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A swing to the right


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, May 17, 2013


On May 11, Pakistan spoke again, this time predominantly for centrist, right-of-the-center, and religio-political parties. The turnout was unprecedented - over 60 percent. 

Given a 5-10 percent margin of error (largely because of incomplete or contested results in some constituencies) centrist and right-wing parties appear to have bagged roughly 24.46 million votes. If counted together with most of the votes cast in favor of independents, in Punjab in particular, the percentage of such votes may jump to well over 70 percent. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, and Jamaat-e-Islami have won more than 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Does this imply Pakistan's slide to the right? 

The results raise two fundamental questions. Did the establishment interfere with the electoral process to get in the parties of its own choice? And does the universally acknowledged role of the vote as a panacea apply - at least partially - to Pakistan?

As expected, a virulent and parochial debate continues to dominate all forms of media about the role of the establishment in the unexpected success of the PML-N and the PTI. The establishment succeeded in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but failed in Sindh, according to the skeptics. This mindset belies the hue and cry that most Pakistanis raised over corruption and mismanagement of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its allies. This also undermines the positive side of the incumbency both in Punjab and rural Sindh - the Sharifs did create the myth of "good governance" in their stronghold, and the PPP succeeded in getting votes in Sindh through the controversial Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) that helped some 7.5 million households in various forms.

The results also prompted the ANP and the PPP to meekly suggest, if not brazenly allege, that both the Pakistani and the US establishments colluded to put in place governments that would be helpful in facilitating the $7 billion bulk withdrawal of US-ISAF troops from Afghanistan via Pakistan. They cite the example of the MMA government between 2002 and 2007, when the Taliban-Al-Qaeda militancy was low, with nominal threats to the NATO cargo. Militancy had begun picking until early 2007 as the MMA government neared its completion, and escalated to new levels within days of the Red Mosque crisis, culminating in a bloody resolution in July. This operation left indelible marks on memories and also provided the trigger for almost 40 suicide bombings between July and December 27, when Benazir Bhutto and dozens of others became victims of a deadly attack in Rawalpindi. 

Regardless of the accompanying skepticism, the results do merit a dispassionate dissection of Pakistan's disparate, fragmented, and at times alarmingly worrying socio-political landscape, particularly now that all major parties have largely accepted the results, because they do underscore some factors inherent in the democratic transition. 

Firstly, the Zardari-Chaudhry factor most probably weighed heavily on their parties. Most of the PPP's bigwigs lost - all three sons of ex-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, sons and scions of the Punjab governor (who displayed some integrity by resigning), outgoing prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, former information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, PPP Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president Anwar Saifullah, Saleem Saifullah, and almost the entire PPP Punjab leadership. Crushing blows indeed. In 2008, the PPP had won 17 seats in Northern and Central Punjab. 

Secondly, devout PPP voters, it seems, punished their party also for embracing the Q-League - which Benazir Bhutto and her associates had always denounced as the Killer League for all the conspiracies that it believed the "King's Party" hatched against the PPP in league with General Musharraf.

Did the establishment engineer the murder of what was its most favorite child under Musharraf? Or did voters abhorrently spurn symbols of opportunism and a decadent political culture? While the PML-N embraced newcomers like enterprising and energetic Danial Aziz as well as many turncoats, former PPP member Jamshed Dasti, and other independents, several symbols of political opportunism such as Manzoor Watoo, the Saifullahs, the Chaudhrys, and the Chatthas were treated with contempt by an increasingly conscious voter. Those who minted money and abused authority - at least in public perception - like all three sons of Gilani, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Hanif Abbasi, received fatal blows.

Thirdly, the PTI bagged a massive vote in Punjab but obviously failed in outnumbering the PML-N, which does enjoy great support at the grassroots level. The party undoubtedly emerged as the third major force, displacing the MQM, which had occupied this position since 1988. 

Much before the polling day, (as reported in the comment "Betting on the bat" in the May 3 issue of The Friday Times) circumstantial and some empirical evidence had almost foretold the swing in favor of the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

The majority of youth between 18 to 37 years old, it seems, queued up for hours to cast their vote, particularly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to swing the pendulum in favor of the PTI, reflecting a clear rejection of, and fatigue with, the status quo. 

The question confronting the skeptics is whether they concede that the common man is sick of the status quo and recognize much of the vote as a rejection of symbols of that status quo, or do they attribute numerical turnaround to socio-political engineering by the establishment? How should we explain resignations by Aitzaz Ahsan, the Punjab governor, Anwar Saifullah, and Yousaf Raza Gilani? Voluntary step-down or coercion by the establishment? 

Does the majority of Pakistanis - liberal intellectuals, political and social activists included - at least partially believe in the "voters' revenge" as the cardinal principle of democracy or will they keep cockcrowing in their rejection of the entire electoral exercise, administrative mismanagement and brazen highhandedness by the MQM in Karachi notwithstanding?

Another development to ponder is the lower Dir constituency PK-95. It represents a disturbing, spine-chilling, ground reality of parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All the parties in the constituency agreed to stop more than 47,000 women of the constituency from voting. Will the election commission take note of and punish all those who signed the single-page document, or will it accept this as a sad reflection of the mindset governing some of the regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? This phenomenon is not restricted to Dir only. Similar moves in many other regions inside FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were either not reported or under-reported, but the reality on the ground suggests that men, mostly fearful and unsure which way their women might vote, consciously keep them away from the polls on the pretext of security. The new parliament has several challenging tasks at hand, including this -how to create and expand space for women's participation in the democratic process.

Fifth, most of the voters in Punjab spoke out for the Sharifs, most of the Sindhis stuck to the Bhuttos and descendants of spiritual dynasties in the absence of an acceptable alternative, and those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa voted almost overwhelmingly for Imran Khan's PTI. This way the voters in the province proved that they are not beholden to any particular personality or party (In 1993 the PPP was in majority, in 1997 the PML-N, in 2002 MMA, and in 2008 the ANP). Sindh, on the contrary remains firmly in the clutches of the landed aristocracy, with the majority bound through kinship and patronage as well as to blind spiritual following. Balochistan once again ended up politically and ethnically polarized, making almost every party represented in the provincial assembly a claimant to power. The MQM, retained power in Karachi. 

The 2013 mandate indeed marks a huge step in Pakistan's democratic transition but has deepened the ethnic divisions further, with mainstream parties shrinking to their traditional strongholds. This election also underscores a big vote against the status quo which is certainly under threat by PTI's nationalist-reformist agenda. At the same time, the vote has swung to the right.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk