Have the people spoken?

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—File Photo


Not unexpectedly, the PML-N has won the NA-120 Lahore by-election. Kulsoom Nawaz has been elected to parliament but unfortunately is under treatment in London. After she recovers, it remains to be seen whether her health will allow active participation in politics.

By-elections are seldom an accurate barometer of political trends or the electorate as a whole’s predilections. Nevertheless, they do provide indicators of which way the wind is blowing. This by-election had a great deal riding on it in the context of the July 28, 2017 verdict of the Supreme Court disqualifying Nawaz Sharif and the subsequent dismissal of the latter and his children’s review petitions by the court. Imran Khan had in his usual overblown style cast the by-election on Nawaz Sharif’s vacated seat as a battle between the latter and the judiciary. If that formulation were to be accepted, the result has not turned out as Imran had hoped or predicted.

Having said that, what has the result of the NA-120 by-election indicated? Since this constituency has been Nawaz Sharif’s stronghold (he has been elected three times from there), the final tally of votes, 61,254 for the PML-N, 47,066 for the PTI, suggests that the culture of patronage is still alive and kicking. However, the PTI’s candidate Dr Yasmin Rashid’s making inroads into the PML-N’s vote bank, with the margin of victory having shrunk from about 40,000 votes in 2013 to 14,000 now, could mean some element of disappointment amongst the people of the area at Nawaz Sharif’s failure to deal with the constituency’s problems and meet the people’s needs and aspirations. This could be a reflection of a breach in the implied social contract of votes in exchange for addressing these issues. The turnout was near the norm from past experience of by-elections: 33-36 percent.

Of the 44 candidates in the field, 41 have had their deposits confiscated for failure to garner sufficient votes, including the PPP (fourth with 2,692 votes) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (105 votes). Surprisingly, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s recently launched Milli Muslim League came in third with 4,268 votes. How the mighty have fallen. Asif Zardari tried to brush away this pathetic showing with inanities in a press conference in Peshawar on Sunday, but this cannot hide the decline of the once mighty PPP.

Although polling was largely peaceful, the usual set of complaints and criticism of the by-election came forth from both main contending parties. Federal Railways Minister Khwaja Saad Rafique complained about the Election Commission of Pakistan’s refusal to extend the voting time despite voters turning up in bigger numbers towards the end of the day. PML-N also alleged that many parchi holders were denied their right to vote and that 60 of their campaign workers were picked up by the law enforcement agencies the night before the polling. With a PML-N government in power in Punjab, if this is true, some other agency must have been responsible for this skullduggery.

In turn Dr Yasmin Rashid, the PTI’s losing candidate, has raked up the issue of about 23,000 unverified votes in NA-120, on the basis of which she has vowed to challenge the election result. This inability to lose with some grace is typical of the PTI’s political culture, betraying an anti-democratic mindset and a sense of entitlement beyond reality and the facts. Remember the hullaballoo Imran Khan raised about four seats in the 2013 general elections that led finally to the prolonged sit-in by the PTI in Islamabad in 2014? It seems that when the PTI is unable to win electorally, it refuses to accept the results and perhaps is tempted to take advantage of any ‘shortcuts’ that may be on offer. This trend introduced in politics by the PTI may result in a free-for-all, winner- (by any and all means) takes-all syndrome that is fraught with the risk of even bigger crises and jolts to the democratic system.

Senator Farhatullah Babar argued the other day on the floor of the house that micro-management of politics from behind the curtain (back seat driving, as he put it) risks greater conflict and may pose a serious new threat to the democratic project. That suggests a greater adherence by all stakeholders to the existing rules of the game, until such time as there is a consensus across the board on changing those rules to ensure greater transparency and credibility in the electoral process.

What the impact of the PML-N’s win in a beleaguered atmosphere could have on the larger political environment may only become clear once the dust has settled in NA-120. But there is a troubling theory doing the rounds these days. This envisages the powers-that-be having decided on a course of incremental decapitation of the political class through the accountability process, leaving at least the main parties headless and arguably adrift. Reference is made as proof of this theory to the National Accountability Bureau’s initiation of references against Nawaz Sharif, his children and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, reopening decided cases against Asif Zardari, and perhaps others. It is argued that the tactic of knocking out Zardari’s lieutenants from under him through corruption charges has not yielded the results perhaps expected. So the need is being felt to go for the top leadership, but this time across the board. Imran Khan had better be careful since his hopes for support from the establishment to come to power may end up in him being used once again for limited goals and then being dumped again.

Even if this theory is correct and is incrementally implemented, it will neither succeed in uprooting corruption, which is endemic to the existing system from top to bottom, nor in reducing the main parties to nothingness, if the result of the NA-120 by-election is any guide. If, however, this project succeeds in decapitating the political class, that would open up a dangerous vacuum of leadership at the heart of politics, with uncertain results and fallout. One wonders if the authors of this scheme have thought about what or who would replace the discredited leadership.

The discontent with our democratic project as it stands is rooted in the dashed hopes for continuity of the democratic process helping to evolve a transition to a better leadership for the country. However, this hope has failed to fructify because of dynastic politics and the domination of strong individual leaders. In such a milieu, new talent is thwarted by the lack of any internal democracy in the political parties worth the name and the fact that only the filthy rich can afford to take part in elections. The existing political class has a vested interest therefore in a continuation of this situation. This means electoral and democratic reform that could help the emergence of a second rung leadership groomed to take over from their elders is likely to go abegging.

A ‘democratic’ system without the ability to overcome its obvious class biases and other flaws is a ‘system’ always teetering on the brink of perfect storms to come.

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