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May 31, 2018

Banking on the ballot


May 31, 2018

With the country now set to hold its first-ever election held in the hot, steamy month of July — on the 25th — political activity will soon be at an all-time high.

We can expect tussles within parties over the selection of candidates and the possible formation of alliances in various constituencies. The formation of a strong group of independents in southern Punjab has, indeed, damaged the PML-N, and predictions have become more complicated. However, many believe the next parliament will be one without a clear majority. We have seen such governments in the past.

Quite beyond the mechanics of the election itself, a far more important question is of what any party or alliance will do after it is voted in. Sadly, we have a pattern in which many flamboyant promises are made during election campaigns but then broken almost immediately afterwards. The same candidates who assure their constituents that there will be improvement if they cast a vote for them have been known to never return to their home-areas for the next five years. This is essentially the pattern we need to break. A different mould needs to be created.

For months, there has been agitation in the country over political unrest and the wrongdoings of politicians. Perhaps what we call the ‘civil society’ can channel its feelings in a more positive direction by setting up pre-poll campaigns for specific causes. Alif Ailaan, an organisation that promotes education for all, already held a seminar in April in which all political parties were invited and which was widely attended. The seminar reminded political leaders of the urgent need for free and quality education for every citizen and every child in the country.

Other organisations and groups need to follow. We should be seeing lobbyists urge for more measures to be taken to protect women against lack of parity at workplace, and against rape, violence or other factors that reduce them to mere objects who belong to the men in their life in our patriarchal society. Some other groups should be fighting for better healthcare for all, for improved nutrition and for more attention to be given to these needs. There should be an organised demand for roads to be constructed not only in the provincial capital of Punjab, which has now begun to resemble a concrete jungle, but also in smaller towns or areas where the less-privileged live. In many areas, the road network consists of broken, potholed, badly constructed streets which endanger all and add to the hardships of citizens.

The less conventional issues such as the need for cleaner energy should also be taken up to conserve the environment and protect our habitats. This, in fact, is an extremely serious issue. Cities around the world are expected to face a water crisis within the next five years. In Pakistan too, the Mangla and Tarbela dams are drying up. Political parties need to direct urgent attention towards the crisis of water scarcity in the country and announce a policy to conserve water and raise awareness about it. We simply appear to have paid no heed to this issue for now. But this could in the future, even during the tenure of the next government, become one of our biggest issues. Taking an ostrich-like approach to the problem will simply not help.

It is time to move out of the ostrich mode. With caretaker prime minister Justice (r) Nasir-ul-Mulk set to take oath of office, the pathway to the elections stands open. It is time for the parties to let us know what their vision for the future of Pakistan is. Given that we may see a coalition government, and that there is continuing uncertainty over the precise date of the elections as matters such as the delimitation of constituencies are being worked out, we will need a government that is truly able to demonstrate to the people that their votes matter and can make a difference.

The media also needs to shift gear. Ahead of the election, it should be mapping out the biggest national problems, many of which simply appear to have disappeared from our line of vision. Aside from education and healthcare, these include unemployment and the rights of all deprived groups everywhere in the country. The terrible incidents of violence against minorities that we continue to see, with political parties reluctant to speak out against them, are adding to the burden of intolerance and hatred that is weighing down the nation and its people. We see continued attacks by some extremist forces despite efforts to close them down. We must know what each party plans to do to tackle this intolerance and do away with factors that bolster it.

There is much political confusion attached with this election. For at least the last one year, since July 2017 when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified, we have seen nothing but instability. The primary task must, of course, be to rebuild a more certain order and a greater degree of calm among people. But to enable this, political parties too need to drop the frenzied tones they have adopted against each other by at least a few frequencies and accept the right of every party to hold its opinion and to determine how to address problems. Directing a constant stream of vitriol towards each other neither helps the political cause, nor the wider cause of the people.

In this context, it is worth noting that many smaller parties exist in the country, and which have placed at their centre the rights of the people and of workers, peasants and other groups frequently ignored in our social structure. The problem is that despite repeated attempts of these groups to contest elections, money remains the key to electoral power. The caps placed on the amount of money to be spent during election campaigns are simply not followed. Powerful candidates are able to have giant billboards put up, and in some cases, even hand out bribes in one form or the other to win over desperate voters.

This essentially leaves smaller parties, which are not able to campaign in the same fashion, out in the cold. It is true that their candidates should be launching a well-conceived effort to reach people directly and sidestep the campaigns based on mass display. However, this is not easy. It takes dedication and a great deal of work spread out over the years. It is difficult to see in place a force that is willing to put in such efforts.

Voters will then have a somewhat limited choice. But they, along with groups working for various causes, can at least make an effort to make their most pressing demands more public, and by doing so write a small part of the political script which mentions the true needs of people, and pressurises political forces to find ways to serve people and not just themselves.

The way to do so should also come from within the parties themselves and their mid-level activists and workers who in many cases go virtually unheard when the time comes to make decisions that matter and could determine the fate of any poll.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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