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.

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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)

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Attempts to Maneuver Polls Unacceptable: HRCP

The narrative being peddled in Pakistan through social media and Whatsapp, is one, that the politicians are totally corrupt and the Army is the only institution worth supporting. And second, even if the army has been interfering, it is “no longer an Army with a ‘security mindset’,” as one long message being circulated puts it, but “truly a national army, which has come of age”. Along the way, it “has become the fourth pillar in our country with influence far beyond its mandate. Something not to relish and a sad reality”. According to this narrative, “a strong, democratic, well governed and corruption free Pakistan is a political death warrant for Nawaz and Zardari”. And since the army is there to stay and “if Imran wins, this will be the first time in Pakistan’s civilian history that we will have this strategic alignment between these key State institutions which matter”.

Dept of political engineering

The satirical caption for this photo above is an example of the satire with which Pakistanis are countering the manipulations. Another satirical caption for this photograph is “Election Commission of Pakistan”. Wonder why many are taking such satire literally?

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. I believe that such a “strategic alignment” will backfire. Controlled democracy is not democracy. You can’t put the people’s democratic aspirations back in the bottle. If Imran Khan wins, it will be a win orchestrated by muzzling the media in an unprecedented way, threatening, killing and terrorising opponents, and mainstreaming hardliners along the India model as I wrote recently. And look what’s happening in India. A democratic, well governed, and corruption free Pakistan is a death warrant not just for the individual politicians named but also for the boots.

Below, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan‘s statement on the “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections” . Note: Please also see this  HRCP pre-poll monitoring form 2018 based on:

  1. Local news reports (print, radio and TV) about the area in which you live.
  2. Your own observations of the area in which you live (for example, candidates’ rallies, campaign banners, meetings with candidates).
  3.  Reliable observations of the area from other people (preferably, with supporting evidence).

Please send your completed copy of this form and any other supporting evidence (for example, photographs) of pre-poll irregularities to:

  1. Email: elections.hrcp@gmail.com
  2. Mobile/WhatsApp: 0332 430 4656
  3. Fax: 042 3588 3582

    Continue reading

Pakistan Elections: Democracy, Dichotomies, and Shades of Grey

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly, India, published on the web today, copied below with minor changes, photos and added links.

Lahore, Dec 9, 2007: (L-R): Nawaz Sharif. Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Imran Khan meet to discuss whether to boycott January 8, 2008 polls. "Boycott, and then what?" asked Benazir Bhutto who convinced Sharif to participate in the polls. The rest is history. Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Lahore, Dec 9, 2007: (L-R): Nawaz Sharif. Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Imran Khan meet to discuss whether to boycott January 8, 2008 polls. “Boycott, and then what?” asked Benazir Bhutto who convinced Sharif to participate in the polls. The rest is history. Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The recent elections in Pakistan show that the country is finally on the right track notwithstanding the rigging, the violence and the brutal prevention of women from voting in some areas by representatives of all the political parties. The huge turnout of women and first time young voters risking their lives to exercise their right to choose is something to celebrate and strengthen Continue reading

Transparency for Flood Donations – Isa Daudpota

From longtime friend, activist, media-watcher and accountability-demander Isa Daudpota in Islamabad:

Transparency for Flood Donations

Q. Isa Daudpota

Pakistanis and foreign donors recoil at the general lack of credibility of the government and other institutions when it comes to proper utilization of funds.  It is important that this perception is removed quickly if one is to move beyond the immediate relief funding for the flood, which will dwarf in comparison with long-term rehabilitation of people and infrastructure restoration. Continue reading

POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Long March – A Long View

POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Long March – A Long View

Analysis by Beena Sarwar

Lawyers and police clash in Lahore - photo by Rahat Dar

Lawyers and police clash in Lahore - photo by Rahat Dar

KARACHI, Mar 12 (IPS) – Barely a year after being elected, the Pakistan government faces a political storm involving a street agitation spearheaded by lawyers and opposition political parties allied with religious parties.

Lurking on the sidelines is an army unused to civilian command even as religious militants create havoc around the country.

None of this is new to Pakistan but many find it all the more painful given the hopes built up by last year’s general elections. On Feb 18, 2009, Pakistani voters overwhelmingly supported non-religious parties and rejected those that had been propped up by the army.

The electorate’s rejection of the religious parties and the joining hands of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and her former rival Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) raised expectations of an end to political confrontation and religion-based politics – and the army moving away from politics.

These expectations followed decades of misrule and exploitation of religion for political purposes. The Pakistani establishment, at Washington’s behest, strengthened armed militancy, exploiting religious sentiments to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan during the 1980s. In the process they created ‘Jihad International’, as the late scholar Dr Eqbal Ahmad termed it.

This may now be the biggest threat facing Pakistan – and the world – since the attack on the World Trade Center on Sep. 11 2001. Since then Washington has pushed Islamabad to fight the very forces of militant Islam that both together had fostered and strengthened.

