Elections 2013: A guide for the perplexed

by Ghazala Akbar:

General Election! Which Election? Depends on where you are.

Contrary to popular belief there is not one but are several elections simultaneously taking place in Pakistan. First and foremost there is the contest in the populous province of Punjab often described as the heart of Pakistan. This is where the political heavyweights, the Establishment and the majority of the electorate reside. In electoral terms, the Punjab is the decisive battleground. Whosoever has the bulk of the seats here will be in a strong position to direct the shape and composition of the next government. That is the crux of the matter. Like it or lump it. Presently there is a right royal battle raging on the banks of the Ravi. PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan’s PTI. Noon versus Junoon. It is a passion play of epic proportions.

There is also another election of sorts happening in parts of Pakistan that are not in the Punjab. This encompasses the province of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa currently dominated by the Awami National Party (ANP), the rural areas of Sindh, home ground of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the urban areas of Sindh — in particular the Port city of Karachi, controlled for the most part by the Muthahda Qaumi Movement (MQM). Often called a ‘mini-Pakistan’– reflective perhaps of its ethnic diversity, the commercial capital of Pakistan is also a heavy source of revenue to the depleting coffers of the Central Government. The arithmetic of the National Assembly dictates that Parties from the smaller provinces cannot form a government on their own. But they can and do have a crucial supporting role as ‘Kingmakers’, punching way above their electoral weight.

In the last Parliament both the ANP and MQM relished and played their part to the hilt often threatening to quit when things didn’t go their way. Their participation has come at a hefty price. Action against extremists and tacit approval of Drone attacks has provoked the enmity and ire of the invisible but formidable Tehreek-e-Taliban. The TTP are not on the ballot papers but are determined to make their destructive presence felt. For them it is payback time. The three Parties who cobbled up a coalition in the last government and toed the line of the US in the War on Terror are branded as ‘Secular’, a dirty word in the eyes of extremists. The Urdu translation of the word reads as ‘La Deen’ (without religion)! This is often construed and widely confused with Atheism.

In reality none of these political parties (or any one in Pakistan for that matter) can ever be ‘la deen’. Some are ‘more deen’, some ‘less deen’, some ‘more or less deen’ but nobody (God forbid) is ever ‘without deen’. We are not the citadel of Islam for nothing. The TTP, however have no interest in semantics — or parliamentary democracy and elections — both of which they dismiss as un-Islamic. But they do have a strategy of trying to control the ballots with the only means they know: bullets and bombs.

In sharp contrast to the Punjab where election activity is progressing smoothly, scores of party supporters, Candidates, bystanders including children have been killed and maimed in KP and Sindh causing fear and doubts over the ‘impartiality’ of the election. Many view this alarming development as a well-conceived and sinister conspiracy to ensure that only the ‘Right’ sort of people get into Parliament. The idea is to frighten and anger these Parties into doing something reckless like a boycott of the elections.

Their absence would then pave the way for other Parties to sneak into the National Assembly and engineer an Islamic ‘Revolution’ from within. So far, this strategy is not working. The supposedly ‘La Deens’ may be down but they refuse to be out. They also have traditional vote banks, organized cadres, and armed supporters. Ironically all three parties have often been at loggerheads protecting their lucrative interests and fiefdoms in Karachi. Now they have a common enemy, but one that is faceless and hard to pin down.

Then there is the vast expanse of the province of Baluchistan. It is sparsely populated, rich in untapped mineral wealth, under developed and poorly governed. Historically many of the fiercely independent-minded tribal Sardars have had a love-hate relationship with the central government and the establishment. Sometimes they are given carrots, sometimes the stick. Of late there has been more stick than carrot. A long-standing battle between ubiquitous state ‘Agencies’ and ‘Insurgents’ believed to be funded by a ‘foreign hand’ is still underway. In addition, the province has been racked with killings of an ethnic and religious minority, the Hazara Shia.

Baluchistan is on the proverbial knife-edge, its electoral politics fluid and often confusing. In past elections, coalitions have been stitched-up with interference from the Centre. This time round, the Baluch National Party are participating. Were they to sweep the polls, their stated positions for maximum political autonomy would be unstoppable. A decisive mandate in Baluchistan for any one Party would be a welcome boon for the province in terms of good governance. In the last Provincial Assembly, out of sixty-five members there were as many as 49 Ministers! Three were without portfolio as there were
no government departments left to run!

Finally, we have ‘elections’ in the Republic of Facebookistan. This is the green and pleasant land of the Pakistani diaspora, armchair activists and drawing-room democrats who direct and control events in a mythical homeland from the security of their Laptops and iPads. By and large they are a well-meaning and patriotic lot who nurture fantasies of returning to Pakistan when it becomes an Islamic, Democratic, Social Welfare State on the lines of Scandinavia, or the United Kingdom. Some even voice their preference for a Presidential system. They would safely be ignored by most political parties but for the fact that that they also have hefty pocketbooks. The Election Commission has promised
them a vote but it hasn’t materialized yet.

Recently, Facebookistanis had a rude shock when one of their prime candidates, the ‘comeback kid’ was booted out from the electoral process, charged, arrested and disbarred for life. And this after he had garnered hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’on his Facebook page! Obviously, the perpetrators of these dark deeds are computer-illiterate with scant appreciation of how Facebook’s ‘like’ option works. Status after Status was changed hourly to reflect their protest but to no avail. As one peroxide-blonde aptly commented: ‘how can there be a General Election if a General cannot participate?’ The hopes of the Facebookistanis now rest firmly on the batting prowess of the other favourite Son. He’s playing well but whether he can reach the magical number of 172 needed to win is a moot point.

Predicting electoral outcomes as Karl Rove of Fox News will confirm is a very tricky business and can land one with considerable egg on the face. Doubly so in Pakistan. Who would have thought in 2008 that the King’s Party would finish a distant third? Or that the Chairman of the PPP would be elected President. Or that his predecessor would be jailed.
In the mercurial world of Pakistan politics, one must always expect the unexpected. Zeroes often become Heroes. And vice versa. Perplexing no? All will be revealed on May 11. As Larry King would say ‘Don’t go away’!

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