Something remarkable happened this week. During a corner meeting in his constituency, social activist and electoral candidate Jibran Nasir was confronted by a group of angry provocateurs who demanded that he declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and, furthermore, hurl abuse at that entire community. At first, Jibran Nasir simply stated that he was interested in talking about the issues confronting the people of Karachi, that he was more concerned about questions of poverty and deprivation, and that declarations of faith and displays of religiosity had not meant that other politicians and candidates were not corrupt when they came to power. As an increasingly incensed crowd continued to demand Jibran vilify an entire group of Pakistanis who have been the targets of a systematic and unrelenting campaign of discrimination, Jibran firmly stated that he would not campaign on the basis of the religion. Finally, as the meeting came to a close amidst more shouting and abuse, JIbran Nasir categorically stated something that perhaps no contemporary Pakistani politician or electoral candidate has had the courage to say; he would not compromise on his principles for votes and would not submit before the forces of hatred and bigotry by joining them in their continued attacks on the Ahmadi community. He refused to speak against them.
In the time since that corner meeting, Jibran Nasir has been confronted by, and even physically attacked by, alleged members of the TLY, the religious ‘party’ behind the Faizabad sit-in, which has made blasphemy and the Finality of Prophethood its principle political concern. Yet, Jibran remains unbowed and undeterred, sticking to his refusal to campaign on the basis of religion or use it to justify the persecution of other Pakistanis. In this regard, Jibran is both braver and more principled than the leaders and candidates of all the mainstream parties, including the PTI and PML-N, whose leaders have not only quailed before allegations of blasphemy, but also continue to stoke the fires of religious hatred as they ape the rhetoric of the religious right in their attempts to win votes.
Candidates like Jibran Nasir are rare. Others like him include Ammar Rashid from the Awami Workers Party, contesting the elections from NA-53 in Islamabad, whose calls for greater economic and social justice for all, as well as a more tolerant Pakistan free of discrimination based on religion, gender, ethnicity, and caste, is a welcome breath of fresh air amidst manifestoes by the mainstream parties that simply repeat the banal clichés of the past while fearing to challenge any of the powerful entrenched interests that urgently need to be confronted if Pakistan is to prosper.
The unfortunate reality is that while people like Jibran Nasir and Ammar Rashid represent precisely the kind of leaders this country requires, their chances of victory are low. Their opponents from the PTI, PML-N, and other parties are better funded and more able to work the levers of patronage that often sway voters and are also able to rely on party machineries and local alliances to cobble together vote blocs. Perhaps most importantly, their opponents are largely unconstrained by principle or ideology, free to make the compromises that win elections but ultimately perpetuate the status quo.
Nevertheless, a vote for candidates like Jibran Nasir and Ammar Rashid is not necessarily a vote wasted. If nothing else, it sends a signal that shows how their brand of progressive politics has support in Pakistan, and that the moribund ideas of the mainstream parties do not necessarily have to be the only options available to the Pakistani electorate. At a more personal level, if one believes that voting is important to demonstrate support for the political process, candidates such as these provide an outlet for those who cannot bring themselves to proactively endorse a political elite that has repeatedly demonstrated its venality, opportunism, and incompetence.
Where candidates like Jibran Nasir and Ammar Rashid cannot be found, either as independents or belonging to smaller, lesser known parties, the question of who to vote for becomes a bit trickier. One obvious answer is to look at the candidates from the mainstream parties and evaluate them based on their experience, reputations, and credentials. All the big parties have some good people in them, and supporting them is another way to send a signal about the type of representatives voters would like to see in parliament.
The problem with this approach to voting, however, is that a vote for a candidate, whoever they might be, is ultimately a vote for their party and all it stands for. This might be fine if the voter in question happens to agree with the party’s manifesto and the words and actions of its leaders, but that is not always necessarily the case. More importantly, it could be argued that the broader agenda of a party outweighs the individuals strengths of its candidates when it comes to voting; elected representatives are usually constrained by party discipline, and there is little an individual member of parliament can do if their party (or the parliamentary majority) happens to disagree with them. Put differently, if there is good reason to believe that a party will perform poorly in government, based on whatever criteria a voter might deem important, voting for one of that party’s candidates may not be the best idea.
Voting is always a subjective exercise, and different people with different ideological predilections, perceptions of party and candidate performance, needs, and levels of information, will obviously make and rationalise different voting preferences. However, when going to the polls on July 25. It might be worthwhile to bear a few basic principles in mind. The status quo in Pakistan is defined by the elite capture and domination of politics, the perpetuation of tremendous economic inequality, discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, and other forms of identity, and general incompetence in terms of governance. It is also important to remember that some parties and candidates are inherently undemocratic, in that they have displayed a willingness to work with undemocratic actors to subvert the electoral process, thereby weakening the country’s institutions and impeding substantive democratisation. While none of the mainstream parties can reasonably claim to be challenging the status quo in a meaningful way, voters would do well to reward those that seem to be more willing to do so should they come to power.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.