Elections 2013 – Thrills and Threats

Written by Javed Ansari  •  Cover Stories  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Elections-2013---Thrills-and-ThreatsThose who enter the parliament this time are expected to represent the people in a much more meaningful manner, having qualified to contest elections through very strict filters.

The election campaign in Pakistan has been flat and lackluster this time, with contenders getting just 21 days to flex their muscles. The real thrills, in fact, preceded the run-up to the elections as the nation had a whopping time when returning officers (ROs), in light of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, put prospective candidates through the kind of grilling or scrutiny they had never experienced before. In fact, the treatment of the ROs came as much of a surprise for even the most seasoned political stalwarts who had been presenting themselves before returning officers in their past political careers and it had been a cakewalk for them on most occasions.

This was for the first time in the nation’s history that the Election Commission of Pakistan asserted itself and emerged as a true constitutional institution, actually laying down the ground rules to ensure what it claimed would be ‘free and fair’ elections. In Pakistan, election candidates have never before been put through the sort of sieves and filters that they were subjected to for the 2013 elections. Articles 62 and 63 were brought into play ‘in letter and spirit’ and many candidates (old hands as well as greenhorns) found their election dreams dashed to the ground. Among other things, questions about candidates’ knowledge of the Quran, their conjugal life and personal hygiene really pepped up the otherwise dreary proceedings.

While articles 62 and 63 were very much contained in the 1973 Constitution, these laws were given sharper sting in 1985 through a presidential ordnance issued by President Ziaul Haq, wherein the qualifications for becoming a member of parliament and the causes for disqualification from membership were made more stringent.

The articles require that a prospective member of parliament must have a good character and good moral reputation, have moral turpitude, practice the obligatory duties prescribed by Islam, abstain from major sins, follow Islamic injunctions, believe in the Ideology of Pakistan and not bring into ridicule the judiciary or the armed forces.

The bad news for the gullible masses of Pakistan is that, come May 11, 2013, when elections for the national and provincial assemblies are scheduled to be held all over Pakistan, the results are not likely to throw up anything promising or different for the future of this hapless country. It will again be primarily the customary fight, with a new slot having been filled by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the others being the Pakistan People’s Party and PML (N). While Imran Khan shows off his message of ‘change’ and promises to eliminate corruption within 90 days if his party is brought to power, the most that PTI is expected to achieve is make a hole in PML(N)’s main catch in the Punjab and that of the ANP in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK). For the rest, the elections are expected to be a re-run of the same old story – the same actors, the same constituencies and, by and large, the same results. Like the guy who came out of the first show of a new film, when asked what the film was like, retorted, “Bas kahani kahani hai … story kuch naheen.” (Just a tale – no story)!

It will obviously be too much to expect that in the highly unlikely event that PTI sweeps the polls, it will stick to its promise of ‘change’ or will even be allowed to do so by the powers that be. Or that it will eliminate the ills within the Pakistani polity in a matter of a few days, as Imran Khan keeps claiming so vehemently. In fact, all contending parties, as is customary, have made lucrative promises in their election manifestoes but it is realistic to believe that manifestoes are merely documents containing hollow promises and pledges concocted to showcase the grand program of the party before the elections - all the goodies that the party has in store for the people. It is well-known that, once in power, these same parties consign their manifestoes to the dustbin and move on. In fact, most of the party leaders are themselves not quite aware of what is promised in their manifestoes and are, therefore, not really pushed about the people’s expectations.

It is interesting though that all through its 5-year term, the Pakistan People’s Party that ran the country at the head of the coalition at the centre, could do nothing to quell the nation’s woes in terms of meeting even its basic needs. Yet, in the run-up to the elections, the PPP is claiming no other achievements except the power projects that were launched by Benazir Bhutto during her two stints. That electricity was obtained then at a very expensive cost is another debate. However, the question is what was the PPP doing in the time between 2008 and 2013 when it held the reins and  the country drove itself into its worst  crises?

The PML (N) advertising campaign for the 2013 elections dwelt largely on the Nawaz Sharif government’s apparent accomplishments during his earlier two stints. This is of course with the exception of the red buses that represent the mass transit project launched by the Shahbaz Sharif government in urban Lahore, apparently at a huge cost. Their TV commercials also depict a bullet train – a pipedream of Nawaz Sharif during his days as prime minister in the nineties – a project that continues to be a dream, no more.

There has also been quite a ruckus about how various political parties have distributed their tickets. The ticket ‘have-nots’ in some political parties, such as the PPP, PML(N) and PTI, have made quite a noise about not getting the well-deserved tickets from their respective parties to contest elections since they have been such hardworking party workers. However, in utter disregard of their services and ‘sacrifices’, other favourites have been chosen by the parties to do the needful, perhaps based on their bona fides as ‘electables.’ The upshot is that the disgruntled candidates have moved to other parties or have decided to contest the elections as independents.

There was also quite a major leadership crisis in the PPP in the days leading up to the elections. It appeared the party couldn’t name one single person who could lead the PPP into the elections. In the preceding five years, not a single member of the PPP, other than Asif Zardari or Bilawal Bhutto, could qualify as PPP leaders and were all considered to be underlings. The problem with Mr. Zardari is that since he is the constitutional head of the country – the President - and has resigned his position as co-chairman of the party, he cannot participate in any political activity. On the other hand, Bilawal Bhutto was reported to have developed some kind a tiff within the family, evidently on the distribution of party tickets, and was not quite willing to work the hustings on behalf of the party. In these circumstances, this major party was rendered rudderless – and leaderless – and this is likely to play a make or break role in the PPP’s performance in the elections. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, now styled as the ‘patron-in-chief’ of the party, has said he was not leading the party’s election campaign but was, instead, assisting senior members.

The possibility of violence, particularly in view of the threats given by militant groups to certain political parties, has also played on the minds of both contestants and voters and is likely to impact the election outcome. One manifestation was a strike that was called by the MQM against a bomb attack on one of their election offices in Karachi that brought the city to a standstill on April 24. The Awami National Party (ANP) also found itself in a similar quandary.

The so-called ‘secular’ parties that were threatened were forced to restrict their electioneering, which many described as a non-level playing field since others in the arena did not face such threats and were freely holding large party meetings. How the threat factor would impact parties such as the MQM, ANP and the PPP, was a crucial aspect of electioneering in 2013. 

Javed Ansari is Editor of SouthAsia Magazine.

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