May 11: Pakistan’s date with democracy by Naveed Ahmad*
Flags of the different ethnic and non-ethnic political parties have been hung over a street in Loralai, Pakistan, ahead of the local elections that are set to take place on May 11. (Photo: EPA, Hammad Khan Farooqi)
Pakistan’s once powerful military dictator is facing terrorism and murder charges.
This is not a typo. After a verdict of the Islamabad High Court to arrest him, the retired commando general who annexed power from the elected government of Nawaz Sharif on Oct. 11, 1999, and ruled with an iron fist fled the court as the decision against him was being spelled out, a sight never imagined by even his most fervent opponents.
Though he returned on March 24 with the hope of being welcomed as a savior after half a decade of unprecedented plunder of the country’s wealth and incompetence to deal with terrorists at the hands of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party government, America’s front man in Pakistan to fight the war against terror now rests holed up in a substitute jail (his home) and is himself being tried for terrorism and high treason for subverting the constitution twice.
To his utter dismay, the US State Department has also clarified that Washington “takes no position on the return of former President Pervez Musharraf or the legal proceedings against him.” For a journalist reporting for foreign media, the trial and arrest of first ever former military dictator and man who was army chief since the country’s creation in 1947 open a massive Pandora’s box of stories. Imagine this historic development unfolding against the backdrop of the most crucial elections since 1970, one that eventually led to the creation of what is now Bangladesh.
Musharraf may have little chance of winning his own seat, but he remains a factor in the upcoming elections. Despite its five-year term, People’s Party continues to blame him for power shortages and poor counter-terror deals. The Pakistan Muslim League is already bashing him for disrespecting its massive mandate and leaving the country in a mess with Asif Ali Zardari as its president. Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) condemns him for embracing America’s war against terror, overthrowing the independent judiciary and unlawfully shutting down TV news channels from November 2007 to February 2008.
Before we actually discuss the election landscape, another dominant factor that has worked as a game-changer seems to be sitting on the fence and just watching the drama. While Musharraf expected them to intervene to save him, the country’s praetorian military and intelligence services are not listening. The military’s only role in the upcoming elections is to perform security duties at polling stations declared potential targets for terrorism or political unrest.
Terrorism Pakistan’s biggest challenge
Unlike the past, when pre-poll and polling day rigging used to be the biggest concern of candidates and voters alike, terrorism now offers the biggest challenge. On May 11, the Pakistani nation votes to elect 342 members to its National Assembly and the 728 members of its four provincial legislatures.
The massive humiliation Musharraf has suffered in the past month is unprecedented but one amongst many unique developments the country has witnessed in recent months. Pakistan’s electoral rolls of 86.1 million voters have been computerized and a citizen can verify his polling station with a simple mobile message to the Election Commission. Hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens have verified voting locations and a sizeable number have changed to their convenience. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been credited with creating the world’s largest cellular short messaging service (SMS) with over 86 million potential users. The decision has not only increased transparency before polling day but use of a computerized national identity card as a valid document for voter eligibility will significantly address bogus or ghost voting, a phenomenon so far rampant here.
The world may witness an extraordinary turnout to the elections despite the threats of terrorism and the failure of democracy to deliver prosperity and equality. Poor attention to the abilities of the civilian security and intelligence services has allowed about a dozen small and medium-sized terrorist attacks to adversely impact the election campaigning since April 22. Ironically, the three parties -- the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement -- now coping with the terrorist attacks are none other than those that led coalition governments in the federal capital of Islamabad, in Karachi in the extreme south and in Peshawar in the northwest.
While these three have accused Taliban militants of selectively targeting them, the leaders of rival parties, such as Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, remain upbeat about people showing up at polling stations on May 11.
Imran Khan, the wildcard holder and cricketer-turned-leader, is addressing on average five public gatherings a day while Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif are busy wooing various pressure groups and ethnic or tribal pressure groups to vote for their version of the Pakistan Muslim League.
Elections only way to kick-start economy
From the point of view of a common Pakistani citizen, the elections are the only way to kick-start the economy and fight the enormous despair created during the rule of Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari.
Despite having significant natural resources and a talented workforce, the country has put up with 12 to 16 hours of electricity blackouts each day in the summers of the last three years; thus, industrial production has plummeted to record lows. Unemployment has soared drastically while an increasing number of university graduates remain unemployed.
Thanks to the horrible nightmare that has lasted a decade, the Pakistani youth are awake. They are ready to reject corruption and terrorism. Moreover, Imran Khan has brought youth to a high place on the Pakistani political agenda as well as the country’s noisy, sensationalist electronic media.
Imran Khan held intra-party elections and decentralized the decision-making to the district level of leadership to choose his party’s candidates for the May 11 elections.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the third-ranked political force and a real challenger, is fielding 80 percent of the candidates who are entering the race for the first time. The party has also given 35 percent of its nominations to young candidates, below the age of 35 years. Khan’s old-fashioned rivals remain “family parties” or dynasties. Turncoats continue to get party nominations with no ideological affiliation or adherence to a manifesto.
The country’s immature, sensationalist electronic media, owned by just a few families, is easily bribed by parties into favorable, subjective reporting during the campaign season. The likes of Imran Khan believe that the 188-million-strong nation cannot rely on false promises any more, having suffered for the last two decades.
Despite the leadership shake-up and technical advancements towards free and fair elections, the frequency of terrorist incidents and interest of youth in the elections can impact the outcome of the elections. So far, four mid-level candidates have been killed in three provinces, all but the Punjab. In Kyber-Pakhtoonkhawa Province, the parties have agreed not to hold large public gatherings and to rely on corner meetings. In Karachi, the Pakistan Rangers are carrying out a clean-up operation to seize illegal arms and criminals and to provide equal opportunities to all parties for canvassing.
Preparations for May 11
On May 11, over 70,000 Pakistani Army troops will secure polling stations located in sensitive areas in addition to the usual presence of the police and other law enforcement agencies.
Even in Balochistan, where militancy is being fanned by its eastern and western neighbors, ethno-nationalist political parties are back in the mainstream and thus have candidates in the elections. The Baloch nationalists had boycotted the 2008 elections owing to Musharraf’s iron fist rule and murder of a respected veteran leader, Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti. However, apart from the Baloch heartland, the elections are largely expected to proceed peacefully, with youths assuming their due roles in choosing their representatives.
Owing to more reliable electoral rolls and a politically savvy public, the dawn of May 12 may turn out to be the beginning of a new chapter in Pakistan’s history.
If the new voters, predominantly youth as they make up 60 percent of Pakistan’s population, show up on election day in large numbers, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Musharraf’s trial will continue and deter future coups d’état here, strengthening hope in democracy as one sees in the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Turkey.
In the worst case scenario, if these 35 million new voters do not cast their ballots in the expected numbers, Islamabad may have a hung parliament that may not complete its five-year term, leaving behind an economy similar to or worse than that of Greece or Egypt.
*Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic with a focus on Pakistan and the Middle East as well as co-founder and editor of “Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges.” Twitter @naveed360; [email protected]