Resultantly, this country has, as Pakistanis point out, suffered the most from militant attacks.

In this situation, political instability is distracting at best and dangerous at worst. The ‘long march’ demanding the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry, spearheaded by the legal fraternity and sections of civil society, has ready allies among the right-wing political opposition.

This includes Sharif’s PML-N and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainstream religious party sympathetic to militant Islam, as well as others sympathetic to the Taliban, like ex-chief Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and anti-India hawk Gen. (retd.) Hamid Gul, retired bureaucrat Roedad Khan who brutally quashed political opposition during the Zia years, and cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, chief of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice).

All these forces boycotted the 2008 polls, except Sharif who rescinded his boycott decision after Bhutto convinced him that elections were the only way forward.

Long-festering tensions between the PPP and PML-N came to a head with a Supreme Court ruling of Feb 25 barring Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from holding elected office. Bhutto’s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari is widely believed to be behind this controversial ruling.

The disgruntled Sharifs, already pushing to restore Chief Justice Choudhry, have flung themselves wholeheartedly into the long march – a move that observers do not see as entirely altruistic since their stated aims include effecting regime change.

“Sharif’s attempts to paint himself as a radical, grassroots activist are at odds with his political origins,” commented former lawyer and Australia-based analyst Mustafa Qadri, writing about the opportunity Pakistan’s politicians of all hues have wasted in their “refusal to look beyond personal power games and provincialism to develop the nation’s still embryonic democracy”.

The Sharifs gained prominence as businessmen patronised by General Zia -ul-Haq who was behind Pakistan’s “transformation from majority-Muslim nation to Islamic state with more conservative religious seminaries per capita than any other country in the world,” as Qadri put it (‘Long march to nowhere’, The Guardian, Mar 10, 2009).

The current imbroglio comes on the heels of loaded statements by Gen. (retd) Pervez Musharraf who during a visit to India last week, gave several talks and interviews in which he hinted at a possible political comeback.

Curiously Musharraf, who stepped down as president in August 2008, urged New Delhi to stop ‘bashing’ the Pakistan army and the shadowy ISI since, according to him, they were the best defence against the growth of the Taliban and militancy in Pakistan.

President Zardari has invited comparisons to Musharraf because of his government’s use of police force and mass arrests to prevent the long march, as Musharraf did after suspending Choudhry in March 2007 and imposing Emergency rule in Nov 2007.

The irony is illustrated by the recent three-hour detention of the firebrand women’s rights and political activist, Tahira Abdullah, who has been mobilising the lawyers’ movement from her home in Islamabad.

She faced police batons and tear gas in the Zia and Musharraf eras. A day before the long march began, a police contingent arrived at her house and virtually broke down her kitchen door.

However, her arrest attracted media attention, embarrassing the government into quickly ordering her release. An undeterred Abdullah immediately resumed mobilising for the agitation.

“It is sad and ironic that the PPP government has come to this,” she told IPS. “They said it was preventive detention. They can’t catch people like (Taliban leaders) Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah but they send police after me, a very ordinary person.”

There is also irony in progressive, secular activists like Abdullah joining hands with the emerging right-wing coalition to achieve a shared goal, the restoration of Choudhry.

Civil society activists privately admit that otherwise their numbers are too small to reach the critical mass needed to effect political change.

“There are only a handful of us,” one of them told IPS. “And there are no more than 100,000 lawyers in the country. So we have to join hands with political forces who agree with us on this matter even if we don’t agree on other matters. We know they are using us, but we are also using them.”

Observers like the political economist and former student activist S.M. Naseem fear that this kind of mutual ‘using’ could push Pakistan further towards right-wing forces.

Disappointed by the performance of the government as well as the opposition, he holds that the lawyers’ movement has missed the opportunity of creating a new polity in the country. “They should have broadened the agenda to create a new political system,” he told IPS. “Two years for the restoration of one person (Choudhry), however, honest and bold, is a bit too much.”

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani has said that he cannot, in all conscience, oppose the long march. “We have also participated in street agitations and long marches,” he said. “How can we stop anyone else from exercising their democratic right to do so?”

This stand appears to pit him against President Zardari, holding an office strengthened by past military dictators. The President’s powers include being able to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve government – as several presidents before him have done. This is unlikely to happen now. For Zardari to take such a step would mean dismissing his own government.

Having recently obtained a majority in the Senate, the PPP can conceivably push through the constitutional amendments it proposed in May 2008 for which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and the Senate is required. These amendments include the removal of the 17th amendment that allows the President to dismiss government.

Moves towards reconciliation between the PPP and the PML-N continue behind the scenes, even as the long march kicks off with lawyers and political activists from various cities heading towards Islamabad to converge by Mar. 6 for a dharna (or sit-in) ‘until the Chief Justice is restored’.

Observers fear a breakout of violence even though the long march leaders have promised to keep matters peaceful.

(END/2009)

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46083

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