This image of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s arrival at a polling station to cast his vote was flashed by all TV channels and the print media. What message does it send to the people?
To find an answer let us see what happens in similar situations in other democracies (since we are talking of polling and casting of votes, let us include Pakistan in the list of formal democracies).
In the advanced democracies too the incumbent prime minister’s arrival at a polling station to cast her/his vote receives special treatment from the media. There the message is clear: the prime minister comes to affirm the principle that she/he is ultimately answerable to the electorate. She/he has presented her/his government’s performance before the people and they will decide whether a change of government is called for. In a way, the prime minister’s appearance at the polling station is symbolic of her/his faith in democracy and affirmation of the people’s sovereignty.
In Pakistan, the situation is somewhat different. To begin with, Pakistan’s prime ministers rarely appear in person to acknowledge the decisive role of the ballot box. And as regards sovereignty of the people, the less said about it the better.
Pakistan’s first seven prime ministers – Liaquat Ali Khan, Sir Khwaja Nazimuddin, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, H S Suhrawardy, I I Chundrigar and Feroz Khan Noon could not cast their votes because no general election was held during their tenure. President Ayub Khan held two elections (1960 and 1965) but he had merged the office of the head of government with that of the head of state. His appearance at the polling station could hardly be taken as affirmation of faith in democracy because he had declared democracy incompatible with the genius of the Pakistani people.
Likewise, the 1970 election was ordered by General Yahya Khan who did not have a prime minister; he only greeted Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the future prime minister and made sure that he did not have to keep his word. I doubt if he had time to go to a polling station.
After Noon’s deposition in 1958, Pakistan had no prime minister until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stepped down from the position of president in 1973. He had a chance to go to the polling station in 1977 but he decided to get elected unopposed and missed this great opportunity.
Then came Ziaul Haq and he followed in the footsteps of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. He organised a referendum and did not consider it necessary to cast his vote as he was the sole beneficiary of the manoeuvre.
He also held a general election in 1985, sort of, as contrary to the democratic principle all candidates had to swear freedom from any political affiliation. He named Mohammad Khan Junejo as prime minister but saved him from going to a polling station as a supplicant by sacking him before his time was up.
The 1988 general election was organised by Ghulam Ishaq Khan who also chose to rule without a prime minister and, thus, there was no possibility of a prime minister’s appearance at a polling station.
Then Pakistan entered the phase of elections under caretaker prime ministers – Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi in 1990, Moeen Qureshi in 1993, and Meraj Khalid in 1996. They were not expected to send any message about the future of democracy in Pakistan as each of them had taken over after strangulation of the National Assembly.
The elections of 2002 and 2008 were called by President Pervez Musharraf. Zafarullah Jamali and Muhammad Mian Soomro were there as prime ministers, but nobody was in a mood to receive messages from anyone other than the real boss.
The 2013 election was again held under a caretaker prime minister, Hazar Khan Khoso, but his anxieties about ensuring fair polls left him with little time to talk of democracy and its future. The main problem with prime ministers in Pakistan has been that they have held office during the pleasure of the head of the state or the COAS or the judiciary and not during the pleasure of the parliament, and their position is as little understood in the country as the system of parliamentary democracy itself.
Further, this country is concerned less with the system of elections than with the system of rigging them. Thus, the public response to the appearance of the prime minister at a polling station comes firstly in the form of annoyance at the disruption of the polling caused by his security brigade and, secondly, in the form of a question: “How much of a fair election can you afford?”.
The picture before me must have been taken when Sharif came to cast his vote in a local body election. He had no fear of accountability that he should have at the time of general election – but then he will be shielded by a caretaker prime minister. During the local body election he had no worries as the Punjab Government had in its infinite wisdom taken out all the teeth the local government institutions had.
What a pity the people of Pakistan cannot see their prime minister bowing before their will, not even ceremoniously.