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Acts of commission

Published 07 Aug, 2018 05:47pm
Polling officials counting votes in Karachi | White Star
Polling officials counting votes in Karachi | White Star

The 2018 elections have changed Pakistan’s political landscape and power structure from what they were till less than three months ago. Those in the government till recently are now gearing up for agitation and those who have been protesting since 2013 are now preparing themselves to take over the government.

All the losing parties are crying foul and some of them are calling for the election results to be countermanded. This is unlikely to happen. Nor would democratic opinion wish the confrontation on the electoral process to continue for long. The ground reality is that a regime change has taken effect. By the time these lines appear in print, Imran Khan should be getting ready to take oath as Pakistan’s new prime minister.

His victory speech, widely described as splendid rhetoric, has already won him considerable goodwill at home and abroad. He said many things that people, especially the poor and all those who feel strongly about corruption and extravagance by public representatives, wanted to hear. One of the main things missing was that the captain of the victorious team forgot to pay customary tribute to the losing side for putting up a good fight.

Going back to the election results, the final tally proved most political pundits wrong as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won more seats in the National Assembly than its main rival, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), did. Even in the Punjab Assembly, the former party fell only a few seats short of the latter. PTI also suffered no incumbency disadvantage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and surprised everybody by bagging more seats in Karachi – both for the National Assembly and the Sindh Assembly – than the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQMP) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) put together.

PMLN won fewer seats in the National Assembly as well as in the Punjab Assembly than most observers had predicted. These observers perhaps could not fully assess the pro-PTI environment created prior to the polls and the impact of Imran Khan’s aggressive campaigning. Still the credit due to PMLN for its plucky fight should not be held back. It entered the electoral arena with its hands and feet tied – though the fact that it was on the rack matters less than its actual electoral position – and yet it raced neck and neck against the odds-on favourite. In the end, it got seats in the National Assembly commensurate with its share of the popular vote — winning 23.7 per cent of all the contested seats with 23 per cent of polled votes. Compared to this PTI won 43 per cent share of the National Assembly seats with a 31 per cent share of polled votes. This is likely to revive the on and off debate on the shortcomings of our first-past-the-post electoral system.

Much noise had been made about the importance of ‘electable’ candidates in the run-up to the election but all assessments in this regard were largely proved wrong. The candidates acquired by PTI from other parties on the assumption of their electability generally failed to do well. Many of them – including former Punjab governor Sardar Zulfiqar Ali Khan Khosa and former PPP bigwigs Nadeem Afzal Gondal, Nazar Muhammad Gondal and Firdous Ashiq Awan – could not win their seats. Quite a few PTI candidates who were given party tickets on the basis of their electability lost to the party’s own supporters who had been denied election nominations.

Some of the heavyweights (such as former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Prince Abbas Khan Abbasi, a descendant of the Nawab of Bahawalpur), who considered themselves unbeatable on the strength of their personal standing, entered the fray as independent candidates and fared badly. This strengthens the impression that political parties in this election have mattered more – just as they have done in the past – than individual candidates. This can be considered a good omen for a transition to democracy though the way political parties have frittered away such advantages in the past dampens such optimism.

What does not look good is that the competition between political parties and candidates for citizens’ votes often degenerated into hateful encounters and permanent-looking divisions in society. Instead of winners shaking hands with losers and the latter congratulating the former, the competing camps have passed on the baggage of mutual hatred and enmity to their supporters in the larger communities. This is closer to the tradition of vulgar feudal feuds than to a decent democratic competition. The result is incidents like the arrest of two young men in Bannu for allegedly shooting a dog after draping it in the flag of a party that they opposed. The harm that such perpetuation of electoral enmities causes to politics, public administration and cultural life is truly enormous. All parties have a duty to develop a culture of respect for their opponents. 

This excerpt is part of the Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.