Beena Sarwar


The recent elections in Pakistan show that the country is finally on the right track notwithstanding the rigging, the violence and the brutal prevention of women from voting in some areas by representatives of all the political parties. The huge turnout of women and first time young voters risking their lives to exercise their right to choose is something to celebrate and strengthen, says the writer.


If there is one thing Pakistanis do whenever they are allowed to go to the polls and exercise their political will through general elections, it is to roundly reject religious extremism. The pattern was repeated this time too.


Only once did parties campaigning on a religious agenda receive more than 7% of the votes polled, that was about 11% in the 2002 elections. It was when these parties united in the post-9 /11 scenario marked by heightened sympathy for the Taliban and their ideology, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, and when the top leaders of the mainstream political parties were in exile. In the elections that followed in 2008, the religious parties bagged barely 3% of the votes. The latest elections once again reflect this pattern, with the religious parties garnering a total of about 5% of the votes.


There is, however, concern about the historic connection between the winning party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) and the religious extremists. Nawaz Sharif came into politics through the military dictatorship that ran the country in the 1980s. But he has come a long way in the three decades since then — from being a protégé of the military dictator general Zia ul Haq, to locking horns with the military during his second term in power, until general Pervez Musharraf ousted him in a military coup and sent him packing for a decade of exile in Saudi Arabia.


The late Benazir Bhutto facilitated Sharif’s return to Pakistan in 2007, with the much-reviled National Reconciliation Ordinance negotiated with Musharraf that also enabled her own return to Pakistan. United against their common foe Musharraf, the two erstwhile political rivals had earlier signed a charter of democracy, agreeing to prevent the military from interfering in the country’s politics.


When Musharraf announced general elections even as the state of emergency continued, the response of many political parties was to boycott the polls. “Boycott, and then what?” asked Benazir, coaxing Sharif back into the political arena. Had he not agreed he would have been out in the political wilderness and Pakistan’s transition to democracy with the 2008 elections soon after Benazir’s assassination, would have been far less credible.


Imran Khan disdainfully stayed away from these polls. Had “Kaptaan”, as Khan’s supporters call him, contested those elections, he would have been in a much better position this time around. He would have obtained valuable political lessons along the way in the past five years.


As it is, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) did not do too badly, pulling in third behind the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). PTI supporters are intensely disappointed having thought, unrealistically, that they would get a clean sweep.


Like Sharif’s PML-N, Khan’s PTI is perceived to have a soft spot for the Taliban. Khan, it is assumed, sees them as an anti-American force and is reluctant to unconditionally condemn them.


The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) actually promised not to attack PTI and PML-N, saying they would only target the “secular” parties namely the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP). None of these parties actually espouse secularism as an ideology.


Campaign Advantage


The TTP’s virtual carte blanche to the PML-N and the PTI gave both parties the freedom to campaign publicly with gusto (PML-N leaders actually drove around with the party’s electoral symbol in the form of live tigers, one of which collapsed and was rumoured to have died in the Punjab heat). Meanwhile the militants targeted the political rallies of the PPP, the ANP and the MQM in a series of pre-election attacks around the country that killed nearly 150 people, including not just political activists but also several children. On 11 May, the day of the polling, violence, including bomb blasts, killed 29 people at polling stations across the country.


The pre-election violence essentially pushed the PPP and the ANP out of sight, barring them from mounting effective public electoral campaigns. Admittedly, neither was expected to do very well. Given the weak governance and performance whilst in power (the ANP was constantly under terrorist attacks that killed 700 of its workers and senior leaders) the incumbency factor was already set to work against them. Pakistanis are fed up of electricity and gas shortages, rising prices, and lack of personal security due to a disastrous law and order situation that has granted virtual impunity to criminals.


The shades of grey – some may call it confusion or dichotomy – that have developed in Pakistan’s political landscape over the past years are evident in how well the right-wing, pro-Islamist PML-N and PTI did at the polls. This was so even as the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the Taliban and its violence-ridden ideology by coming out in large numbers to vote. A nearly 60% voter turnout is considered good by any standards, and particularly good in a situation where just going out to vote is a risk to life.


