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The campaign against the ballot

03 May, 2013

By M.A. Niazi


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The apparently unending series of attacks launched upon election meetings have highlighted a number of unfortunate, but undeniable, facts. First is that they are at all possible. That shows that there is not a consensus on democracy in society as a whole. True, those taking part in the process would be among the first to admit that they would have no chance of being elected, but that is not the basis of either their appeal or their actions. Though there is much that can be said about their methods, they do what they do not because they wish to convince their opponents, but because they wish to send the message that elections are against Islam, or at least assemblies which engage in legislation, though that is supposed to be the prerogative of the Almighty. It should be noted that the consensus on democracy is much more complete elsewhere, even in countries which have adopted democracy later.

Indeed, the situation developing in Pakistan may well be unique: never before has democracy been under such an attack.

A number of democracy's underlying assumptions are questioned, or rather, considering that people are dying, being put on trial. First is the assumption that it is the least bad of the various systems of government. (Defenders of democracy say, when its various flaws are pointed out, that other systems of government are worse.) If it is to begin with deaths, it cannot be very good. Then there is the question of free campaigning. Polling day, and the problems of violence during it, are still a week off. The immediate problem is campaigning freely, which assumes that attending a campaign rally is not fatal. Without the opportunities given by campaign rallies, to candidates of presenting their programme, and to voters of assessing the candidate, campaigns would be emptied of meaning, and thus so would polling.

It should also be noted that one of the rules of democracy, that any poll where a nominee dies is postponed, is being used against it. The attacks are not just on campaigns, but on candidates. Many have survived, but some have been killed, with the result that the poll in that constituency has been countermanded. However, by no means have the militants killed enough candidates to throw the polls in doubt. Their attacks on the PPP, the MQM and the ANP have not forced them out of the election, and indeed they have announced their intention to take part in the poll.

The present elections have seen the greatest disillusionment with democracy, because the outgoing government failed to prove responsive to the people's problems, with solving them not even a distant dream. Apart from this failure to perform, there is a glimmering of an alternative, in the shape of an implementation of Islam in the shape of the Arab Spring. For a people for whom elections are not an ingrained habit, but a colonial import over a century old only if one counts the local councils elected on a restricted franchise. Indeed, the first election on a universal adult franchise was in 1970.

This has also posed an unprecedented challenge to the political parties, which are essentially election-contesting organisations, not military. It is also worth noting that ever since the USA began its war on terror, there have been two previous local body polls, as well as two for the Assemblies, but the militants did not target any one of them. This seems anomalous, for the edicts about elections being un-Islamic are old, and the basis is also very open. The edict is contradicted by a number of scholars, and scholars holding that contradiction as their opinion are contesting the election.

They are not the only Islamic fundamentalists taking part in the election. So are the militants. They must want to take part, not just because they too are practising politics, but because the result also affects them. This might explain why initially specific parties were targeted, with the others being given a bye. Clearly, the militants wanted to influence the result of the elections, not so much because it would result in Islamic laws as because it would determine who would form the next government. That government would decide an aspect of policy that the militants are personally interested in: towards the USA and its war on terror.

The outgoing PPP-led coalition gave the USA, more or less, what it wanted. The war on terror will draw down after the occupying forces do, but sufficient will remain to provide the necessary stiffening to the regime, and to keep a watch over Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. The PPP, if re-elected, would not just continue this obedience to the USA, but also continue its policy of making peace with India, no matter what the cost to Pakistan.

On the other hand, if the PML-N won, it would not exactly reverse these policies; it would, probably, not pursue them as vigorously. This would allow the militants fighting the occupation forces in Afghanistan the space to renew efforts against the Kabul regime. This may well illustrate how important the government is, but it does nothing for those dead or to die in the violence launched by those militants opposed to elections.

Perhaps, one of the little understood aspects of the whole episode is the role of the Pakistan Army. The PPP seems to think it opposed and to want to overthrow it. That doubt should disappear after General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made a very emphatic statement on Martyrs' Day in support of the elections. The PPP has a number of grievances against the armed forces, not least that it overthrew the first PPP government, and hanged its founder, a sin for which the PPP has not yet revenged itself. The PPP also assumes that the armed forces did not allow the founder's daughter to follow an independent foreign policy and ultimately was behind her assassination just before the last election.

According to this mythology, the attempt to have the election cancelled was by militants with ties to elements within the intelligence agencies, which still carried the old agenda. What PPP does not say even in private is that the armed forces challenge its monopoly on power, as well as on American goodwill, something the PPP has come to value under the late Benazir Bhutto.

One of the provisions of the first-past-the-post system ensures that the militant's efforts will be unavailing: even if one ballot is cast, the candidate for whom it is cast will be declared elected. Indeed, even if only one candidate files for a constituency, he will be declared elected unopposed. Enforcing a boycott of all seats is thus next to impossible, if the state wants to ensure there is an assembly.

Another problem is that the militants are opposing elections, even though theologically there seems no problem with them, but only with the resulting assembly, which legislates. Elections are thus on par with the railways or the printing press, which were opposed in the 19th century when first introduced, on religious grounds.

Thus Pakistanis, despite the campaign, are going to turn out and vote in large numbers on May 11, not because of any deep commitment to democracy, but because they realise the campaigners' own inconsistencies.



The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation.

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