This week, on the 25th of July, 2018, the ‘tired, poor, and huddled masses’ of our nation, yearning to breathe free, will once again be afforded their democratic right to cast their vote, and elect fresh representatives for governance. This exercise, of casting the ballot, is arguably the most sacred privilege in a democratic dispensation. It is the singular virtue that sets apart a democracy from other forms of government. It represents the single most important right, through the exercise of which we choose to be governed according to our own aspirations, and can claim to be masters of our own national destiny.
As a result, in essence, the casting of the ballot is not simply a privilege, but, much more importantly, the most solemn responsibility of each one of us.
In theory, it is fascinating that every five years we get to (legally and constitutionally) overthrow the government, and install for ourselves new guardians of our freedom. In Pakistan’s case, however, the theory is as far as the fascination extends. Because at the shores of the theory, start the bare sands of reality. And the reality is this: the impending election, divorced from individual passions that any of us might have for certain political parties, is a choice between electing the lesser of the evils.
Over the past eight decades, our interrupted democracy has not yielded much dividend for the people. We have seen persecution continuing to plague our minorities, corruption running rampant, a new set of dynastic elites capturing all political power, and militancy creeping from behind the thin veil of peace enforced by military operations. And so, before casting a vote in the 2018 General Elections, it is pertinent to pause for a moment and take stock of where we are today, and what direction we wish to take hereon.
For a relatively young nation, with almost 200 million citizens, Pakistan has had more than her share of plights and pitfalls. Despite the abundance of natural resources, we have acute power shortages; despite being one of the largest food-producers in the world, we have children dying of hunger; despite a constitutional democratic paradigm, we have entrenched political dynasties; despite following the religion of ‘peace’, we have kill and perpetrate barbarities in its name.
A glance at our national journey would reveal that most (if not all) of Pakistan’s problems have originated out of petty internal turf-wars, with very little attention paid to the soci-economic problems of our citizenry. As far back of the late 1970s, when Russian troops invaded Afghanistan, the military boots of General Zia-ul-Haq marched into the power corridors of Pakistan, and found alliance with power-hungry Punjabi elites (read: Nawaz Sharif), who were all too eager to assemble under the shade of a ruthless dictator. Soon, under this tainted dispensation, Pakistan saw an influx of Aghan refugees and militants, who brought with themselves opiate concoctions and Russian-made AK-47s. During these years, as religion became the new mantra of the State, Pakistan amended its Constitution and the laws to make space for the Mullahs in this Military-Mullah alliance. Hudood Ordinance was introduced. Section 295-C was made into a sword, as opposed to a shield. And once again, a subservient judiciary validated these actions.
With a plane crash over Bhawalpur, on 17th August, 1988, the checkered decade of Sharif – Benazir democracy was ushered in; a decade that continues to serve testament to the petty nature of our partisan bickering. During the 1990s, our two main political parties concerned themselves (entirely!) with creating personal dynasties and conspiring against each other, resulting in each party assuming power twice, and neither completing their constitutional tenure. During this time, no real efforts were made to stem the wave of Islamic militancy, sectarian violence, provincial conflicts, or the ever-growing myriad of financial corruption.
At the turn of the century, General Musharraf abrogated constitutional power in Pakistan (again, validated by a pliant judiciary, which incidentally included Iftikhar Chaudhary). Simultaneously, as twin towers came crashing down in New York, Afghanistan was turned into a battleground once again. In the decade that followed, Pakistan was engulfed with the flames of a new war against terror, with bearded militants crawling out of every nook and corner of our country. Almost instantaneously, Islam became synonymous with terrorism, and Pakistan became the ‘eye of the storm’ in this global battle against extremism. No one paid any real attention to fight financial corruption, or tackling other issues of socio-economic importance, while innocent children were being blown up in city centers across Pakistan. And so, while the world focused its lens on terrorism in Pakistan, the financial corruption and dynastic tendencies of the ruling elite remained unchecked, gaining strength and encouragement in the shadows.
Finally, in 2008, ‘democracy’ returned to Pakistan. And this time, in the wake of the fabled Lawyers’ Movement, democracy had a rejuvenated judiciary at its side. This judiciary, notwithstanding its internal scandals (of a prodigal son) focused its efforts on combating mega-corruption scandals and holding political elites (of one political party) accountable for their financial matters. Also, during this time, a new military leadership, led by the (now celebrated) General Raheel Sharif, parted ways with its past legacy of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants, and instead decided to focus its efforts on combating terrorism in all its forms.
As Pakistan completed its first five-year democratic term (in more than forty years), the 2013 elections ushered in the government of Nawaz Sharif. It was hoped that continuity in the democratic cycle would bring maturity to our constitutional enterprise. That NAB, FIA, State Bank, and other institutions of the State will start to perform their functions, without fear or favour; that democratic values will replace dynastic leadership; that public issues will trump personal fiefdoms. However, the PML(N) government of the past five years – barring interference from the honourable Supreme Court – saw no such change. For the most part, personal fiefdoms have remained intact, if not gotten stronger. And individuals like Saeed Ahmed (of NBP) and Qamar Zaman (of NAB) have remained the favourites of our ruling elite. In the process, the people of Pakistan continue to search for that elusive promise of democracy, which will serve rather than rule its citizenry.
In this backdrop, the people of Pakistan are once again being called upon to cast their vote for our collective future. While much effort has been made (by select partisan players) to make this vote about issues such as ‘vote to izzat do’ and (an undefined notion of) civil-military imbalance, let us be clear that two primary issues require deliberation (by each voter), before casting of the lot: 1) fighting militancy, and 2) eradicating corruption from our political elite. No matter which political party one votes for, or which candidate captures our imagination, let this vote be about fixing these two fundamental problems in Pakistan. Let this vote be about making sure that we do not bring to power people who still see some misconceived distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militancy. That all forms of violence –terrorism, sectarianism, provincialism, or violence against women – are finally brought to an end with our vote. And in equal measure, let our vote be a statement of the fact that we will not entrust our national exchequer to those who have built their empires through tainted financial dealings. That we will not accept rulers whose personal wealth is stashed abroad, and grows in quantum whenever Pakistani Rupee is devalued.
In many ways, this election is perhaps our last chance to make this statement. The next one (in 2023) may be too late. This, here, and now is our chance. If only we muster the courage to take it.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.