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July 10, 2018

Sovereignty and the right to vote


July 10, 2018

Who is the sovereign? This is the principal question or contradiction that is behind all the power struggles, changes in government, institutional overlapping and political battles in Pakistan. Adult franchise and the right to self-determination were exclusively instrumental in winning freedom from colonialism and, consequently, for the creation of a sovereign Pakistan. But, after seven decades, the question of who is to be the sovereign is relevant as ever.

The next logical question is: who is to decide about the sovereign? In all democracies it is the people who – by exercising their right to vote – decide about their rulers. This is what the 1973 constitution’s mandate is: sovereignty belongs to Allah and it shall be exercised by the elected representatives of the people. Adult franchise exercised by the sovereign and represented by the people of the Muslim-majority areas of the Subcontinent brought Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League to power as it did the Red Shirts in the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Unfortunately, through the viceroy’s powers of governor general under the 1935 colonial law, the Red Shirts’ government in the former NWFP and Maulvi Fazal-e-Haq’s government in the then East Pakistan were dissolved.

As the colonial legacy was consolidated by virtue of over-developed civil-military structures, the people’s right to vote was subverted to keep the successor of colonial rule – the neo-colonial establishment – as the sovereign. The autocratic structures were further strengthened when authoritarian rulers entered into a client-patron relationship and joined US-led military blocks. Our neo-colonial autocracy preferred to mortgage Pakistan’s sovereignty to world imperialism rather than surrender it to the peoples of Pakistan.

Even when the 1956 constitution was passed and the first general elections were about to be held, martial law pre-empted adult franchise for another decade. On the basis of the system of basic democracies, an electoral college was introduced under a system of parity between the two wings of the country. The authoritarian system created by Field Marshal Ayub Khan was challenged by Madar-e-Millat Fatima Jinnah in the 1964 indirect elections. After the anti-One Unit movement, Fatima Jinnah’s election campaign turned into a mass movement for adult franchise, parliamentary and federal system. As a result of blatant rigging by the military dictator, Ms Jinnah was defeated. Although she wanted to declare herself president, the opposition stalwarts chickened out. With the fiasco of Operation Gibraltar and the 1965 war, and as a result of social and regional stratification, the people became fed up with a decade of military rule.

A most defining moment came in 1968, when the people came out on the streets for their fundamental civil and human rights and to get rid of Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. This progressive, democratic and popular movement not only overthrew Ayub Khan, but also raised awareness among people on social, political and ideological issues. The people’s demands for civil and human rights, adult franchise and parliamentary and federal system were eventually accepted. For the first time, free and fair elections were held in 1970, but the people’s mandate was not accepted by General Yahya Khan. Consequently, there was a bloody civil war and Pakistan was dismembered. The new Pakistan created by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in West Pakistan was also based on a popular mandate, and the new social contract of the 1973 constitution was based on a broad national consensus.

The conflict between democratic forces and authoritarianism continued. Thanks to the internecine conflict among politicians, constitutional rule was subverted and General Ziaul Haq imposed another prolonged military rule that was legitimised by the Honourable Supreme Court under the Doctrine of Necessity, which had been invoked by Chief Justice Munir long ago in a similar case. Bhutto was executed in what is now universally seen as a ‘judicial murder’. The struggle for the restoration of democracy continued under the banner of the MRD, in the midst of unprecedented repression and sacrifices.

Like Ayub Khan, General Zia introduced non-party elections and created a new generation of lackey-politicians. In the post-Zia period, the elections of 1988, 1990, 2002 and 2008 were rigged; this was later admitted by those state officials who had rigged them. According to some observers, the elections of 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2013 were also manipulated in one way or the other. We saw politicians competing in their efforts to benefit from the spoils of ‘engineered positive results’. The supremacy of the 1973 constitution, which upholds the representatives elected by the people as sovereign, was not subverted once but three times. And those who subverted the constitution could not be made accountable even by a very proactive judiciary.

Members of the civil society, media and major political parties, including the PML-N and PPP, have expressed reservations about the neutrality and impartiality of the coming elections, given the numerous inter-party defections, a one-sided accountability process and the timing of the conviction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter. This will adversely affect the legitimacy of the electoral process as well as the outcome of the elections. Not only will the losing parties cry out against alleged foul play, the victors too will be left with no credibility. This could result in a bigger political crisis.

While the PTI is celebrating the conviction of Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and seeing it to its advantage, the PML-N is finding it hard to fight back. The PPP is joining in by raising an accusing finger against what it describes as a king’s party in Sindh, the Grand Democratic Alliance. The whole electoral scenario now revolves around the conviction of the former prime minister and his response.

It has yet to be seen how far Nawaz Sharif will be able to attract people and mobilise his constituencies. Strangely enough, outlawed parties and extremist religious groups have found their way into electoral politics and are not being stopped by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

The most disturbing aspect in all this is that the elections have increasingly become a game of billionaires, landlords and so-called electable patriarchs, leaving no space for the middle and lower social classes to have their say. However, the electorates’ reaction against non-performing incumbents is encouraging, if it is not provoked into violence. The election contest is becoming more abusive as the manifestos take a back seat, even though Bilawal Bhutto is raising his pro-people manifesto in his rallies. As Imran Khan’s popular narrative of ‘change’ loses its moral edge after the induction of all kinds of turncoat gentry into his party, Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of the supremacy of the people’s vote and sovereignty of the representatives elected by them may find some impetus depending on how he meets the challenge facing him.

The only way to determine who is sovereign is through free and fair adult franchise. Questions are bound to be raised if the media continues to face censorship and other difficulties with no one to raise the banner for freedom of expression.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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