The paradox of elections

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS polling day approaches, the polarization in the public perceptions of the election scene is amazing. There are some who are vocal about the deep apathy and cynicism of the voters, and on that basis alone they confidently predict a low turn-out on October 10.

Others vehemently deny that electioneering is in a low key. They point to the corner meetings and the party workers’ drive to mobilize the voters — as much as they can within the restrictions imposed on them by the administration.

But no one would deny that the public involvement is not as much as one would have expected it to be, considering that the polls are ostensibly designed to restore some kind of political rule in the country. The absence of the top leaders of the two key mainstream parties from the scene has deprived the campaigns of their lustre.

All this actually points to the paradoxes inherent in the present situation. On the one hand, the parties have been crying themselves hoarse about lack of credibility of the entire exercise. For that they rightly blame the government which is itself responsible for creating this impression, given the hamhanded manner in which the election process has been managed. This has understandably reinforced the apprehensions of many that this will be a controlled exercise. Even if the voting itself is fair and free, the results will not be.

In spite of these aberrations, the parties have decided to participate — and rightly so. That presents them with the paradox of demonstrating their popular appeal in an election they have otherwise denounced. If they fail to draw out the voters they would also lose credibility. It is a heads-I-win-and-tails-you-lose situation.

Irrespective of how one assesses the popular response, the polls cannot be rejected as being of no consequence. One can understand the low-key electioneering. But it is difficult to justify the failure of the parties to raise critical national issues in their campaigning and election manifestos. It is plain that no leader has done his homework. No party has a well-thought-out programme to offer. The vague promises of spreading education, improving the living conditions, and resolving the Kashmir dispute mean nothing to a weary electorate, which has heard such empty pledges before and knows well that they are election gimmicks. This poor performance by the political forces notwithstanding, the decisive factor in the elections will not be who emerges the winner (Musharraf, of course) but the forces which will inevitably be released when the country goes to the polls. These simply cannot be anticipated. But the revival of the political process which has been in abeyance for the last three years will provide the opportunity to elements, which are not necessarily pro-status quo, to step into the power structure and trigger changes in the political set-up.

It is a positive development that the political parties are participating in this process, although they continue to hold out threats of a boycott even at this late hour. Seventy-one parties were found eligible — actually 129 were desirous of contesting the polls but 58 were disqualified. No major party has been kept out of the race, in spite of the stiff eligibility conditions prescribed by the government.

Obviously, all parties now recognize the importance of participation in the electoral process and many of them have learnt the hard way that the politics of boycott does not really pay. Besides, the large number of aspirants — 3,546 filed their nominations for 272 general seats (of which 3,248 were accepted) — indicates that still there are people who have not rejected the concept that politics brings some returns. Thus we have an average of 11 candidates per general seat. In 1997, the average was eight.

There are quite a few significant characteristics of the emerging election scene that could potentially have far-reaching implications for the future politics of the country. First, there is the induction of about five million new voters as a result of the lowering of the voting age to 18 years. How the youth among the 72 million voters in Pakistan will vote — that is if they vote at all — is not easy to predict. But they can swing the outcome of the polling one way or the other if they choose to. In this a lot of money is said to be changing hands. If that is true then the richest party with plenty of resources at its disposal has a better chance of winning.

The politics of alliances is another factor that will determine the outcome of elections. The key political parties have again failed to enter into seat adjustment arrangements. As a result, a multitude of parties are in the race and will undercut each other’s votes. How these parties have mushroomed, quite a few of them being splinter groups of mainstream political parties, is a wonder of Pakistani politics.

Their most spectacular achievement has been their success in fulfilling the tough requirements laid down by the Election Commission. The PML-Zia was created within three days when its mentor, Ijazul Haq, who was a member of the PML-Q, decided to strike out on a separate path. It is a different matter that the Election Commission did not deem it fit to recognize it as a political party.

This has led to the fragmentation of politics on an unprecedented scale. Of the 272 general seats in the National Assembly, only three will witness a one-to-one contest, while 12 constituencies have three candidates in the field each. All the others have a larger number of contestants, a Tribal Agency even having 26 candidates vying for victory. Karachi’s NA-251, another coveted seat, boasts an array of 22 candidates. Ten candidates in a constituency is quite common. Small wonder then that a hung parliament is being predicted.

The only effective alliance which has emerged is the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal comprising six religious parties which have joined hands together on a purely religious platform. This is the first time they have done so. The PNA in 1977 and the IJI in 1988 which had some of them had also included secular parties from the right. Although one knows that the MMA is a marriage of convenience — Jamaat-i-Islami, the two factions of the JUI (Fazlur Rahman and Sami-ul-Haq), JUP, Tehreek-i-Jafria and Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith are not quite famous for their unanimity of views on any theological issue of significance.

But to give the devil its due, they should be given credit for recognizing the value of an electoral alliance in the present context if they are to make a better showing. As such, all the 122 candidates which they have put up for the National Assembly will not be undercutting each other. The same cannot be said of the 225 PPP candidates, the 155 PML-N and the 191 PML-Q contestants. All this makes the prospects of the various parties rather uncertain.

Another significant feature of this election is the presence of women in such visible numbers. Apart from the 359 women who are in the run for the 60 reserved seats for them, nearly 60 others are contesting on the general seats (in 1997 there were 35). True, many of them are representing their fathers, husbands and even grandfather in one case, because the male members could not cross the qualification barrier on account of defaults on loans or not being graduates. A lot would depend on how many of them get into the assembly. Once there, not all of them might be inclined to be as subservient to their male benefactors in politics as they are at home. Power creates its own logic and compulsions.

Elections also have their own dynamics. They can become a catalyst for change as they have in the past. After all, it was Junejo, a prime minister thrown up by the Majlis-i-Shoora created by the partyless elections of Ziaul Haq, who had the courage to sign the Geneva accords on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 1988 when his mentor was not inclined to do it.

Tags: Politics, Women