Polls, politicians and the people

August 13, 2023

Elections are going to be held sooner or later but will people be as willing to participate in the process as are politicians?

Polls, politicians and the people


ollowing Pakistani politics the last couple of weeks was like spinning dizzy on a merry-go-round and then hopping off with wonky steps desperately trying to regain balance and make sense of where the country was heading. Particularly so, after swirling mad for ninety days since the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf supporters’ failed power show on May 9 handed over the game to those who have categorically said they wanted to watch and not wrestle. The protagonists remain adamant to hop from hope to hopelessness and back. Someone who opted to remain anonymous a long time ago said democracy was a slow process of stumbling to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one. Will Pakistan do it this time?

Last Saturday, PTI chairman, Imran Khan, was convicted, arrested and jailed for three years. Unlike May 9, when rowdy supporters of Khan had gone on a rampage against military property and monuments, nothing troubling happened on August 5 – as if the cricketing hero-turned-politician and a former prime minister, was a common thief caught stealing bread and butter and, rightfully, put behind bars. The Election Commission of Pakistan promptly disqualified him for five years from contesting an election. Khan and his lawyers may remain engaged in a tricky legal battle for months now. Presumed judicial support from the highest bench in the country is depleting too. He has already appealed the conviction and would like to contest along with newly fielded candidates to benefit from his enhanced popularity. Whether he would get what he wants remains a different matter.

With his party leader incarcerated, President Arif Alvi quietly dissolved the National Assembly on August 9 on the advice of the outgoing prime minister. The countdown to the next general election has begun. Constitutionally, the event should happen within 90 days but several indications suggest that the elections may be delayed if the ECP decides to redraw national and provincial constituencies based on the latest headcount. The population has swelled from 219.73 million in 2018 to 241.49 million in August 2023. Denying the millions of newly eligible voters a chance to cast their maiden vote would be a sin.

Pakistan is now a frail polity – a battered body with a badly bruised soul. Given the perennial power dynamics, the country is effectively divided into four to five distinct political parts with no political party fully capable of winning two provinces with equal strength. Selection of certain politicians by the establishment and their subsequent rejection has injected a potent toxicity. Politicians from smaller provinces have had a long-standing gripe against the establishment’s machinations but the challenge posed by Punjabi politicians like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan has created a unique situation for the powerful establishment.

The five-year term of the now dissolved National Assembly was divided between the PTI (44 months) and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in league with the Pakistan Peoples Party (16 months). While leaders of both administrations can claim laurels for themselves, recent statements by leading lights of the outgoing parliament like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Syed Khursheed Shah are real eyeopeners. Abbasi termed the dissolved house as the “worst parliament” in the country’s history. PTI dissidents flayed Imran Khan for lording over a “hostile environment” and government lawmakers critiqued hasty legislation. Abbasi, himself a former prime minister, admitted that “whatever legislation was done during the last five years was not meant for the people, but for the government.”

If the parliament’s performance was below par, the state institutions supposed to underpin the democratic façade also seemed to have lost people’s trust. For decades, the performance of the Judiciary has been abysmal when it comes to protecting fundamental rights, democratic infrastructure, constitutional sanctity and state’s strength. The conduct of some of the senior most judges in recent times has been subject to poplar censure. They have been openly accused of undermining politics at the behest of the establishment. The PTI is not only critical of some of the judges who have been hearing cases against Imran Khan; the party cadres have also been harsh critics of the current head of the ECP and the army.

If social media is any bench mark, public trust in the electoral process has dwindled over the years. According to the ECP there are 126 million registered voters in the country with highest numbers in the 26-35 years age bracket (30.26 million). Another 20.35 million are between 18 and 25 years of age. Considering that a large number of young and new voters followed Imran Khan and the PTI in the 2018 elections, they may stay away from the electoral process if Khan is not allowed to run. Though there is hardly verifiable evidence that Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from politics impacted the last elections, the voter turnout fell from 55 percent in 2013 to 51.7 in 2018. There remains a strong possibility that many young voters may express their anger and disenchantment with the electoral activity by refusing to participate.

Latest figures show that the Punjab has around 71.62 million registered voters. The numbers of registered voters for Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan is 26.52 million, 21.62 million and 5.27 million, respectively. With an unsatisfactory law and order situation in Balochistan and a resentful atmosphere in Sindh’s urban areas, particularly Karachi and Hyderabad, with the MQM unhappy about the digital census and delimitations, questions remain about people’s keenness to participate in the electoral activity.

Political rhetoric of success and failure aside, the people have been seriously hurt by the rising inflation, the crippling unemployment, the mounting prices and increasing poverty. They increasingly see the political class as the sole beneficiary of electoral activity. Many politicians proclaim in private conversations that Pakistan has effectively become a permanent stratocracy. There is a growing perception that people are used to bring governments in but those governments are ousted by other powerful elements.

Pakistan, we are routinely told by the rulers, is passing through a delicate phase. It has come to this pass due to the selfishness of the powerful. There is a lesson in what pre-Common Era Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero said: “Of the three forms of government, monarchy, aristocracy and the people, the best is a mixture of all three for each one taken on its own can lead to disaster. Kings can be capricious; aristocrats, self-interested; and unbridled multitude enjoying unwanted power more terrifying than a conflagration or a raging sea.”

The writer is the resident editor of The News, Islamabad

Polls, politicians and the people