Pakistan’s future is at stake

Pakistani democracy, has always been a game of musical chairs, since the end of the civil war in 1971 three parties have dominated the system, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Armed Forces. For almost 40 years, ordinary Pakistanis have to pick between these options, and general disillusionment with both parties generally forces the public to at least accept a military coup, as it did in 1977 and 1999. Democracy’s current incarnation comes from 2008, when General Musharraf and the Army had exhausted their political capital, their popularity was dwindling as militancy had risen, both the PPP and the PML-N were back in. Pakistan’s economy, which has never experienced take off, despite its untapped potential, is incompetently mismanaged and looted by cronies from both parties, the army admittedly loots less, but the incessant coups prevent a new generation of politicians from replacing the dull and uninspiring Bhuttos and Sharifs.

Both the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N are grooming their children to succeed them, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is inheriting the party from his father, President Zardari, his mother, the late Benazir Bhutto and his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, executed after the military coup of ’77. The PML-N, controlled by the Sharif brothers, will have their next generation led by Hamza Shahbaz Sharif. Neither Bilawal or Hamza have any particular qualification, any real experience in politics, they inherit their parties from their parents in their last will and testament. They are princelings. Politics in Pakistan is always a birth right, not a meritocracy. These are the most fundamental flaws in Pakistan’s democracy. And as long as the party leadership is inherited, Pakistan will not experience any progress; because the mindset of the ruling elite will not change, they will pass it to their children and their grandchildren. That is why the neither Nawaz Sharif or Asif Zardari are the right men to rule the country.

Imran Khan is a man who embodies a change from this politics. A member of Pakistan’s wealthy who studied abroad, his detractors mostly call him inexperienced. The evidence contradicts that, a degree from Oxford in PPE, 17 years of experience in politics and he has governed Pakistan’s most ungovernable, militancy hit, Pashtun province since last year. Quite competently: militancy has dropped significantly, healthcare is improving, the anti-polio drive has gone well, and his party are building female schools at 70% to 30% for females and males respectively, literacy, especially female is likely to rise significantly, corruption in both the police and bureaucracy has dropped noticeably. He is no longer an amateur, no longer a cricketer-turned-politician, his politics have matured over the past 5 years in their own right. His party, is willing to admit that it did not outright win the elections of 2013. It is however, unwilling to acknowledge the results, as there appears to have been serious rigging on at least 70 seats. Imran Khan is right not to accept the result, the gap between the PTI and the PML-N is narrowing, the PML-N’s popularity is dipping at a fast pace, and these 70 seats, if rigged in the next election could put into power a party that has not been chosen by the people of the Islamic Republic.

For a year, the PTI has demanded full voter verification on just 4 constituencies, the government led by Mr. Sharif has flatly refused for a year. Khan is right to be disillusioned with the process if the government is unwilling to reform an electoral system from which it appears to have unfairly benefitted. In June he announced a long march to the capital, Mr Sharif’s government appears to have further tampered with the bureaucracy in the meantime, appointing loyalists in the election commission, judicial officers who are renowned for being friendly to the PML-N and loyalists in NADRA (which verifies the fingerprints on ballots), PM Sharif, in November imminently fired the chief of NADRA, Tariq Malik, after he stated that it is willing to investigate voter fraud, including the PML-N constituencies, Mr Malik’s dismissal from the government offers scant evidence, if any, that Mr Sharif adheres to the fundamental principle of democracy, free and fair elections.

The government’s democratic mandate has only taken a downturn since then, it announced to the Pakistani people that the growth rate was a none-too-impressive 4.1% but then the finance ministry admitted to the IMF that the growth rate was at an even more paltry 3.5%. Not only has he mismanaged the economy, but playing with the statistics have made people even more distrustful. In June, the police under Mr Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, killed 14 civilians at a protest led by anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. There has been no accountability. In a democracy, these killings would not happen, but no accountability again bolsters Khan’s position that the PML-N can’t be trusted to held those who rigged the elections, including some of their own parliamentarians to account for electoral fraud. The government has imposed article 245 and section 144, a mini martial law which prevents the gathering of more than 4 people to try and pre-empt any anti-government protests, once again a sign that the government’s commitment to the democratic process is questionable. The government has placed containers on the highways, restricting movements of protestors, have created a shortage of petrol to prevent convoys travelling and have effectively prevented normal life from carrying on in Pakistan’s largest province of the Punjab. These actions along with the arrest of around 1000 workers from the opposition are more than enough to demonstrate why many Pakistanis are losing faith in the government to improve their ordinary lives, and why the PML-N (despite its strong majority) has lost faith in public opinion.

The country’s armed forces, with their history of military coups is unlikely to launch one anytime soon. The army simply does not have the resources, they are engaged in putting down an insurgency in the tribal areas and low intensity troubles in Balochistan province. Intelligence agencies are pre-occupied with the consequences of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will lead to some instability, Karachi is already a mess of gang warfare in which the paramilitary is bogged down and given the rise of Hindu nationalist Modi in India, its unlikely that the army will be able to divert the bulk of its resources, on the India border and its remaining political capital to a coup d’etat. The media, which is vulnerable to the odd bullying from the army, will prove to be a headache, the number of news channels have multiplied so much in Pakistan that it will be almost impossible to create a media blackout, social media, which wasn’t present in the previous coups of 1977 and 1999 will also be hard to stop for the millions of tech-savy Pakistanis living in urban areas of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The army has a role to play behind the scenes, but the high command knows all too well that it cannot afford another coup d’etat.

On 12th August, 2 days before the protest, Mr Sharif has offered to provide an investigation under a judicial commission, he however will have executive authority and will be overseeing the process, the PML-N already has appointed its men in the election commission, it is a real possibility that the votes have been tampered with to such an extent that they will be unverifiable. Imran Khan has nonetheless stated that he is open to investigate the elections under the judiciary, however, he is unwilling to trust the PML-N to oversee the process. Given the past record of Nawaz Sharif and his continuing undemocratic actions, it has hard to believe that he has secured his Parliamentary win in a free and fair manner, had he done so, he should be brimming with overconfidence and almost taunting Khan and his men to bring supporters to Islamabad, after all, the PML-N does claim that it has the support of the Pakistani people. Surely then it shouldn’t fear the turnout of the long march?

The political calculus carried out by Nawaz Sharif seems to suggest that he is not banking on his election victory, and that should tell people about the state of Pakistan’s electoral system, the election commission conceded on the day of the elections that it failed to carry out Free and Fair elections in Karachi, a city of 20 million, three times the population of Scotland, that in itself should be enough to warrant a re-election under a reformed electoral system.

Given the authoritarian actions of his government, it is hard to disagree with Imran’s lack of faith in any due process which occurs with the oversight of the PML-N. The long march will start out small, as most do, but if the numbers swell then events could get out of hand. However, if the turnout is huge, then Mr Sharif will have little to no options left except for a resignation. Everything is open and the prize is still up for grabs. What has currently been established however, is that the policies and leadership of Nawaz Sharif and his predecessor Asif Zardari are not going to bring real prosperity to this country of 180 million, anytime soon.

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