‘Give respect to vote.’ The PML-N has raised this slogan to counter the avalanche of lawsuits, blames, and accusations of corruption resulting in the dismissal of Mian Nawaz Sharif from power. The slogan has helped PML-N in its political revival among its voters. People are told that their right to vote is not respected, as the ‘intervening forces’ always hijack the exercise the voters undertake every five years. From a realist lens the justification holds water and cannot be easily thrown aside. However, in the perspective of Pakistan’s political history and the behaviour of political parties towards their voters, the other side of the slogan needs equal attention. If vote should be respected so are the voters.
What does it mean to (dis) respect voters? We shall return to this later.
The strange thing about our political parties is that, they blame everyone other than themselves, for governance failure. Last week Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in his interview with BBC’s Hardtalk, blamed the Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan for snatching party’s mandate in 2013 elections. He said that the TTP attacked his party’s rallies and killed and kidnapped its people leading to low voter turnover. Bilawal was right. But this was just half-truth. The five years that the PPP ruled Pakistan, from 2008-13, hardly a day passed without any terrorist attack. The country plunged into more darkness because the party made no real effort to tackle the electricity crisis. And whatever attempts were made, they were challenged in the Supreme Court on corruption charges, like the rental power project. All the relevant departments to fight terrorism such as the NACTA were hardly revived. Lawlessness was at its peak in Sindh, especially in Karachi, because of target killings. The terror of MQM was insurmountable and PPP was in no mood to harness it. To keep its party intact in the center, where it lacked numbers to keep afloat, peace in Sindh was sacrificed on the MQM alter. The circus of MQM of leaving and joining PPP in Sindh went on with every reunion coming about by giving something more to the MQM that strengthened the party in terror and intimidation. Until than it was not proved that, the Altaf-run party had links with the RAW. The spadework to unmask this reality kicked off when the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, started hearing, in July 2014, the petition filed by Malana Tahirul Qadri about target killings in Karachi.
The sum-up of the findings was: Karachi has been divided into power turfs among the major political parties in Sindh, and the law enforcement agencies were complicit in creating law and order situation on the instructions of politicians. Extortion, target killing, kidnapping for ransom, sectarian killing were allowed because every party had its fingers in the pie, the metropolitan city offered in economic terms. Even the role of Rangers, which had been deployed by that time in Karachi for almost 25 years, was found controversial.
Life in Karachi had become difficult not only for an ordinary person, who had to face everything from energy crisis to lost job opportunities, but also for the businessmen, who had to share their profit on a daily basis with the extortionists. Many businessmen were killed because they either refused or delayed paying extortion money. The case of Baldia Factory is in point.
On the procedural side the PPP may have bridged gaps for effective democracy but at the normative side their performance was disappointing. The 18th Amendment cut out the clauses inserted in the constitution by the military dictators. The new constitution resembled to some extent the original draft of 1973. However, one area that was left untouched was the 8th Amendment—-the religious voice of the constitution—-this mistake has already come home to haunt the parliament. However, the parliamentarians were overall satisfied that, with the new amendment the constitution could be no more be used, to connive against the sitting government. But, like always, civilians’ dream, to have it all, was cut short, by their own deeds. The provision of the military courts through the 21st Amendment gave power to the army to try terrorists. This provision also meant that the terrorism courts in Pakistan were not functioning optimally, and that the criminal justice system had ceased to be effective. The politicians were scarcely alarmed by this new development. Other than shedding a few tears, like Raza Rabbani did, no real effort was made to over haul the justice system, neither in the remaining tenure of the PPP, nor during the present regime, when the 23rd Amendment was introduced to extend the tenure of the military courts. Now when the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, is shaming the executive for not doing its job, the courts are told that their own house has been in shambles. Why did the ruling party have to wait, until the axe of inefficient justice system fell on its back, to hold the courts accountable? Could not it realise that at the end of the day it’s the voters’ life at stake, if a country’s justice system is not delivering.
It indeed is a clever move by the PML-N to demand respect for votes without respecting the voters’ genuine expectations from their representatives.
How are voters disrespected? One, when both the education and health sectors are kept expensive and moth-eaten, so that the masses remain stuck in the vicious circle of poverty. Two, when the people are not provided with the basic amenities of life: the citizens of Karachi are running from pillar to post to get one glass of clean water and one Megawatts of electricity. The same is true with many cities of Pakistan, including Lahore. Three, when the promises made during elections are not fulfilled and the constituents are hardly looked back at once the election is over. Four, when people are induced to sell their votes against petty rewards. Five, when taxpayers’ money is used on unprecedented perks of the military-judicial-civil complex, businessmen turned politicians and absentees landowners, when more than 60 per cent of the people in country are leading a sub-human life. Six, when the poor are taxed through indirect taxation system that amounts to two-third of the total tax collected, and the rich are given amnesty, as is given recently. From 35 per cent, the tax on ultra-rich has been brought down to 15 per cent, through a Presidential Ordinance, on April 8, 2018. However, the crushing sales tax on the general masses that ranges from 18 to 35 per cent has not been touched. It is a total misguide that Pakistanis do not pay taxes. The whole truth is that the poor, the middle-class, the salaried people, are the victims of the oppressive tax regime, whereas the ruling elites——those demanding respect for the votes——are flourishing on the taxpayers’ money.
Every government is judged by two functions: Rule of law and tax collection. With the existing performance in both these areas, do our politicians really enjoy the liberty to demand respect for vote.
n The writer is a freelance journalist based