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Time for patience

There has been much relief and joy at the government’s recent completion of a full five-year term and the announcement of an election date. The transfer of power from one civilian administration to another through the ballot box will be a watershed in Pakistani history.

Such a democratic transition should bolster political stability and, at a time when the country is plagued by myriad problems, particularly violent extremism, offer a glimmer of hope.

But this is Pakistan we’re talking about, where respite rarely lingers for long. Conducting free and fair elections in May will be an immense challenge, especially in the face of threats against ‘secular’ politicians by the Taliban and the appalling law and order situation in Karachi, Balochistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

Assuming the Election Commission of Pakistan manages to navigate the challenge, the year ahead holds further hurdles for Pakistani democracy: the formation of a coalition government, the appointments of both a new chief of army staff and chief justice of the Supreme Court, involvement in the Afghanistan endgame, and the further institutionalisation of democratic systems at the provincial level.

These developments will occur in the toxic environment of institutional tussles and media saturation that has characterised politics in the past few years. That means each process is likely to be plagued by politicking, rumour, conspiracy and a sense of imminent crisis à la “memogate”, “Arsalangate”, Tahirul Qadri’s ‘long march’, and the many other dramas that kept Pakistanis glued to their television screens these past five years.

The effects of these developments and their hysterical surround are also likely to be felt more acutely under the new government than they have been under President Asif Zardari’s savvy leadership.

With most mainstream parties suffering incumbency at either the federal or provincial level, the elections will yield no clear mandate, and the next coalition is predicted to be shakier than the past one. Moreover, if the government is led by the PML-N, as many expect it will be, the deep suspicions between Pakistan’s mainstream parties — which were clearly on display during the process of selecting a caretaker prime minister — will undermine stability as long as the PPP dominates the Senate and uses its veto powers to stymie policymaking efforts by its rival.

Historical animosity between the civilian government and military is also likely to flare when the institutions attempt to strong-arm each other while tackling two daunting problems: the escalating threat posed by homegrown militancy and the fallout of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

For years, political analysts have argued that the process of democratisation in Pakistan will be slow and arduous, beset by growing pains, demanding the public and international community’s patience. That patience will now be repeatedly tested with every political challenge that arises, and the real durability of our democratic transition will become apparent.

Politicians — and their amplifiers in the media — should be careful about how much they try the Pakistani public’s patience. Think of last week’s shenanigans surrounding the selection of a caretaker prime minister: there were new candidate lists each day, political wrangling, rumours of backchannel deals, displays of single-minded obstinacy, ultimatums issued and press conferences, and forecasting of events by high-level politicians that undermined aspects of the constitutional process.

If each development henceforth is accompanied by such bedlam, public disillusionment and impatience with democratic practices will settle in quickly, and that too at a time when deeper commitment to the system should be the order of the day.

The power of this disillusionment should not be underestimated, especially since there are already signs of it creeping upon our polity. Owners of news channels have complained of falling ratings in recent months, specifically, a reduction in viewership for political talk shows, which used to be mainstays.

Introspective media professionals concede that entertainment programming is increasingly winning out over political commentary because viewers are exhausted by manufactured crises that reach a crescendo then dissipate or, worse, turn out to never have been crises in the first place. Shrill political rhetoric and faux frothing at the mouth have become more frustrating than engaging.

For some, the mounting frustration with political antics simply manifests as a change of channel and a growing predilection for soap operas from Turkey and India. For others, it takes a very dangerous turn. After all, diatribes against the corruption and venality of Pakistan’s ruling elite are among the main battle cries of extremist groups calling for justice and Islamic rule.

As Amil Khan reports in a recent paper about narratives of extremism in Pakistan, Al Qaeda and its affiliates depict the country as a “victim of greedy rulers who betray Islam and Pakistan”. Growing disillusionment with the democratic system could therefore fuel militant recruitment.

Part of the reason we find ourselves at this juncture with a historic election to anticipate is because, in recent years, most frustrations with the country’s democratic progress have been expressed through the system itself: youth galvanising around Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf; peaceful protesters from small cities across the Punjab braving rain and dipping temperatures to support Qadri’s call for electoral reform.

This trend has been facilitated by the army’s reluctance to interfere overtly in the political sphere as well as post-Musharraf disgruntlement with army rule among the public.

But in parts of the country — primarily pockets controlled by militant groups — people have abdicated from the democratic set-up and are instead participating in parallel systems. The chances of such abdication becoming widespread are very slim. But few would be willing to risk finding out what happens if Pakistanis run out of patience with democracy.

The writer is a freelance journalist. huma.yusuf@gmail.com Twitter: @humayusuf

Huma Yusuf, "Time for patience," Dawn. 2013-03-25.