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June 21, 2018

Election anxiety


June 21, 2018

If we examine the history of electoral politics in Pakistan, uncertainty appears to be the hallmark of our political journey. Although the powers of institutional structures are well-defined by the constitution, there has been an overlapping of some influences and domains at the cost of others.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is the prime body responsible for holding free and fair elections. All other institutions and pillars of the state should adhere to the procedures laid out by the ECP. Any attempt to question ECP members and their leadership role not only undermines the supremacy of the institution but also dents the credibility of the ECP. Our constitutional clearly states that it is not within the remit of any other organ of the state to ensure elections are held on time. We should let the ECP drive the process and repose our trust in it as it is capable of performing this task.

Recent developments, including resolutions by the provincial assemblies and political leaders seeking delays in the election, were completely uncalled for. Such demands sent shockwaves among people who want to see the political process continue without any hindrances. These demands remind them of tactics adopted in the past to delay polls and pave the way for those who want to run away from elections.

Anxiety is a necessary corollary of the electoral process. The stakes are high given the political rivalries that have unfortunately turned into animosities. This is mainly because electoral victories have been snatched from popular political forces and rigging –before and after the polls – has marred our history.

Polls give political forces an opportunity to present their narrative and agenda for change to the people. Society benefits from election campaigns as people get to learn about competing narratives. As a result, we require a political programme on display. The practice of hurling accusations and threats, ridiculing opponents, and running negative campaigns reflects a dangerous political culture that is toxic to the growth of politics and a disservice to society and its institutions.

After suffering at the hands of dictators and facing imprisonment and exile, the leaders of the PPP and PML-N collectively worked out a future plan to ensure separation of powers, guarantee a smooth transition of democratic power, and hold elections under an independent ECP. The Charter of Democracy was a major leap forward in our political history. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto dealt a critical below to democracy in the country. Her death caused an imbalance between democratic forces and other elements who have ruled at their cost.

The PML-N electoral campaign for the 2018 polls, which seeks respect for the vote, is not without a strong political context. The campaign is well-rooted in the present and the past. The party has chosen appropriate language in its slogan. It raises valid concerns among voters on the way elected prime ministers have been removed in our political history. Meanwhile, the PTI’s election agenda and struggle for change also offers voters with an opportunity to show how much confidence they have in the PTI’s abilities to run the country in the future.

All institutions that matter in the country are involved – directly or indirectly – in the 2018 elections. The media is active and some battles are fought on social platforms – from fake news on WhatsApp videos to tempered images. The electoral campaign is not just about what a party or a candidate plans to offer voters, but also about a sustained effort that is at work to undermine rivals.

This hasn’t always been the nature of politics in our country. We know that politics is a struggle for power and elections are the road to achieving this power. We also know that politics is the most divisive business in society. Recently, even well-established democratic societies have produced divisive outcomes. So, Pakistan won’t be an exception in this context. Is it too much to expect parties to run a decent election campaign without making fierce accusations and bringing rivals to their knees, viewing it as a zero-sum game?

With a relatively free media, the power of manipulation has steadily increased. It seems that advertising companies, not party workers, are the basis of most electoral campaigns. Even campaign themes, music and branding are being decided by the advertising industry. Slogans are seldom taken from political programmes. In the past, workers used to be the base of campaigns. But now, power, money and elitism are on display while political ideas and programmes have taken a back seat.

A positive aspect of the 2018 elections is that with the exception of one party, whose leader is exiled in London, every other party is participating in the polls – including the Balochistan National Movement (BNM), which has a history of staying away from the polls. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab are going to witness neck-to-neck competitions. Karachi is also at the centre of attention. The outcome will not only be interesting, but will also be of considerable relevance to the government that will be formed in the centre.

The regionalisation of politics is a phenomenon that is emerging across the world – from Western democracies to countries like India. Mainstream centrist and federalist parties have faced tougher competitions from regional parties. Pakistan is no exception to this trend.

Our polity and democracy should emerge triumphant following the elections. A third peaceful transition of power from one democratic government to another is an impressive achievement for all the relevant stakeholders. We must let the upcoming elections serve as a battleground of political ideas. This is how societies and countries grow and evolve – no matter how tainted they may seem. It is the right path.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter @mushrajpar

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