Defeating all odds, Pakistan is set to embark on its second ever consecutive democratic transition of power. In these five years, we have been through endless dharnas, horrific terrorist attacks and a cold war between the judiciary and the government, all threatening to undo the historically volatile democracy of Pakistan - yet here we are, been through hell but still standing, including ourselves in one of the democracies of the world.
Some understandably are sceptical of the extent of fairness of the election, and suspect pre-poll rigging. Certainly, the events leading up to the election, least of all the harsh sentencing of Nawaz and Maryam Sharif, are steps which appear to deliberately prejudice Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The irregular timing of the verdict against Haneef Abbasi, continuous disqualifications of PML-N candidates, and allegations of the Noon party campaign posters and advertisements being forcefully removed have convinced a certain progressive segment of the country that these elections have already been influenced, and the importance of the vote is compromised, and many civilian supremacists gloomily predict that the country is headed towards being a sham democracy. I, however, say not so fast.
Some of us, it seems, are haunted by dark reminders of the past, of sham elections and military dictatorships, and have passed the verdict too soon on these upcoming ones. However, it is important to recognise the groundbreaking advances we have made as a nation in these ten years of democracy, which make a repeat of the extent of past rigging and political engineering an improbability. Has there been pre-poll undue influence this time? Yes, there is definitely a political tilt to the events occurring before the elections. Still it is imperative to acknowledge that the political environment and the active participation of the people that exists right now is like no other, and will not allow a repeat of the rigged elections of history. It is important to recognise that the people’s voice has made a difference and still has power. Even more urgently, it is important to go out and vote.
With the mudslinging between political parties and the constant exploitation of religious issues, it is natural to feel disillusioned for the lack of choices to vote for, and opt to stay at home instead. Yet the undeniable fact before us is that there is more choice in these elections, and thus more competition, than ever before. The last two elections have had pretty straightforward choices- PPP, PTI and PML-N; this year, whether we like it or not, many small parties have risen above and gained influence, and can definitely not be ignored. The last year has seen otherwise non-consequential parties like Milli-Muslim League (MML) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLYR) gain popularity and precede well-established parties like the PPP. The silver lining of religious and extremist parties’ growing influence among ordinary voters is that through these same mediums of media and activism of civil society, progressive individuals like Jibran Nasir, Ammar Rashid and Ismat Shahjahan have also gained popularity and now stand an actual chance of defeating the status quo party candidates for the national assembly seat.
While most lament the rise of TLYR, it is undeniable that more parties create more competition, which keeps the political arena on its toes. Competition can incentivise elected representatives to deliver on their promises; and it can push opposing candidates and parties to try just harder and engage with people more. Most importantly, competition keeps the election process and bigger parties in check. More powerful parties, with following from loyal supporters, are more likely to monitor the election process and call out irregularities. Take this election as an example; allegations of pre-poll rigging have haunted every election, where the odds were stacked much worse, yet the process still went by relatively unscathed. Compare this to these elections, where every move and verdict of the judiciary is being analysed upon, and respect of the vote has become a topic of national conversation. In this environment of heightened political awareness (comparatively), rigging an election is a much harder task to do, since the riggers know that there will be a larger number of prejudiced parties, with their numerous hosts of loyal supporters, watching every move.
Though the polarisation may be woeful, this increase in competition is due to the successful continual of democracy and transition of power. Democracy empowers ordinary citizens, and this lowering of entry to barriers to politics must be viewed as a good step, no matter how much we resent TLYR. Fear not, comrades, the rise in awareness of the respect of the vote, and empowerment of the citizen of his political rights, will not let a sham democracy come in place- or at least, make it highly difficult to. Perhaps the times are also such that engineering an election is not so easy anymore, what with phones, cameras and social media reporting on the get-go, misconduct and irregularities are more bound to be noticed. The 2013 elections displayed some of the accountability-through-technology phenomena, and these elections are bound to expand on it. Every political party right now is investing in its poll workers and journalists, who are authorised to be in the polling station, and a phone ban will not deter them from reporting on any misconduct.
While these elections are highly unpredictable and pendulum could swing either way, most predictions are those of a coalition government-in other words, a weak parliament- which should be an even worse outcome for progressives than an all-out PTI victory. To address the enormous political, economic and security challenges faced by the country, a strong federal government with a clear electoral mandate is surely needed, and a hung parliament could only empower anti-democratic forces. A significant voter turnout, regardless of the result, could help diminish uncertainty and ensure a stronger democracy.
It’s one of the best and worst features of democracy that it takes time to strengthen and bring results. Whispers of rigging have haunted elections since 2008, yet after every five years, we have seen an increase in accountability and fairer turn of events. In the end, even if these elections do turn out to be the dirtiest most rigged political event in history, it is still important to cast that purple stamp on the ballot paper. Letting an empty ballot paper wither in waste only goes in favour to those opposed to the democratic transition of power. Continue the tradition of the last decade of democracy, and political empowerment of the citizen, and go out and vote.
The writer is a final year Law student at LUMS and an editorial writer at The Nation.