This spectacular voter turnout was evident only in Pakistan’s three largest provinces. The turnout in the fourth, the largest in land area but smallest in terms of population, Balochistan, was a poor 10%. Balochistan has been riven by a separatist insurgency for some years now. The conflict has intensified due to the security agencies’ heavy-handed tactics. Their “kill and dump” policy features youth who disappear only to surface as disfigured corpses.


All the Kaptaan’s Men


Even so, these landmark elections that drew the world’s attention were a good show. And the credit for enlivening the political scene and enthusing the people to vote must go to the new political entrant Imran Khan and his PTI. The party made inroads as the third force in the traditionally two-party dominated system. The PTI-enthused youth (disparagingly called “youthiyas” by political rivals) made their presence felt initially on the social media. Their enthusiasm and passion forced the slumbering giants to wake up and get their own “youthiyas” involved.


With a population of over 180 million and one of the world’s highest population growth rates (around 34% more than double India’s 15.9 % and Bangladesh’s 14.1%), Pakistan’s “youth bulge” was expected to significantly affect these elections. Most of the 35 million registered new voters, out of the total of 86.1 million, are between 18 to 25 years old. And many of them are avid PTI supporters.


Enthusiastic voters, many voting for the first time, turned out in droves at polling stations in the three largest provinces, often queuing up for eight hours in the sweltering May heat to cast their vote.


In Chak Shahzad, a small village on the outskirts of Islamabad, over 1,000 of the total 1,500 registered voters in the village cast their ballots within the first six hours of polling.


“I have never seen this many people at polling stations before. The number of youth coming out to vote for the first time is unprecedented,” said the presiding officer at the polling station, terming the turnout he witnessed as the largest in the district’s history.


But Chak Shazad’s most famous resident did not get to cast his vote. Days before the elections, the Supreme Court sent Musharraf off to judicial remand, put him under house arrest in his spacious “farm house”, and barred him from contesting elections for life. It does not pay to mess with judges! One of the three criminal charges the former army strongman faces is the “judges’ detention case”, in which he detained over 60 judges including the chief justice, after imposing a state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007. The other two cases relate to involvement in the conspiracy to murder Benazir Bhutto in 2007, and the 2006 killing of Akbar Bugti, the Baloch nationalist leader.


Enduring Transition


Each of these cases has affected Pakistani politics in the long term and certainly not for the better. In fact, the army’s direct interference in politics for more than half of Pakistan’s existence, and indirect interference for most of these 65 years has been the major factor in determining the country’s course. These elections signify the first step away from that self-destructive path. This was the first time that a democratic transfer of power took place in Pakistan, with one elected civilian government handing over power to the next elected civilian government. The democratic political process, which has never been allowed to endure in Pakistan so far, must continue.


Mohammad Taqi’s column in the Daily Times said that at this juncture


“no account of the elections and the post-election scenario would be complete without remembering the leaders from Benazir Bhutto to Bashir Bilour and, equally importantly, hundreds of political workers who sacrificed their lives to make this transition possible.”


Until now military dictators or military men behind the scenes have taken decisions related not just to security but to matters that were in the jurisdiction of elected civilian governments. This included foreign policy involving Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours, economy and defence. It is a direct result of these short-sighted policies that Pakistan today finds itself under attack by militants who claim to be jihadis (holy warriors) but are in fact fasadis (those who spread discord). The aim of these fasadis, led by the TTP and its allied groups is to force the state to run along the lines of their ideology, which is essentially that of the Taliban who ruled Afghanistan.


For these fasadis and militants in Pakistan democracy is anathema. So is peace with India and so are women in the public sphere. Pakistani voters, by coming out in millions, armed only with the power of their vote, thumbed (literally, using the inked thumb that signifies voter verification at polling stations) their noses at them and voiced a resounding “No” to their misogynist, violent ideology.


