A new mandate

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Election day is over: Homage first to the dead – victims and martyrs of our political and institutional errors – and then thanksgiving for that abiding commitment to home and country apparent in the collective spirit of Pakistan’s people. Provincial governments bicker in the Council of Common Interests; power-accreting centralists fiddle with demographics, delineations and more – yet people in the injured unequal units converge and concur in a quest for good governance and a democratic determination of the way to it.

And that only prospers when the will and voice of the people is electorally expressed and honoured by political parties, their leaderships, state institutions, and most especially by the people themselves. For in Pakistan the nature of opposition can be a more powerful determinant of national political development than the calibre of incumbent governments. That point was hammered home post 2013 at the expense of the country and its people.

Wisdom would have preferred the path of parliamentary opposition to the disruptiveness of street-politicking and emotive demagogic hype, but reps of that mode were contemptuously stigmatized as ‘friendly opposition’. Initially, the defeated in 2013 shunned rejectionist and obstructionist tactics, besides there was no significant popular demand for electoral review. Then the PTI worked at working itself up – and eventually crowds – into rubbishing the electoral mandate’s authenticity. With wonderful serendipity for the accusatory PTI, an international conglomerate of investigative journalists’ findings in the Panama Papers fuelled the highly combustible ‘just’ cause of dislodging disastrously corrupt robber politicians as personified in PM Nawaz Sharif. Regrettably, the oppositional tactics adopted by a thwarted PTI leadership, and the harassed government responses as well as its inertia, reduced the principles of freedoms of assembly and speech to democratic shreds.

That also is why elections 2018 could not be postponed: The country needed to re-establish the actualities of an electoral mandate as the current one had been tarred, blemished and relentlessly battered by Imran Khan and a contingent of electoral outsiders such as Dr Tahirul Qadri.  To say nothing of ardent fundamentalists – elected and non-elected — firing volleys of allegations of religiously deviational intent at parliamentary legislation. The PML(N) government had survived the disqualification of the PM, but it was clearly fighting a battle it would not be allowed to win. The 2013 – 18 period was one of extended electioneering rather than working government, good or bad.

The founder and chairman of the PTI has not obtained quite the kind of heavy mandate that the now criminalized Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) did in 1996. But the cricketer’s non-sporting party has a numerically convincing majority in what will be the new national assembly; and has established itself as federal in that it has an electorally manifested presence in all the provinces. Which can be reinforced by the cooperation of unaligned independents and stands to further gain in parliament, for laggard, shy forward blocs lose their inhibitions after they identify a winner.  Not without reason, the PTI chairman’s  televised press conference the day following the elections (before the ECP had officially endorsed the result) was like an address to the nation from a prime minister already elected, albeit by a parliament whose reps are yet to take the oath of office. It was a widely welcomed appearance.

In a laudable and superbly effected U-turn, Mr Khan made a statesman-like coherent statement, touching on all the necessary issues in the right manner. The confrontational abusive campaigner till just the other day spoke substantially, calmly and courteously, assuring his defeated opponents of every sort of cooperation and soliciting theirs in the common goal of healing and uplifting a wounded country and its polarized voters.

Fortunately for him – and us – both the PPP and the PML(N) are seasoned political parties. Each has an established ethos as well as its own record of sustained survival and adjustment within the challenges of varied parliamentary, presidential and shoora paradigms. They are parties with political tradition – and distinct brands – but neither is hidebound or static or in a rush to get there: They arrived long ago. But the PTI hopes to leave them behind. Electoral results and the immediate post-electoral mood have shown that is not so easy when a party can rely on grassroots rather than ‘electables’ and fans. The PPP and and the PMLN are not disintegrating and they do not have to resort to civic trauma and tipping out leadership to make oppositional points. They know an incumbent government’s performance speaks for itself and parliament can provide the requisite checks and balances. Now that he dominates parliament Imran Khan might find that that precisely is the problem. And there is another one:

Will the other arms of the state prove all-weather friends or will they curtail the PM’s political space if he begins to use it in a way they deem unwise?