a new government led by PTI, brandishing an ambitious agenda.
Despite some reservations on election results, and formal protest, major political parties have decided to sit in the Parliament. One reason for the prolonged turmoil during the last government was the weak role of the Parliament. Bigger turnout is an indicator of the interest of the people in politics as well as the democratic process. Having given their choice for a different party, the voters have great expectations from the new government. It is said that this time around they-the voters — are going to be more vigilant, in holding the government responsible.
Since Independence, the people of Pakistan have desired a democratic order; at difficult times, they have struggled toward that end. Even parties with a conservative agenda pay lip service to democracy and join the electoral process (a new entrant Tehrik Labbek Pakistan has recently made a debut in national politics). This was made possible through elections, and being part of the political/democratic process. Independence Day 2018 comes with a double resonance: the election results giving a mandate for ‘change’; and a realisation of the Quaid’s ideals of a truly democratic Pakistan-reflecting a democratic culture, and a democratic process that fulfills the aspirations of its people, howsoever diverse they are.
—Noman Sattar teaches at Area Study Centre, Quaid-i-Azam University