Elections and elections


by  RifaBy By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

 ON the brink of the 2018 elections, first time voters are probably so caught up in making their own electoral history that they are more liable to be dismissive than mindful of the past. But for older more seasoned voters, sobering recollection of other elections is inevitable.

Elections-1969 foundered on the curious logic of the majority being labelled ‘secessionist’. Bhutto, though also politically guilty, heroically salvaged morale in what was no longer West Pakistan but merely Pakistan. The rebound to ten years of Ayub’s dictatorship was not just a push for democratic rights and the emergence of fresh civil political alternatives. Ambitious politicians had recklessly exacerbated nationalisms and exploited political alienation in pursuit of personal and party empowerment.

Elections-1977 turned out to be an elections set aside by an army chief naively trusted by the people to allow fair electoral conduct and a cultural renaissance. The overthrown PM, who had been stymied by popular demos against his absolutism and management of the electoral process, disconcertingly regained political acceptability.  Pre-empting any disconcerting electoral verdict in new elections, General Zia saw to it that Bhutto was hanged, legally deemed guilty of abetting murder: Politics and the judiciary had linked.

The PNA’s protest-oriented interaction with faith was misused. Democracy was stigmatised as a western fixation, secular became a term of abuse, and the people’s urge for cultural renewal was channelised into religious bigotry and oppressive obscurantist ordinances. Islamisation was the dictator’s heaven-sent mission. The way was opened to wielding charges of being anti-Muslim or aberrant, and the consequences were dire.

The grievous divide that had begun with the neglect of all that was Bengali assumed provincial dimensions. Sindh, the Bhutto home province, was victimised for its persistent political resistance to the dictator. The ousted PM of the federal republic whose egotistical appetite for centralising power surpassed any dictator’s, had already alienated deeply-rooted parties and muddied political power play in the NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan. Fissiparous tendencies were recklessly unheeded, even enhanced, despite the release of leaders Bhutto had charged with treason.

General Zia’s held party-less elections that fooled no one with a Majlis Shoora-parliament under a presidential system where that office was retained by the self-renewed army chief. The elected House lacked autonomy and when PM Junejo began to take the nominal lifting of Martial Law seriously, he was humiliatingly dismissed. The PML(N) eclipsed PML(J).

Elections-1988 made a crash-landing: Retrieved from the wreckage was Benazir Bhutto’s right to reanimate her wronged father’s party ideology and his amazing mass popularity. Retained in the wreckage was the military and bureaucratic determination to keep control of the civil political process: Factors that debilitated a healthy mainstream two-party democratic political process were nurtured. Ethnic politicking, often militant and violent, had already been added to the mock-democratic counterforce of clerics, industrial robber barons and mighty feudal lords. Above all, the president could still quite constitutionally dismiss parliament at his own discretion: Party leaders could not command parliamentarians’ allegiance. Benazir never had a fair chance – neither did Nawaz Sharif, who happily allowed himself to be used by the new president Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, that bureaucrat for all seasons, in stalking and frustrating her politically.

In the years of ‘from Tweedledum to Tweedledee’ presidentially-terminated electoral mandates that ensued, the PPP’s democratic substance slowly diminished. Byzantine politics were the order of the day. The pro-establishment PML led by Mian Nawaz Sharif usually fared better than Benazir’s PPP, and in 1996 he won a famously heavy electoral mandate. And so he too got cheeky: he emulated General Zia in making sloganized Islam the path to a concentration of power in the office he held. He had the requisite parliamentary majority to legislate his way through in the lower house; and senators were responsive to a not always gentle persuasion. There was indeed a pervasive sentiment of popular democratic relief when he was thwarted by General Musharraf’s coup in October 1999. A fifteenth amendment as visualised by Nawaz Sharif never came to pass.

What did?

Interestingly, progressive sectors of civil society, feminists, and rights activists did not oppose the coup. Some luminaries and NGOs lent their services and expertise to the Army chief’s task forces and programmes for reform. The non-democratic general found a lifeline in facilitating America in Afghanistan post 9/11. There was much he was able to do for it in the national darkness of dictatorship.  But locally some kind of democratic camouflage was becoming inescapable.  A glib doctrine of Enlightened Moderation and Democratic Essence was wearing thin.

General Musharraf had borrowed from corporate culture and chosen to be termed chief executive (of Pakistan) preferring an apolitical expert technocratic board. He revised his tactics fairly soon, co-opting politicians. A PTV monopoly yielded to a multiplicity of media houses and press barons. The term ‘influentials’ – a precursor of ‘electables’– became part of local political vocabulary. Party politicking was reinstated.

Elections-2002 were General Musharraf’s way forward. The PPP had leeway to field the PPP-Parliamentary, but that courtesy was not extended to the PML(N). It didn’t signify as many Nawaz Sharif’s ‘influentials’ chose to be reborn under General Musharraf’s wing. But when the non-retiring general thought of revamping the CJP’s office in 2007, the CJP did not budge.

In a public face-off it was the CJP who had embarrassingly manifest popular support. It more than suited a cornered president to craft the NRO with Benazir Bhutto (for form’s sake including other major political players) that granted an amnesty and allowed them back to contest forthcoming elections scheduled for the outset of 2008. Benazir was assassinated on 27 December 2007, less than three months after her return home.

Her husband flew in from Dubai and contained the riots that erupted at her assassination. It was soon disclosed that party leadership had been willed to him.

Elections 2008 provided the PPP a decisive win and Benazir’s widower gracefully became the president when General Musharraf gracefully retired.  In unassailable control of the PPP, President Zardari allowed presidential power over parliament to be legislated away once more.  But in contrast to his characteristic subtlety and political finesse, every effort was allowed to obstruct the functioning of the PML(N) government in Punjab. Moves to squeeze the MQM out of urban Sindh intensified. Self-enriching cronyism and bullying arm-twisting came to characterise the PPP tenure — And lost it votes.

Elections 2013 returned the PML(N). The period between elections 2008 and 2013 showed that voters not the establishment had voted governments in and out. The voter was purging government. Can they be allowed untutored choice? Elections 2018 will tell. However, the way politics were played against mandated governments was even uglier than in the period from 2008 – 13. Do anti-democratic forces learn faster than democratic ones? The period following the scheduled electoral verdict will show. But this we can see already: the wannabe controlling establishment is more seasoned and resourceful than the voter.