On the Road to Democracy

Written by S. G. Jilanee  •  Cover Stories  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

It would have been routine in any other part of the world. In Pakistan’s case, it is being hailed as a historic event.

Elections in a democratic dispensation are no big deal. Nor were the elections on 11 May, the first in Pakistan. But what made these elections “historic” -- almost surreal -- was that for the first time in the sixty-five years of the country’s existence, fair and free elections were held after the previous government had completed its full term.

The change has stunned observers. A vivid sign of it was the swirling crowds of voters flocking to the polling stations. They stood in line for hours under the hot sun and defied Taliban threats to exercise their democratic right.

The polls presented a rare glimpse of voters “having come of age” as they exploded the myth of feudal influence by rejecting many stalwarts. Those shown the door included ANP chief Asfandyar Wali, PPP’s Raja Pervez Ashraf, Yusuf Raza Gilani’s two sons, Mian Manzoor Wattoo, Ch Ahmad Mukhtar, Qamar Zaman Kaira, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and even the once formidable Punjab governor, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. Ten years ago such a feat would have been incredible.

In consequence of the debacle there has been a raft of resignations in the PPP, from its vice-chairman, Yusuf Raza Gilani, its Punjab president Wattoo and Chaudhry Aitezaz Ahsan to Ambassador Sherry Rehman.

Analysts are therefore scratching their pates to discover the agent of change. What persuaded the establishment and ISI to give up their favorite pastime and take a back seat? Was it the realization that their adventurism has disfigured Pakistan’s image beyond recognition before the world community and the country can take no more?

The picture that has emerged shows that there is no “national party” with a solid footing in all provinces. PML (N) is a Punjabi product. Its claim as a national political force is diluted by the measly number of seats it has secured in the provincial assemblies other than Punjab. The two seats in Karachi were won by Messrs Marwat and Aslam Baloch due to their personal popularity, not the PML (N) logo.

The same goes for the PPP. With only 31 seats at the federal level, it cannot even play the role of an effective opposition. On the other hand, it has improved upon its past record in the Sindh assembly with 69 seats.

Even Imran Khan’s successes in KP and Punjab are due to his being partly Pakhtun (Waziri) and a Punjabi (Niazi).

There have been complaints of “dhandli” (rigging) but these are routine and minor, compared to the past record of “jhurloo” when ballot papers were literally swept with a broom and packed in the ballot boxes. However, the Election Commission has ordered re-polling in 43 polling stations of NA-250 Karachi. The MQM has protested against this decision because it yields to Imran Khan’s demand. The MQM wants re-polling in the entire constituency.

Felicitations are pouring in from all corners, including Obama and Kerry from the US, David Cameron from the UK, while Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi from India have also spoken with Nawaz Sharif. Significantly, besides “welcoming this historic peaceful and transparent transfer of civilian power” and praising peoples’ “commitment to democratic rule,” President Obama also held out an offer of continued cooperation with Pakistan “as equal partners.” “My administration looks forward to continuing our cooperation with the Pakistani government that emerges from this election as equal partners in supporting a more stable, secure, and prosperous future for the people of Pakistan,” Obama said.

Mian Nawaz Sharif is poised for the hat trick as prime minister. His PML (N) is the largest party in the NA with 126 solid seats out of 272. Independents and some other splinter parties are flocking to PML (N) while Sharif sent a delegation to Pir Pagara inviting his Functional Muslim League to coalesce at the Centre.

Political pundits are parsing the election picture and the causes of PPP’s phenomenal rout. The consensus is that PPP suffered from a leadership crisis. Young Bilawal is neither ZAB nor BB. He stayed holed up for fear of his life during the election campaign. Rudderless and adrift in a choppy political sea, the party withdrew from the public scene. There were no rallies, no meet-the-people plan, no media blitz or even an election master.

Kibitzers are kibitzing Sharif about the do’s and don’ts of his next term. However, the vibes coming from him endorse the common feeling that he has changed after the buffets he invited due to his earlier impetuous actions. That he played ball with the PPP government for five years instead of trying clandestine means to topple it as in the past, speaks volumes in favor of his political maturity. He is no longer the arrogant Nawaz Sharif that would send ruffians to raid the Supreme Court and chase away the Chief Justice, pick quarrels with the president, or forbid the plane carrying the army chief from landing anywhere in Pakistan. Nor may he assume the title of ameerul momineen this time. With India, he intends to pick up the thread from where it had snapped after the visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee. In his conversation with Manmohan Singh he assured the latter that there will be no more Kargil or Mumbai. Sharif has also changed the tone and tenor of his rhetoric towards the United States from strident to conciliatory. At home, he postponed his election campaign for a day after his rival Imran Khan had an accident. And after the elections, he visited Khan in the hospital where both vowed to bury the hatchet.

However, there has been no similar display of camaraderie towards the PPP and MQM. The question being asked therefore is: will he start an action replay of the earlier army operation against MQM? Will he try to acquire the image of a “national” leader or remain content as Punjab’s spokesman, because, for national leadership, only engaging Pir Pagara, and ignoring PPP and MQM, won’t do?

Another question is how will he deal with Pervez Musharraf now that he has the upper hand? Will he launch an inquiry into Kargil or simply refer Musharraf to the Supreme Court to be tried for high treason?

Many critical challenges await Sharif, including a stalled economy, load shedding, corruption and terrorism. He has been known to favor dialogue with the insurgents. But the army chief insists that fighting them is “our war.” These conflicting viewpoints call for reconciliation.

In the provincial assemblies, PML (N) swept Punjab with 205 seats out of 287. So it will rule. In Sindh, PPP which won 69 out of 130 seats can form the government on its own. But it has invited the MQM as a coalition partner. In KP, PTI, with the maximum seats (34) will form the government with support assured by PML (N). In Balochistan, PkMAP with 11 seats has a chance. But independents and PML (N), each, has eight seats and JUI (F) has six. It will therefore depend on how these actors play their hands.

Elections have put Pakistan at the cusp of a momentous change. Policymakers will need to demonstrate their credentials to achieve their goals. The first 100 days will be closely watched for sampling the performance of “third time lucky” Nawaz Sharif. 

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