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July 5, 2018

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Men may make miracles but Pakistan mustn’t lose

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If all goes to plan, Pakistan will vote in twenty days time. Problem is there are too many plans. There are procedural plans to hold the elections on time and then there are plans by the participants to outdo the others. More importantly, there is a lot of talk about the plans by those who have peculiar expectations from the national count. Left only to political elements, results might not go according to the expected plans.

The promise of 2013 is, however, almost over. Those celebrating a dawn of democratic continuity then are now admitting how wrong they were for partying prematurely. The few inches of democratic space gained through consistent politicking by the leading political actors is lost due to perennial “democratic” squabbling. It is easy to blame the “undemocratic” forces than accepting internal hemorrhaging caused by the lack of will to deliver, failure to fulfill campaign promises, putting personal gains before national priorities and expecting the long-standing rifts between state institutions to evaporate without seriously attempting to resolve differences through application of national spirit.

Things are not getting better. Hopes of a politically united Pakistan are dissipating fast. As per opinion polls so far, incumbents may retain three out of four provinces. They show that Sharifs are holding a lead for now but Imran is gaining ground. Polls are interesting indicators but many a time fail to factor in mood swings due to last minute developments. Balochistan has recently undergone political surgery making sure those in power are toppled by associates. The Young Turks may hold sway to begin with. Other winners are likely to offer themselves to the highest bidder to be part of coalitions once the votes are in.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, we are told, has a peculiar electoral history. Voters change the incumbents hoping the challengers would deliver. Finding the elected equally incompetent demagogues, they continue replacing them with another cocktail of impotent potion - needed nonetheless to get the right mix. If delivery on promises is the benchmark in 2018, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) may find it difficult to hold on to present numbers. Religious right has ganged up once again and if the religious beliefs of the majority of voters in KP became a deciding factor, Imran’s recent activity at shrines could be a liability.

Predicting Sindh politics used to be child play ever since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 – Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would hold sway in rural areas while Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) would keep a tight control of the urban voters ever since it became pretty much the sole spokesman for the urban Sindh in the late 1980s. Election 2018 might change a few things courtesy of the paramilitary operation carried out to clean up Karachi of the “criminal” elements within the incumbent political order. Lo & behold, the party that kept Karachi “hostage” either through vote or violence for three decades is in a shambles since the so-called “criminal elements” within its ranks are taken care of.

Problem, however, remains in Punjab. Political machinations and institutional interplay spanning over three decades have reduced the province into a playground for one political party – Pakistan Muslim League. It ruled with impunity when it could and when at times ultra-political developments took away power from the core group, the remaining party metamorphosed into factions sharing the brand name. These days the core group is PML-N. Historically, the party played with the Army, conveniently called the establishment. But then Nawaz became the problem by becoming the “opposition”. Thrown out of power thrice for locking horns with the “powerful”, he is now facing court cases after being disqualified for life by the country’s apex court for actually not being very “Sharif”.

To many observers, Nawaz factor has now been satisfactorily controlled. But what to do with his party that won 313 seats in the province. The challenger, PTI, had 30. The power, for many, may rest in Islamabad. But if Lahore is not onside, Islamabad could easily be gridlocked. We saw it during Benazir Bhutto-Nawaz Sharif seesaw governments in the 1990s. Those claiming that Punjab historically swings with the power wind may have a point. But what if many refuse to swing this time.

Most pundits are predicting a PML-N defeat and a PTI win in 2018. Reasons offered are the “electables”, the “independents”, and the “help”. Without arguing if all the electables would return elected or if all independents are actually independent, let’s focus if PTI would pick enough seats nationally to form a government at Centre and win over 180 seats to be able to run Punjab. All agree it cannot on its own. So the “help” needs to be more than substantial.

But logically, why would a party that does not possess inherent ability to win on its own, be helped at all? Also if every Tom, Dick and Harry is so intelligent to know what the “helpers” are actually planning and would deliver, how intelligent the “planners” are? Is it possible that the plan of the “planners” is exactly the opposite since the prized prize – Nawaz’ ouster – has already been secured? Why award the trophy to a player who was too limp to win on his own?

The argument of creating a hung Parliament is understandable. The elected governments have failed to deliver so a single party should not form the next government. But then that is true for all provincial governments that were run by three major political parties. Also why would those pushing the merit mantra allow someone to win who could make Pakistan a laughing stock internationally?

Is it possible that Pakistan returns a hung Parliament at Centre and the incumbents with reduced power keep the provinces? Is it possible that the plan is to return PML-N with negligible majority at the Centre and allow them to keep going in Punjab? After all they tried to govern Pakistan with two-thirds majority in 1997 and simple majority in 2013. Why not try them with a minority government? After all, it’s only the younger Sharif who is campaigning on the basis of what he had done in Punjab. The others have been blaming the Sharifs for not doing enough for the country and for unnecessarily indulging in the intra-institutional infighting.

The planners must not forget that there could be around 20 million new voters. These young voters did not vote last time. And they are tomorrow’s Pakistan. If they were fed up with wrong stories so that they could elect “right” people, their trust in the electoral process and democracy would be shaken beyond belief. Do we want that? Would the new voters vote for a party that has no record of national delivery? Would the swing voters vote because they have been fed stories through “independent” media that do not stick? More importantly, would the committed voter stay with the party or politicians who have changed loyalties in the last few weeks? Too much to wait for but amazingly interesting situation.

Politicians of Punjab might have been gutless power seekers who always run to the right side of power, but would we be helping Pakistan by letting these gutless characters switch side at the last minute so that they stay on the right side of power again? And when will we allow the people to decide who to pick and who to reject. So far the national debate on media has failed to factor in the people’s mind. The presumptions are based on analysis and punditry of those who have more desires than data.

Whatever is the result on July 25, the defenders of Pakistan – societal, financial, political and martial -- must work together to let the best player win. But for the best player to win, the best player must be allowed to play on an even playing field. The feeling is that the playing field is seriously tampered with. That would not be good for the country and its people. In the murky political game of bloated egos and misplaced choices, Pakistan must not lose.

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