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Road to nowhere?

Are we driving on a road that leads nowhere by way of peaceful transfer of power to a freely and fairly elected government? The goal of establishing a genuinely representative government in the country does not seem to be a priority for the powers that be. These elections are taking place by default.

The PPP’s government had completed its term and the extra-parliamentary contenders for power saw no reason to jump into the fray and soil their hands – given the high level of public frustration on various counts and a relatively strident media.

The caretaker government has turned out to be the weakest of its kind in history. It neither publicly acknowledged the existence of a debilitating series of terrorist attacks for several weeks nor took prompt and stern action to provide security to the party leaders, workers and supporters engaged in the election campaign.

The caretaker Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso’s address to the nation on May 3 dampened all hopes in this regard. There was no call for the army to act in aid of civilian power under Article 245, nor alternatively any threat of resignation after due acknowledgement of his government’s failure to deliver peace.

President Zardari has been reduced to a symbolic presence as head of state. But, he is also the supreme commander of the armed forces of Pakistan. He should have contacted, consulted and ordered the security establishment to handle the law and order situation surrounding the election campaign, especially as his own party and its erstwhile coalition partners were directly in the line of fire.

But what have been the priorities of the army in the face of brutal killings of people belonging to one set of political parties? Did it feel that, in the backdrop of military operation in Fata, any fresh deployment of troops would have spread it thin? Was the reticence of the security apparatus to engage in restoring the law and order situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh related to the Afghanistan endgame in terms of keeping the Taliban on a leash?

What is the goal of the Taliban in perpetrating violence on a select number of parties? The Taliban lack the potential to dismantle the state as it exists today and establish a Shariah-based state in its place overnight. Instead, they want to bring into power an assorted number of the perceived proto-Taliban elements who oppose drone attacks, and profess and project a policy of negotiations with militants. A period of negotiations always helped ease the pressure on them, giving them space to rehabilitate, regain lost territory and expand their tentacles.

The Taliban value the traditional Islamic parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, but distrust their potential to provide substantive support within the political system of Pakistan. The inconsequential support of the parliamentary Islamic parties for the Taliban devastated them in two ways: they lost their peaceful and democratic credentials; and they surrendered the political initiative as flag-bearers of the Islamic agenda to those operating from outside the electoral framework.

Will Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan, if not the JI or the JUI, help the Taliban after coming into power? In the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif passed anti-terrorism legislation and put ATCs (anti-terrorist courts) in place much to the chagrin of the legal fraternity, and of course proto-Taliban sectarian militants such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its offshoots. The Taliban’s complacency on this score may turn out to be counterproductive for them.

The bomb attacks on the party offices cost precious human lives and have a multiplier effect. Every dead person in these attacks can keep a thousand terrorised people away form the polling stations on May 11. This can lead to a low voter turnout. The representative character of MNAs and MPAs in the 14th National Assembly and the provincial assemblies can be very low, a far cry from representing the majority of the registered votes.

Since no political party or leader is expected to win a majority of seats in the National Assembly, a coalition government is expected to take charge that will put together strange bedfellows belonging to the mainstream, ethnic and Islamic parties. This renders the current exercise in mass polls as an election unto itself, not as a means to addressing people’s issues and grievances.

An indirect but dangerous outcome of the Taliban attacks is the division of the nation into two zones of peace and conflict, symbolised by Punjab on the one hand and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan on the other. Given an already high level of mistrust for Punjab in these provinces, this will only stoke fires of hatred against the power base of Pakistan. The strategy of barring elections in three provinces and allowing them in one province will inflict wounds that may take a generation to heal.

A silver lining in this depressing scenario is Gen Kayani’s statement that the current war against terror is our war. This theme has been one of the pivotal points of the election campaign. The statement has been understood as a genuine expression of fatigue with the controversy hurting the morale of soldiers out in the field and as a justification for the sacrifices offered by the troops fighting terrorists.

However, one statement may not change the discourse about the war not being our war. Imran Khan’s PTI and various Islamic parties have consistently called it an American war. A large majority of the articulate section of the public has nurtured anti-American sentiments during the last decade. The general’s statement provides too little too late for steering the national thinking away from deceptive thinking about terrorist elements seeking to establish their writ on large swathes of our land.

As violence hits the smaller provinces, the election campaign in Punjab concentrates on middle-class agendas, as defined by politics revolving around the cosmopolitan youth, the corporate model of the economic policy, laptop lollipops and national sovereignty on the issue of drone attacks. The urban middle-class character of the PTI is made conspicuous by the ex-ambassadors, ex-bureaucrats, bourgeois ladies and technocrats making a beeline to join the party.

Similarly, the focus of the PTI’s rhetoric on corruption is catching the big fish, which earns it a high profile. The real corruption in the form of the mini-exchange of service with cash behind a million desks in the public sector remains elusive. Corruption, conceived as a question of public morality, has become a middle-class issue. While the classes are in, the masses are out. There is no set of concrete policies to address the myriad problems of the large working class despite the astronomical but abhorrent figures in party manifestos.

The post-election scenario hardly seems encouraging. An era of technocrats and bureaucrats is round the corner. The election campaign moved in the direction of negative campaigning and loud claims. While Nawaz Sharif lags behind Imran Khan in terms of the art of connecting with the people, Imran must learn from Nawaz Sharif’s sagacity, propriety and a balanced approach to public life. There are no shortcuts to political eminence.

The writer is professor of Political Science at the Department of

Social Sciences, LUMS.Email: waseem@lums.edu.pk

Mohammad Waseem, "Road to nowhere?," The News. 2013-05-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political process , Political leaders , Political parties , National issues , Post government-Pakistan , Military operation , Religious groups , Military-Pakistan , Politics-Pakistan , Elections , Violence , Corruption , Taliban , Nawaz Sharif , Imran Khan , Gen Kayani , President Zardari , Mir Hazar Khan Khoso , Pakistan , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Balochistan , Afghanistan , PPP , FATA , ATCs