Elections in Pakistan: What do the results mean for democracy and for Pakistan?

This won’t be a long post. There is too much being written by too many people on the elections in Pakistan– and frankly there is not much fresh stuff to be shared with people who are frequent followers of the newspaper op-ed sections, political pundits on NPR and cable talk shows, and Pakistani newspapers. Their analyses, which sometimes turn into repetitious rants esp if they write weekly columns, have focused on a few matters which I list below.

This is not an exhaustive list, and while it may appear that I am unhappy with the analysis that I have read so far, that is not the case. I just feel there is not much new stuff coming out when there should be…come one, our country is re-entering democracy after a long break and we really can do better than look back and pontificate on the past. Where is the guidance on the future, and how to make democracy work this time?…Anyways…here’s what is being discussed:

  1. This is the beginning of the end for Musharraf. His party has badly lost in these elections.
  2. Pakistani people braved fears of violence and still came out to vote for their candidates
  3. Despite accusations of rigging, somehow Musharraf managed to allow his opposition parties to score large victories
  4. Seeming victory of PPP, PML (N) and ANP signify that people want change from the status quo
  5. Public has rejected the religious parties, esp in the northern provinces
  6. PPP and PML (N) will form a coalition government of sort
  7. What will happen to Karachi where majority of seats were again won by MQM which has been a strong supporter of Musharraf
  8. Will the fired Chief Justice get re-instated?

I have surprised myself by not writing or speaking much about these elections. It was actually emails from friends who have asked for my thoughts on the elections that has triggered this note. For the past few months, in all honesty, I have been pre-occupied with work and worries about my family’s safety in Pakistan. You know your country is in deep trouble when find yourself on the phone with your brother, telling him to not grow his shave too much lest he be taken for religious worker in the election mayhem. Or telling your father that he should carry the cell phone in case he has to abandon the car and take refuge somewhere. At least he will be able to call home and give his whereabouts to the family.

Yes, there was intense fear surrounding these elections – esp in the aftermath of the murder of Benazir Bhutto and the series of suicide bombs that rocked most major cities in the country. Fortunately for Pakistan, those fears did not ring true and the elections event has passed without much serious trouble. Now that I am less worried about the security issues in Pakistan, here are some quick thoughts on what I feel is going on…

I think the political pundits should shut up for a week or so and spend the time reading through the party manifestos of those who have won. The media needs to now focus on the promises that parties and individual winners have made to their constituencies so a process of ‘real’ and meaningful accountability of the elected representatives starts from their first day at the new job. We have heard enough about the need for democracy. Thank you very much for promoting it. Now lets get down to the dirty business of making democracy work.

Musharraf has played a remarkable card by letting PPP and PML (N) gain majority in the national and most provincial assemblies. Yes there was rigging – even my father showed up in Karachi to vote and learnt that somebody had already voted in his name – but when you have elections among a largely illiterate population with gun-toting militants representing all major poltical parties, this is bound to happen. Musharraf can not be blamed any more for promoting his supporters, but lets not forget the coup that he has staged in this: In the last elections he let the religious parties win a large number of seats even when the country thought he was strongly opposed to them. They came into power, made a mess of it, showed themselves to be the power-hungry, corrupt idiots that they really were, and now they have few sympathizers left. This time around he has played the same card, I believe, on Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz’s PML. Taking a lesson from history, he expects them to come into power, spend their energies brokering power and corruption, and before long people will want a ‘revolution’ to end the rule of the feudal lords.

The biggest crisis that Pakistan has to face is the war within, which has little to do with the political parties or the military, for that matter. It is the fight that the citizens of Pakistan have to win for themselves, against extremists and jihadists. If those extreme forces start their attacks again, assuming Pakistani establishment to be a proxy for the Americans (and infidels as they like to call ’em) who they really want to fight, then the political battles over Chief Justices and political positions will become meaningless. Can the political parties, all of them, come together on at least that single issue? Can ANP lead the charge on this matter even though they have a small number of seats? We need real leadership here – and Musharraf is unable to provide it. Can Zardari?

Regarding the Chief Justice: Well, some are calling his reinstatement a litmus test for the new government’s independence. I personally think it is a pointless issue. If independence or credibility of an institution was to be measured by the role of one person, then I guess his reinstatement would be critical – but that is not the case in Pakistan. He is a celebrity, but not because people know much about him, his past, or his achievements, but because he represents an entire nation that feels helpless when faced with institutional opposition in their everyday lives. The humiliation that the Chief Justice is facing, when kicked out of his position, is what every Pakistani faces when they go to a court to get justice, what they feel when they go to the police stations, to the railway stations, and to the city and district governments. Pakistanis face humiliation even when they talk to the electricity/utility companies, even though they pay the bills and are ‘customers’. So Pakistanis know and feel what it means to be humiliated, and to feel helpless, and to feel less than a human in front of those who have power and control. They are sympathizing with that. So what is more important than Iftikhar Chowdhry’s reinstatement to his position is the restoration of his dignity. More interesting would be if he and Aitazaz Ahsan, a salient figure in this entire lawyers movement, came together to lead a national reconciliation effort especially targeting efforts to bring justice to the powerless, and to promote democracy in all our institutional frameworks, including the political parties.

Anyways….elections have been held, PPP and PML (N) have won a majority of seats, ANP is leading in NWFP and MQM is leading in urban Sindh…we have seen this before in the 90’s. The big question for all of us who had expected much from the democracy of the 90s, to be greatly disappointed later, is if anything has changed among our leadership which still predominantly belongs to the feudal class? Has the time in exile taught them anything about their responsibility and duty to the country and its people? Are the willing and able to fight for Pakistan’s survival. Are the ready to face the economic and security related challenges which stand right, left and center of everything aspect of our existence as a nation? Will our democracy offer something better in the 21st century than it did in the past? I sure hope so. And I watch in anticipation.

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