The selfish state and the near-sighted voter

I was very interested in Cyril Almeida’s column for Dawn today. In it, Cyril does a great job of expressing what is, I think, a common frustration – especially among the urban intelligentsia. We got our democracy in 2008, and it’s been three years – why doesn’t Islamabad look like London yet? And if everyone is as disappointed as the people in my sitting room, what is going to happen in the next elections?

Cyril says that conventional wisdom’s focus on constituency is undermined by the unpredictability of two factors. The first, demographics.

Conventional wisdom has it that the people want democracy to continue, they don’t want the army back. But the last time that theory was tested, a mere 35 million people turned out to vote in 2008. What did the other 130 million want?

Remove kids aged 14 and below from the scope of political action, and you’re still left with 80-odd million people whose opinion we know little about. Are they just indifferent to democracy, at least Pakistan’s version of it, or are they a combustible mixture waiting for the right catalyst to be poured on?

This is compelling in the long-term, but not for the next elections because Cyril’s overstating the case. “The other 130 million” don’t necessarily have a say in elections. Children, for example, don’t get a vote. Cyril recognises this when he says, ‘remove kids aged 14 and below…’, but why stop there? Imran Khan may be the fashionable choice of a couple million urban teenagers, but the fact remains that no matter how many Imran Khan Facebook pages a 16-year-old likes, he still doesn’t get to vote.

Let’s compare voter turnout in Pakistan to voter turnout in two of the oldest and most prosperous democracies, the UK and US.

In the UK, voter turnout has been better, but has still never broken the 85 per cent mark, typically hovering closer to 75 per cent. But when you break it down by age, young people don’t vote. Only 44 per cent of Britains under 25 bothered to show up in 2010.

In America, voter turnout over the past half-century has hovered around 55 per cent. In the 2008 elections, voter turnout was over 60 per cent, but in 2010 it dropped to 41 per cent. Young Americans, though, are less likely than older Americans to vote. When the voting turnout reached 61 per cent in 2008, over 50 per cent of young people voted. But two years later, young voter turnout dropped by 60 per cent.

Whatever young people want, it doesn’t matter if they don’t show up to vote. And empirical evidence suggests that, for many reasons beyond being ‘just indifferent to democracy’, they’re probably not going to show up en masse to storm the polls in the next elections, either.

Then there’s the other possible ‘element of surprise’ that Cyril mentions.

Still, the notion that Pakistani politics is about constituency, constituency, constituency is undercut by the results of the last two elections. In ’08, the electorate singled out Musharraf’s men for punishment; in ’02, the American arrival in Afghanistan powered the MMA to wins in Balochistan and then-NWFP.

I would take issue with this reading of electoral history as well. In 2008, the electorate certainly was fed up with Musharraf’s decade of dictatorial misrule, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the people were simply voting against Mushy and would have voted for anyone just to punish him. 2008 was not that long ago, and I still remember the mood quite well. We wanted not just to get rid of Musharraf’s regime, but to usher in a new era of democracy – which we did, messy though it may be.

Where I think Cyril is really off the mark, though, is how he describes the MMA success in 2002. Though it may be convenient to look at the American arrival in Afghanistan, it’s beyond reductive to leave out the less convenient fact that the MMA’s ‘vote for Quran or vote for America’ campaign still only managed to win 63 seats, and that while PPP and PML-N were being handicapped by LFO. And even this supposed ‘rise to power’ only really took place, as Cyril notes, in parts of Balochistan and NWFP. Without the help of the state and establishment, MMA’s gains were wiped out in 2008, despite the fact that anti-American sentiment was much higher than in 2002.

As for the possibility that “a right-wing ideologue could ride the wave of crazed religiosity that a Mumtaz Qadri-type act can unleash”, I think this is much more likely a scenario in the paranoid halls of Washington than the streets of Jhelum. Not because a disturbing number of people aren’t sympathetic to Salmaan Taseer Shaheed’s killer, but because that sympathy is rooted in complicated socio-cultural issues and not a popular desire to live under a Taliban-style theocratic regime.

The more interesting variable is, as always, the establishment. The ‘deep state’ has a long history of meddling in politics. Supposedly, the political wing of ISI has been disbanded, but even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of it being reinstated if certain elements felt it was in ‘national interest’ to do so. There’s been some suggestion that establishment support is responsible for Imran Khan’s uncanny rise from zero to the front page, but it remains to be seen whether Imran Khan’s main constituency will be willing to melt in the hot sun on election day.

Then there’s the really scary scenario that Cyril explores.

As for the rank and filers tucked away in their orderly cantonments, who’s to say what they’re really thinking about and talking over among themselves. Rural and urban Pakistan have not stood still over the last 30 years, so why must the products of those societies be what they have always been, docile and disciplined?

This is what I would call the real ‘Bangladesh Option’, seeing as how it would likely result in a re-play of the early years there with one ‘rank-and-file’ coup after another spinning the nation into even greater chaos and disorder. Still, perhaps I have more faith than Cyril in the discipline and good sense of the rank and file because I just don’t see this happening.

But the biggest point of confusion in Cyril’s piece is in the conclusion.

And what’s the point of a transition to democracy when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff?

When a state exists to tend to its own needs to the almost-total exclusion of the public’s dreams and aspirations, it will eventually become a nightmare for everyone involved.

The point of a transition to democracy is that when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff…you get to change the set up without having to actually push the country off the cliff. Democracy allows the public to demand that the state respond to the public’s dreams and aspirations. It’s the dictatorship, whether of khahkis or clerics, that produces real nightmares.

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