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May 10, 2018

Do elections matter?


May 10, 2018

The debate on the upcoming general election has a new dimension: the thoughts of Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday was marked across the world to draw attention to the inequities of the capitalist system.

What is the connection between Marx and the 2018 general elections in Pakistan? It is all about capital or money. A no-holds-barred competition is raging between major political parties to win seats in the legislature – not to serve the people but to grab control of public money. We are being asked to choose who among the stalwarts will control public finances for the next five years.

The party leaders are at their wits’ end to incite crowds against their rivals. No matter how big their jalsas grow, barely one-third of the voters are going to make it to the polling booths despite free meals and transport offered by candidates. Yet, the stakes are high as the winners will disburse billions of taxpayers’ money to their respective networks for building projects, government supplies and a myriad other ways of spending government funds.

As for the people, there are no signs that their needs have been factored into the gigantic election exercise. The federal or provincial budgets are meant to pay state employees and build projects that are decided according to the priorities determined by those in power.

Gone are the days when political forces contested elections on ideological grounds. The electoral rhetoric today is laced with invectives for adversaries and is further magnified through TV coverage. The campaign is highly personalised and targets the personal character of a party’s top leadership. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that character assassination is not a critical factor in a voter’s assessment of a candidate. Voting preferences are determined by affiliations: ethnic, tribal, biradris, business connections and past associations.

Middle-class voters have realised that to meet their essential needs – such as education, health and water supply – they can no longer count on the state, which has abdicated these roles to the private sector, including tanker mafias. The poor have no choice but to send their children to government schools and avail whatever healthcare facilities that are provided by government hospitals. In both cases, the outcome of the elections has little meaning. What is the use of this grand extravaganza every five years if it not meant to provide even a modicum of care for the people?

The purpose of acquiring power, it would appear, is to take hold of state funds and be in positions to decide allocations for public spending at both the provincial and federal levels. In his book, ‘Pakistan Under Siege’ – published in 2017 – Masood H Kizilbash explains that the purpose of politics in our country today is essentially “power for pelf”.

The author recalls that the Quaid had provided us a roadmap to build Pakistan as a modern and progressive state at the service of its people. This model was discarded and, in the process, the successors also “lost sight of the purpose for which Pakistan had been created, namely welfare of the masses”. After a long and chaotic spell of incompetent rulers, which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan, “the leadership of new Pakistan hastened to redefine its purpose”.

“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto found it in socialism and Gen Ziaul Haq in Islam”. These ideological considerations were of little concern to their heirs, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Kizilbash writes: “Their main interest came to be focused on acquisition of power and using it to accumulate personal wealth”.

Interestingly, Imran Khan, the new self-styled saviour, promises to eliminate corruption and give us a Naya Pakistan. Now really, Pakistan cannot be new or old. A new Pakistan already exists. It is a Pakistan of motorways, shopping malls, metro buses, flyovers and underpasses; of techies and fashion houses; of BMWs alongside Mehrans; and of millions of motorbikes and smartphones. Imran Khan would do well to offer a fair and just Pakistan, as reflected in his party’s name – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Give us the purana Pakistan as defined by the founding fathers.

The known political ‘suspects’ are what they are: incapable of doing things differently from what they have been doing for decades. Some among them have abandoned their boats to jump onto the tabdeeli bandwagon.

How can Imran possibly think that he can give us a Naya Pakistan by inducting the same old faces? The Zardaris, Bhuttos and Sharifs must be having a good laugh that Imran has finally turned into a politician, looking for ‘electables’ who are adept at the ‘power for pelf’ model. This motley crowd is going nowhere new and we should all resign ourselves to the probability that nothing new will come out of the 2018 elections, which seem to have seized our hearts and minds.

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