My take on Pakistan’s elections: Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event

AamirLiaquat-ImranKhan-Dawn

In March this year, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan welcomed Aamir Liaquat Hussain into his political party. Aamir Liaquat will now represent NA-245 Karachi-I East-IV in the National Assembly. Naya Pakistan?

Below, something I wrote for The Print, published 31 July 2018 under the title Those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi shouldn’t be dismissed as bigots or sexist. I began writing it last week but was too caught up in my nephew’s wedding festivities to complete it earlier. But the break was helpful in gaining a better perspective. Some of my conversations with other wedding guests who are staunch PTI supporters (and there were many) inform this piece on why Pakistan should learn a lesson from what not to do from USA and India, and why dismissing those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi (or Trump) as bigots or sexist avoids the real issues – something Ayesha Siddiqa takes up in her excellent piece, in The Wire, Pakistan’s Middle Class Awaits a Miracle. The only point I’d add to her article is that Imran Khan’s support comes not just from the youth but also plenty of middle-aged aunties and uncles who gained political consciousness during the Musharraf ‘benign dictator’ years. My unedited Print piece below with a couple of videos from my Al Jazeera interviews ahead of elections, and a post-election podcast in Himal Southasian

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/477025080&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

Beena Sarwar

As dust from Pakistan’s general elections settles, this is a good time to look at the bigger picture and take stock of what has happened and what is likely to happen. It is also time to re-assert that democracy is messy business, that it is a process, not an event, and that controlled democracy, while not quite democracy, is better than dictatorship. In short, it’s complicated.

Despite the surface optics, this may well be the best of times for Pakistan. A time of despair, but also uplifting. The country is moving in the right direction politically, but the process is marred by interference from within and outside its borders.

Noteworthy within the larger picture is that Pakistan has recently completed an important cycle in the democratic political process: the peaceful transition of power from one elected government that completed its tenure, to the next — only the second time in the country’s history that this has happened.

The first time was when the government elected in 2008 (the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, PPP) handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N). Both governments completed their tenures despite noisy, distracting opposition often seen to have military support.

Now, the PML-N is handing over power to cricket legend Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“movement for justice”, PTI). Most political parties have rejected the election results but hopefully they will stay in the system. As Benazir Bhutto once said, “Boycott, and then what?”

There are many factors behind the election – or “selection” — results.

Firstly, there is Imran Khan’s charisma coupled with his emotive rhetoric that appeals to many who came to political consciousness during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008). They include youth as well as adults who initially supported the “liberal” dictator seen as symbolising a change in ideology from his predecessor Gen. Ziaul Haq’s oppressive rule (1977-1988).

Coupled with this is disillusionment with the old political parties – “desperation” as one PTI supporter put it. PTI’s slogan “Tabdeeli” (change) and its anti-corruption rhetoric speaks to the desire for change among such people.

These factors together could well have made PTI to be the election frontrunner in any case. But the process was not allowed to take place on its own. Various other elements pushed the PTI past the finish line further and faster than it may have reached on its own.

These include massive, unprecedented censorship in the run up to the 2018 elections that helped forge a narrative loaded in favour of PTI. Journalists, particularly in the broadcast media, were forced to not only virtually black out PPP and PML-N, but also mention their leadership only in a negative light. Of course, the dominant narrative does not determine how people vote – party loyalists will vote for their party regardless — but it certainly can influence the undecided voter or one who is on the fence.

My take on the upcoming Pakistan polls – Beena Sarwar on Al Jazeera, 22 July 2018 from beena sarwar on Vimeo.

Additionally, the judiciary was deployed to disqualify candidates belonging to these parties. Further, candidates (especially from PML-N) were threatened, coerced or blackmailed into giving up their party tickets at the eleventh hour and either withdrawing from the race or contesting as independents.

Perhaps the most significant factor behind the electoral results is the lack of electoral transparency and post-polling manipulations. Polling agents in dozens of stations were not allowed to be present for the vote counting. Many also complained of not being provided copies of Form 45, a document containing data about each candidate, names as well as how many votes they received, to be signed by Returning Officers and polling staff after the vote count.

Results for some constituencies came in an unprecedented 72 hours after polling ended, causing further suspicions about this most “rigg-orous” election process as the columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sarcastically termed it.

Significantly, all the parties except for PTI have complained of these manipulations and irregularities. Imran Khan has magnanimously promised to look into all electoral complaints. Not a word about the censorship and other pre-poll manipulations.

But whatever the factors behind PTI’s electoral win, Pakistan must ride this wave. There are positives to focus on and strengthen, for example, the clear desire for change among the people – beyond the superficial “tabdeeli” promised by PTI. These aspirations have led to the emergence of some promising electoral candidates, including women and representatives of religious communities other than Muslim. Some have won provincial and national assembly seats against daunting odds. Others, even if like the lawyer Jibran Nasir in Karachi did not win, continue to challenge the dominant narrative, raising important questions about identity, inclusion and pluralism.

