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Polls come and change is far behind


July 2, 2018

The closer we are getting to the monumental event of Election 2018, the dirtier becomes the environment in which these polls are to be held. Even though everyone says that the upcoming electoral exercise is the most crucial one in the country’s history, there isn’t enough evidence available to put trust in these proclamations.

For the most part, the whole milieu has become so vitiated and loaded that streams of milk and honey are unlikely to flow from it – conflict, friction and large-scale instability are more likely to be the offspring of these polls.

This pessimism stems partly from the unfortunate timing of decisions involving judicial and accountability forums. In case after case, these forums seem to be discovering illegalities and wrongdoings from the cupboards of election candidates just when they are close to getting into the fray and finding out how the public weighs their worth through the ballot box.

The issue of timing is crucial because if these cases were just one odd event about one odd personality they could well have been dismissed as non-factors in the election. But their sequence, the selection of individuals for punishment, and their propagation on the media leaves a big question mark about their intended impact.

This is neither speculation nor a sensational interpretation. It is all in black and white, at least in one case in which a high court tribunal summarily disqualified former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi from contesting in NA-57, his hometown. Even though he has since been allowed to be in the contest again by the Lahore High Court, which suspended the tribunal’s decision, his disqualification judgment is a piece of art that cannot be forgotten by any serious-minded witness to history.

The polls are neither set to become the antidote to our fears nor do they look to be going in the direction of a game-changer for the nation.

The disqualification order used the disqualified candidate (Abbasi) as a metaphor of the evil that pervades Pakistan’s political system and which needs to be fought off and uprooted by all honest people. No punches were spared even against those judges who, according to the author of the judgment, did not justify their positions if they did not come forward and cleanse the system of this ‘maafia’ (his spelling) and protect this country.

The judgment, its anger, its bent and its sizzling sentiment, even though it is expressed in a language that would pass the test of the basic quality of soundness, does set the tone for much else that is happening in the country on other forums. The judgment did not just disqualify the candidate from contesting; it actually attempted to style him as a personification of all that is wrong with this country and made the plea that people like him (obviously all of them from his party) deserve to be thrown in dungeons rather than be allowed to wear the crown of public approval.

At another time, on another day this could well have been just a poorly drafted verdict that flipped and slipped on legal and even factual grounds. But less than a month before the elections, when members of one party are either being disqualified on contempt charges or hauled up before courts when they should really be running their campaigns, this assumes far greater importance. In exaggerated colours, it paints a dismal picture of an electoral process that is fast losing its balance and evenhandedness.

You can argue that one, two, three, four or even 10 candidates getting knocked out of the fray on legal or procedural grounds hardly makes a difference to the larger exercise of the elections and the fairness of the process. But that would be a disingenuous argument as it fails to factor in the fast pace at which such news flies across the country in this age of super-speed information flow.

A few events are enough to create the legend of despair and demoralisation across the entire landscape as local power brokers adjust their political bearings according to the direction of the national wind. I practically experienced this during my ongoing field reporting in Punjab. In at least three constituencies in west and central Punjab, local power brokers who were supposed to ink their accords with the PML-N held back their support and cut a deal with the opponents (two of them with pocket votes of 4,000 plus with the PTI and one with 7,000 plus votes with the PPP) in less than 24 hours after the news of Khaqan Abbasi’s disqualification came out and was displayed on screens across the country.

The volatile dynamics of elections are totally sensitive to the national possibilities of parties forming governments or failing to form governments. What gets said in the court or is written in orders is not just a legal narration of how and why the law has been applied; it becomes the sledgehammer that breaks apart carefully pieced together local arrangements without which no one can hope to win his or her seat.

Candidates run away from parties about which the narrative is built that they are on the ropes or who are forced into a corner from where they would not come out anytime soon. Make no mistake about it: the market of political deals is as sensitive to bad news for some and good news for others as the stock market is.

This is where the pall of judicial and accountability decisions becomes enveloping, blurring the prospects of conducting elections that can be called reasonably fair and transparent and whose results could be a true reflection of the will of the people. There are other issues too that you come across when you meet candidates and local representatives in the wide spread of the national political landscape. How the local dynamics in different union councils are being managed. How heads of powerful family networks are getting convinced to swing in one direction. How media events are arranged for independents and how candidates have made it to certain parities’ lists from nowhere.

Media censorship and the impending threat of being gagged or being thrown out of a job prevents most purveyors of news to report these matters, but local talk shops and traditional gatherings across the land are abuzz with it all. This not being national news or discourse is only a temporary imprisonment of the truth. As elections near and the stakes of loss and gain become higher, what is being chatted about in distant villages and quiet towns will make it to the mainstream and it would become exceedingly difficult, nay impossible, for anyone to defend the conduct of elections as, indeed, the transparent and fair character of the whole exercise.

It would be nice if the tilted stage of the polls could be straightened and its bent could be hammered down, but it is too late for that. The run-up to the elections has already taken on a path that only leads to more complexities in the days ahead as more controversial decisions come out. We are not headed towards peace and tranquility, and domestic sanity. The polls are neither set to become the antidote to our fears nor do they look to be going in the direction of a game-changer for the nation.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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