Women Power


A record number of women came out to vote this time — 37.5 million, including in areas where they had never voted before.  In many areas, they did so in defiance of family traditions, political party orders, and the very real danger offasadi violence. The turnout, say observers, was visibly different from the 2008 elections, when 564 women’s polling stations recorded zero votes, more than half of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly North West Frontier Province, NWFP).


And yet, millions of women were also prevented from voting due to precisely these reasons — family traditions, political party orders, and violence. Militants in Peshawar detonated a bomb planted on a motorcycle outside a women’s polling centre, injuring 12 people, including children.


In the lower Dir area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, representatives of political parties –PPP, PML-N, PTI and ANP, as well as the “religious” parties the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazal (JUI-F) – actually signed a secret deal agreeing that they would all not allow “their” women to vote. For once there was documentary evidence of such a deal, flashed by the popular 24/7 news channel Geo TV, but there were reports of similar agreements from other areas too, which were communicated to the Election Commission, according to caretaker Information Minister KP Musarrat Qadeem, herself a women’s activist.


There were other ways of preventing women from voting. In North Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold, mosque loudspeakers announced that women would not be allowed to leave home to go to a polling station, and men in cars distributed pamphlets warning that those who allowed women to vote or who influenced women to cast a vote “will be punished”.


This traditional, conservative resistance to women in the public sphere persists despite the fact that Pakistan has had a woman prime minister (twice), a woman foreign minister, a woman speaker of the national assembly and several other women in public office, including ambassadors to other countries.


There were also cases in other areas of women voters being physically attacked, threatened, or bullied out of casting their vote, often by other women. Mahbina Waheed, an activist in Lahore supporting the PTI campaign, says she saw women who got their thumbs inked, but were pushed out of the polling station without being allowed to cast their vote. She said:


“The agents cast the ballots for those women. I met so many speaking of this in the poor localities of NA-124 and 125. A recount will never show this. PML-N won by sheer badmashi (thuggery). I experienced it first-hand and the police was with them. At one of the polling stations I went to the police had locked the doors from inside and women voters were being turned away until we showed up. We banged on the doors till the policeman opened it a little and then helped shove everyone in. It was funny but sad. God knows how many women had already gone home without voting.”


Such stories were heard from Karachi too, where the dominant party, the MQM traditionally wins and against whom there were serious allegations of rigging in the last election too.


Women’s polling stations are traditionally where the most such “rigging” takes place. This time around it was different only so far as the level of awareness amongst the citizens and the access to tools like camera-equipped cell phones that were used in many cases to document evidence, was concerned.


Someone inside a women’s polling station in Karachi used a cell phone camera to film a group of women literally stuffing ballot boxes while keeping voters out. One of the women, pushing a bunch of ballot papers into the ballot box, looks straight at the camera, puts a finger to her lips and gestures for secrecy. The video went viral.


Such reports notwithstanding, international and local election monitors found that on the whole the elections were free and fair, despite sporadic reports of rigging and a fair amount of mismanagement. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has suggested various steps that can be taken beforehand next time around to ensure that the process is better streamlined and transparent.


The Election Commission of Pakistan, headed by the widely respected and independent minded retired Supreme Court justice Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, extended voting in several constituencies around the country following complaints about voters not being able to cast their ballots. The ECP has also ordered re-election in six constituencies.


At the time of writing this article, the PTI supporters are actively engaged in street protests demanding re-elections in more constituencies, while the leadership is contemplating legal action. Certainly, rigging complaints must be investigated and addressed. At the same time, the show must go on. These elections, for all the negatives have also brought many positive results.


“Imran Khan, whether or not he is a closet jihadist, has played a vital role in strengthening the democratic process inasmuch as he has successfully brought apolitical people and young men and women of higher middle classes out of their homes and to the polling stations. This is no mean achievement,” comments Saleem Asmi, a former student activist and senior journalist who retired as editor of the prestigious daily, Dawn.


His view that “a couple of elections should stabilise democracy forever” may be a bit optimistic given that it has taken 65 years to create the mess Pakistan is in. But let the democratic political process continue. There are pitfalls galore along the way, but Pakistan is finally on the right track. That is something to celebrate and support.

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