It is in fact such real changes taking place on the ground that are so threatening to the establishment and the politico-religious forces. Citizens are no longer satisfied with treading the path they are expected to follow because of where they were born and into which community. A groundswell of growing awareness about basic rights and human dignity is leading more and more individuals to reject the old order and to cross or aspire to cross socio-economic, class, caste and gender barriers.

This is the real “tabdeeli” that is taking place, regardless of Imran Khan’s rhetoric. Changes on the ground will continue to challenge the status quo in ways that only make news when there is violence.

germany-g20-summit_66ff54e0-a521-11e7-84eb-85ab3d3e2a90

Indian PM Modi and US President Trump: elected leaders riding the waves of fear of change, much like Imran Khan. File photo.

As Pakistan braces for the next phase in its polity, there are lessons to be learnt from countries like India and USA where fear of change has led to the emergence of similar ‘strongman’ leadership.

Those who voted for Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not all bigots, misogynists or racists. Many are just ordinary people desperate for “better days” and to make their country “great again”. This is not too dissimilar from Imran Khan’s supporters seeking “change”.

Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event. And so we continue to march along that road.

On the run up to the Pakistan elections – Beena Sarwar on Al Jazeera NewsHour, 22 July 2018 from beena sarwar on Vimeo.

(ends)

Advertisements

Asma. A human rights giant, and more. My tribute in EPW

Wrote this piece for the Economic and Political Weekly, published a couple of weeks ago. Unedited version here with additional links, photos and videos.

  • Asma Jahangir, lawyer, human rights activist.
  • Born 27 January 1952, Lahore; died: 11 February 2018, Lahore.
  • Co-founder: AGHS law firm, 1980, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, 1983; Womens Action Forum, 1981;
  • Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1986.
  • Involved in launch of Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, 1994, and launch of South Asians for Human Rights, 2000.
  • UN Special Rapporteur: extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, 1998 to 2004; freedom of religion or belief, 2004-2010; situation of human rights in Iran, November 2016 till death.
  • Elected first female President, Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association, 2010.

Asma was all this and so much more. Continue reading

Soch Columbia: “Rethinking Partition: The Quest for Jinnah’s Nation”

L to R - Kapil Dev, Ameena Zia, Yasser Latif Hamdani, Qasim Rashid, Hira Azhar

Panel on Azadi: The Fight for Religious Freedom in South Asia: (L-R) Kapil Dev, Ameena Zia, Yasser Latif Hamdani, Qasim Rashid, Hira Azhar. Photo: Columbia Soch.

Delighted to have participated at the Soch (thought) conference organised by Pakistani students association that includes at least one Indian (love it!) at Columbia University in New York last weekend. I was struck by the boldness of the themes they chose as well as the choice of speakers, many known for their outspokenness against the ‘establishment’. Below, their press release (photos: courtesy Soch). Continue reading

Asma’s tribe: a remembrance at Harvard

Shahla Haeri-pic Ibrahim Rashid

Iranian anthropologist Shahla Haeri pays tribute to her Pakistani behen Asma. Photo: Ibrahim Rashid.

Days after Asma Jahangir passed away in Lahore, some of us, members of what I think of as Asma’s tribe, got together at Harvard to commemorate her life, impact and achievements. We had lots of flowers, and music, and chai and samosas – she loved these things and loved hosting people. The languages spoken — English, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Farsi — are a testament to Asma’s reach. Below, two reports about the event by students at Emerson College and Wellesley College, with video clips of some speakers’ comments. All video clips online on Vimeo, courtesy Rick Brotman. Cambridge Community Television will run a full video of the event next Saturday. Here’s the slideshow we displayed at the event :

Continue reading

Pakistan #humanrights: Raza Khan’s disappearance highlights missing persons’ issue

Video made by friends of missing peace activist Raza Mehmood Khan to demand his safe and immediate return. Case details below. How can you help? Scroll to the bottom of this post for suggestions. 

Continue reading

Pakistan: Another peace activist goes missing #FindRaza

Raza- million signature-VAW

Raza Khan with a copy of the One Million Signature Campaign against violence against women, Pakistan

On Saturday, peace activist Raza Khan, 37, went “missing” in Lahore shortly after he had organised a public discussion about the recent ‘dharna’ (sit-in) on the country’s capital that ended in ignominious surrender to those seeking power in the guise of religion. He is a law-abiding, passionate campaigner for peace in the region particularly India, for gender equality and interfaith harmony — all of these are anathema to the keepers of Pakistan’s ‘ideology’. Please sign the online petition urging the government of Pakistan to find him. Share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #FindRaza. A twitter campaign for Raza is planned at 4 p.m. (Pakistan time today, Dec 5), hashtag #FindRaza. More case details below. Continue reading

New Bhutto fellowship at Harvard accepting applications

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Returns To Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto, arrival in Karachi, 2007. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

A new fellowship at Harvard University to honor the late Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto, member of the Harvard College class of 1973, is now accepting applications.  Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: