Today, as the elections are barely over, let me reflect on the outcome, as well as the campaigns and the future of the country. I will draw some lessons from home and abroad, the actual elections and some other examples and theories.
First, I would like to offer congratulations to all Pakistanis today, for yet again having held an election on schedule according to the land’s new, and after all, quite fragile democracy. Of course, as soon as exit polls and actual results begin to trickle in, the parties and candidates who do well will be happy, and those who fared less well, will be unhappy and some are likely to complain. There will be complaints about irregularities and maybe even outright rigging. But overall, it is my prediction that most people, parties and authorities will accept the outcome. I hope, too, that if there are problems in certain constituencies, those issues will be sorted out fast; it is in no one’s interest to drag out complaints and hold new elections much later, if that may be needed in odd cases.
We should accept that in a big, developing country like Pakistan, it is natural that there are some problems with elections and counting; we cannot expect the same tidiness as in Sweden –a rich country with a total population of 10 million, with more than a hundred years of universal suffrage and tidy elections. In Sweden, general elections are coming up in just over a month. Interestingly, though, this time around, it is predicted that it is the negotiations between the parties after the polls that will decide on the new government to rule. There are over half a dozen parties and the two left-right blocks will probably be more or less equal, and maybe some will jump side and allegiance. Making it more complicated, Sweden has a populist right-wing party that the others don’t want to touch and work with as a partner in government. Yet, I expect the level-headed Swedes to talk with all and be fair.
Maybe there are similarities between the two countries? In Pakistan, too, it is likely that the largest winning party will have to hold talks with several other smaller parties to form a coalition government with a majority in parliament. In Europe, such coalition governments are common nowadays; they may not always even have the majority of the seats in parliament, but form a minority government with loser support from another party or two in parliament, finding any opposition alternative worse.
It is my prediction that PTI will be the largest party with the highest number of seats in the new parliament when the votes have been counted. Furthermore, I predict that PML-N will be the second largest party, with solid support especially in Punjab, and that PPP will be the country’s third largest party, with the majority of seats in Sindh and more seats in Punjab than many had foreseen. Outside these three parties, there will be a good number of seats for the smaller parties and independents. This time around, it is possible that some of them will get ‘their time in the sun’, and more influence than the size justifies in a coalition government with PTI.
PTI (founded in 1996, a centrist-liberal party, with anti-corruption and anti-establishment image, and with populist sides) could also work with one of the other major parties, indeed PPP (founded in 1967, but with roots earlier, with left-wing beginnings and probably with a social-democratic soul even today). However, PPP, and certainly PML-N (founded in 1993 with roots back to 1954, even before, with clear conservative and capitalist sympathy) represent the old politics and status quo, while PTI represents and portrays itself representing a shift with new politics for change – and that is good for a land with half of its people below 24 years of age. Especially the youth and other voters in urban areas would like to be modern and try something new, finding the people in the old parties as outdated as a landline phone compared to a smartphone. Even older voters, poor people with little or no schooling and the middle class in rural areas, have begun to say that the politicians in the old parties ‘only think of themselves’. Hence, they may have changed party allegiance in the elections this time.
In the election campaign, Imran Khan and his PTI party have hit hard at PPP and certainly at PML-N, accusing them of corruption and power politics benefiting the richest families in the land, exporting capital and being disloyal to the country, robbing the vast majority of ordinary people of development. The former PM Nawaz Sharif (68) and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif Safdar (44), and other leaders of the party, were ousted from power and the two were recently even imprisoned; but still, the former PM’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, remains a force in Punjab. Former president Asif Ali Zardari (63), the co-chair of PPP, has also been targeted for amassing wealth, and he, too, is seen as belonging to the old politicians representing status quo, and an obstacle to major change.
Imran Khan personally and other PTI candidates use many populist slogans, and they don’t often spell out concretely how they will implement the change they promise; it is easier to criticise what is wrong than to make a roadmap for change. As we now wake up to ‘a new day’ in Pakistan, or ‘Naya Pakistan’, as PTI says, with PTI in the lead, as my prediction is, then we will soon also see their plans.
Yes, it is a fact the Nawaz Sharif is, or was, until recently, the country’s most successful politician; well, except for the founders of Pakistan. Now, Imran Khan may be the most successful ‘change-politician’, who against many odds did manage to rock the political boat, probably with more than a nod from the military and judiciary, without whom little change can happen in the country. They are then the establishment allowing change to happen, without having to take over themselves, and they also safeguard that change doesn’t become too dramatic and revolutionary.
All countries have an establishment, however, in Pakistan, the role of the military is more direct than it should be in a democratic society; the outspoken and direct role of the judiciary in politics is also more than it ought to be. It is the political parties, civil society and interest organisations that must be strengthened. True, the judiciary is one of the four independent pillars in a democracy, along with the parliament (the lawmakers), the cabinet (the executive power), and the media. The civil service (and the military service) implement decisions. Furthermore, it should be stressed that the parliament can only be robust if people participate in elections and democratic institutions and organisations, notably political parties, civil society organisations, interest organisations, employees’ and employers’ organisations and a multitude of other organisations, including labour unions in the private and public sectors. Indeed, education plays a key role in developing a democracy, making knowledge-based and informed decisions, which are transparent and open to people’s control, and in line with people’s wishes. Independent media is essential; in Pakistan press is generally competent and relatively independent.
If Imran Khan’s PTI party turns out to be the largest party in this election, there will be a ‘new day’ in the land. Yes, they can start building ‘Naya Pakistan’. Imran Khan will be inexperienced in wielding power, but most of the other senior PTI politicians are not new, and many have come over from other parties with experience, yes, and likely ‘skeletons in the cupboard’. In Pakistan, it is problematic that old politicians rarely are ‘Mr and Mrs Clean’. If several of PTI’s leaders have been or even become involved in ‘hanky-panky’ now when they become leaders of a new era, they would quickly become less different from the old politicians. Let us hope not, though. And let us hope, too, that people in power will also come from the new groups that PTI wants to give a better life: women, younger people, working class and poor people, religious minorities, and others.
If PTI (with PPP and maybe some small parties) rules well, and show results, the pragmatic and honest Imran Khan, might well even see a second term in power. True, too soon to say, and he has to watch out for ‘sharks’ from the old parties, and also from within. I would suggest that next time around, in next elections in five years if all goes well, PPP’s young leader Bilawal Zardari Bhutto (29) will have matured and not only speak as a reflected graduate in development studies, with modern social-democratic leaning; he and other leaders will also have become more practical in everyday politics. And then, maybe PPP will save PTI, too, not merge with it, but cooperate with it and help it gets some ideology and superstructure to the more centrist and liberal party, and Imran Khan (66) may eventually begin to realise his real age, needing to shed some real power to younger people. His impressive service to the land does have costs and takes its toll, even for a sportsman and humanitarian turned politician.
This is not only wishful thinking; I believe it is already happening. PTI and PP represent the future in politics. But then if PML-N gains many seats even this time, and that right-wing party continues to wield power, then the worries of the establishment may become true, and inequalities and conflicts will grow. I even don’t think PML-N is the best party for the private sector; I think everyone in Pakistan realises that more social and fairer economic policies are needed, also to include better education and health services for the workers, and policies that reduce differences and solve lasting conflicts. Pakistanis can undoubtedly become prosperous and genuinely patriotic, which the upper classes hinder today. With the new wind blowing mildly, and sometimes hard, we may indeed see ‘Naya Pakistan’ growing fast; the land will become prosperous and make all proud at home and abroad – and the world will admire the change.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.