Now that the Pakistan elections have taken place and the results are in, it is important to think about what the country has learnt from this election and the direction it may be heading towards.
The Electoral Process
How transparent and organised the elections were, depends on where one decides to look. The Economist reports that “a tour of polling stations among wheat fields in rural Punjab, and then in Lahore itself, revealed no evidence of confusion, ill-preparedness or rigging.” Then again, thousands of protestors blocked the main arteries of Karachi, the country’s largest city, to notify the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) of those exact violations taking place there. The ECP has already agreed to postpone one National Assembly seat and to re-poll 43 stations in another. Apart from the allegations of rigging, voters had to wait for hours for the ballot boxes and ECP officials themselves to show up. Balochistan had different, more serious issues. An unofficial voter turnout of less than 10 percent – in contrast to a country average of 60 percent – suggests a far more intimidating atmosphere for voting than the rest of the country. Reports of damaged and tampered, not to mention delayed, ballot boxes also emerged. More than anything, this disparity and the ECP’s mixed success at organising, suggests a disjointed effort. The new Prime Minister ought to address these issues immediately, rather than in the weeks before the next elections. That said, a high voter turnout does highlight that faith among the populace in the democratic process, which is not a given, persists. This was despite the very real threat of the Taliban attacking poll stations on election day.
Based solely on Facebook and Twitter posts, it would seem that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would have won this election by a landslide. Khan, in attempting to appeal to young voters, deserves credit for running a slick viral campaign that touched everyone with an Internet connection. The problem is, only a minority of Pakistan has one. In this way, it seems that social media, while critical in raising Imran Khan’s profile (Muhammad Hanif quips, “If all the world’s magazine editors were allowed to vote for Imran Khan, he would be the prime minister of half the English-speaking world”), obscured Nawaz Sharif’s imminent victory and gave Imran Khan’s supporters unreasonable expectations of their own. That said, social media did prove instrumental in highlighting election fraud, turning every frustrated voter waiting in line, into an election observer. The ECP has received mounds of evidence in the form of photos and videos taken at poll stations and are currently investigating.
The Pakistan Muslim League (N) [PML-N]
Third time’s a charm. Despite two attempts at the helm of the country, the second one ending in catastrophic failure – a gun to the head and then exile – Nawaz Sharif has yet again emerged as the man to lead Pakistan. There is reason to believe that this tenure will not end in failure. Democracy has strengthened since the last time Sharif was in office, and judging on this election, the military has retreated from its meddling in the electoral process. At least in Punjab, Sharif is tremendously popular. Punjab has also largely been free of terrorist attacks. But all that might change. Given Sharif’s adversarial relationship with the military, he needs to think carefully about how he intends to deal with it. He needs to make sure that mutual distrust does not become outright confrontation, which may be more costly to him than to the military. Now that he will be Prime Minister, he needs to address terrorism. Given his cuddly relations with the religious parties, certain banned ones included, it will be interesting to see his approach develop. Lastly, he will work on the Indo-Pak relationship. A businessman at heart, Sharif finds potential in increasing trade and diplomatic ties. While he has the support of other political parties, the real challenge comes back to the military, which may halt the peace process as is its wont to do.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
Disappointment at not winning every parliamentary seat contested, has taken the shine off Imran Khan’s electoral success. He shall be forming the government of Khyber-Pakhtunwa (KP) and won seats in Punjab and Sindh. Given this base, he has every opportunity to gain even more seats in the next elections. That said, as any incumbent can tell you, governing is nothing like campaigning. Now that he will be running KP, the province most affected by terrorism, he may have to reconsider his policy to negotiate with the Taliban, or at least put it into effect. Khan should congratulate himself for his party’s showing in this election. But he has to prove himself in the next stage of his party’s development, i.e. governance.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the outgoing Prime Minister, exemplifies the PPP’s election outing. He was trounced by a margin of almost 4 to 1 in the initial results that came out of his own contested district in Rawalpindi. Presiding over rampant corruption, a weak economy and the rise of the Taliban, an abysmal five years in power have ensured that the PPP’s constituency has shrunk to its base in Sindh. Both, fear of the Taliban and knowledge of their own grim prospects, meant that Zardari’s party barely campaigned, and were restricted to the young son of the slain Benazir Bhutto and Co-Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari sending out home-made videos from Dubai. They showed little eagerness to win, and followed up with a limp showing in the polls. This gives them time until the next elections to rebuild and re-organise, which they must do. Bilawal will be older and will have more control over the party, not to mention he will be old enough to run for office himself. If the PPP are looking to retake their position as Pakistan’s leading party, then they will have to do more than simply cling to the ghosts of their dead leaders – they will actually need to govern.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)
The party is accused of being primarily responsible for the alleged election irregularities that took place in Karachi on election day. Altaf Hussain, the UK-based leader of the party, issued thinly veiled threats to the citizens who attended a PTI-led protest, which backfired. The protest itself was dispersed after gunshots were heard. The MQM’s dark history of political violence has prompted many of Karachi’s middle-class citizens to turn to the PTI this election, threatening MQM’s hold on the city. That is the reason, PTI supporters say, MQM rigged the vote. In an obvious effort at damage control, Altaf Hussain today said his statements were being distorted. Belatedly, they also accepted that rigging had taken place and requested the ECP to re-poll certain districts. In any case, it seems that the MQM’s previously iron-fisted rule in Karachi is loosening. This only bodes well for democracy in Karachi.
Despite the impediments, the people have spoken. That their voice was heard is in itself an achievement. Now it is up to the officials that they have entrusted, to provide them with the security and prosperity that they have been longing for.