Strange outcome of ECP’s dual standard

ballots

ECP has barred dual nationality holders from contesting elections, it was reported today. ECP has also declared that it is re-considering a proposal expanding the right to vote to people who aren’t Pakistani nationals.

The strange outcome of ECP’s dual standard, obviously, will be that people who don’t live in Pakistan and have no intention of ever living here can decide elections, but people who actually live here can’t contest elections.

 

Lords and Masters

There seem to be two common ideas that PTI walas are pushing in their support for their Kapataan: One is that Pakistan needs Dignity, Integrity and Self Respect. The other is that PTI has achieved a sweeping popularity, or to use the unfortunate choice of metaphor of PTI General Secretary Arif Aliv, a ‘tsunami’. The first issue I have dealt with before. Today, though, I want to address the issue of PTI and democracy.

Last weekend, Islamabad lawyer and PTI wala Babar Sattar wrote another ode to the rising Kaptaan that made some curious claims about the role of democracy in Pakistan. According to Babar, “support for democracy in Pakistan is waning because people are losing faith in the electoral system as a mechanism for change”. I found this very puzzling. How can people lose faith in the electoral system after only one election? Thankfully, Babar explains it for us mere mortals.

If all that the electoral process can do is either maintain the status quo or redistribute power in varied proportions amongst the same discredited players, should we not brace up for a long dark night with no stars on the horizon? If democracy continues to be defined by this garbage-in-garbage-out politics, how will continuity of the process help?

In case you have not had the privilege of legal training, let me decipher this for you. The electoral system is a failure because people are electing the wrong leaders. Democracy is only good if it results in the right outcome. And who decides what is the right outcome? Apparently, Babar Sattar does.

But Babar is no dummy. The problem, he explains, is that the people have not had a choice that represents pure, selfless good. According to Babar Sattar, “this is where Imran Khan offers a glimmer of hope”. Because unlike MQM which is “out of ideas”, ANP which has “lost its ideology and its soul”, Babar Sattar says PTI offers the following:

  • “[Imran Khan] has positioned himself right of the centre in the company of good-for-nothing religious parties company of good-for-nothing religious parties”.
  • “The structure of [PTI]…can’t boast of reputable second-tier leadership, transparent decision-making processes and internal democratic mechanism that would prevent it from evolving into another autocratic party masquerading as a champion of democracy”.

The good news, according to Babar Sattar, is that despite the fact that his party is filled with a third-rate anti-democratic leadership that keeps company with good-for-nothing religious parties, Imran Khan brings a lot to the table. For example, Babar lists the following:

  • “Celebrity”
  • “A career of distinction as a sports hero”
  • “Philanthropy”

Babar admits that these are not “not endearing” qualities, so he goes on to list what I guess are supposed to be Imran Khan’s “endearing” qualities. Please allow me provide a brief translation for those who have not been fully indoctrinated into the ‘Cult of the Kaptaan’:

  • “Ability to speak unhesitatingly with candour” (Translation: He speaks without thinking.)
  • “Dogged faith in his own ability to foster change” (Translation: He’s an unrepentant narcissist.)
  • “His perseverance in politics despite being dismissed by pundits as a viable alternative to the mainstream parties” (Translation: He refuses to learn from his mistakes.)

According to Babar, Imran Khan believes that “ordinary people are the lords and masters of Pakistan”. Of course, it’s these “ordinary people” who keep electing “garbage”. One would think that if Imran Khan truly believed that ordinary people are the lords and masters of Pakistan, he would respect their decisions in elections.

And this brings me back to the question of this transparent attempt by PTI supporters to put into people’s heads a belief that PTI has massive support even though they can’t seem to win any elections. Does PTI believe their own hype? Or are they preparing to take another beating in the next elections by preparing to term the elections as bogus when they don’t win?

In an ironic turn of events, the American Ambassador to the UN Susan E. Rice yesterday congratulated the people of Tunisia on their elections.

Finally, the United States congratulates the Tunisian people on the reported high turnout in Sunday’s elections for a Constituent Assembly. This is a milestone on the Tunisian people’s path from dictatorship to a democratic government founded upon respect for the will of its citizens. We look forward to working with the people and government of Tunisia, including the new Constituent Assembly, over the next phase of their country’s historic transition.

The Americans are congratulating Tunisia after the people elected a moderate Islamist government (surely not their top choice), while PTI terms the people elected by Pakistanis as garbage. It makes you wonder really believes that the ordinary people are lords and masters of their own fate?

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.

Elections for you…but not for me

This is what drives me crazy about Nawaz Sharif. First he gives a really impressive speech calling for moving beyond the past and improving relations between Pakistan and India, something that could have important benefits for our economy especially. But then, it’s like he can’t help himself, and he has to go and do something politically stupid.

In this case, Nawaz demands snap polls
Nawaz Sharif demands elections...for others

In a move that has been a long time in the making, the main opposition party – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – has demanded that the government call snap elections.

…but not in Punjab.
Shahbaz Sharif...no elections for us please!

They said the new move to extend the tenure of the administrators was a clear indication that the provincial government wanted to control the local councils through administrative chain till the expiry of its own term after around one and a half years, and was not serious in holding the next elections on two main grounds — conditions are not suitable for them or the PML-N is not in a position to win.

It is precisely these types of political games that the people are tired of – putting the interests of your own political party ahead of the interests of the nation. 2013 elections are getting closer every day. Why not just wait? By demanding snap polls…but not in Punjab, it becomes obvious that it’s not a principled stand for the good of the nation but a political strategy for the good of PML-N. I know that old habits die hard, but please Nawaz, just cut it out.

Waiting for Ghafoor

waitingIn Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot”, the characters sit and wait for a man named Godot to arrive. They don’t know what he looks like or how to recognise him, but still they sit waiting. At the end of the play they even consider suicide because still he has not arrives, but they just keep waiting. Though he surely did not intend it, Beckett has written a brilliant description of the Pakistani political mindset.

The disconnection between people and politics is illusory, and we really know that. Politics affects everything in our daily lives – traffic problems, the price of foods, getting a job, getting a visa…staying alive…And yet we have treat politics like a dirty word, and the politicians who practise it like dirty crooks.

But it’s too easy to simply call people crooks while we are just sitting around doing nothing. We’ve said it here before that we all have to get more personally involved in politics and stop being content with complaining. Hassan Iftikhar makes the case beautifully in Daily Times today also.

The solution for Pakistan’s conundrum only lies in strengthening the political parties so that the political system gets strengthened as a by-product. It is time that people with opinions on the outside join political parties so that their dissenting voices can be heard at the party meetings. For those willing to venture towards the alter of politics, there is a wide range of choices: for the covertly religious right there is the choice of any branch of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). For the overtly religious far right there is the Jamaat-e-Islami. If you hold socialist ideologies, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is a safe bet. If covert use of muscle is your fancy then the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is your destination. If you are ‘bigoted’ you can sign up with Imran Khan’s fanciful circus, or if you are the really the ‘enlightened moderate’ kind, Mush has just launched the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML).

But this time, the squabbling masses have to take some responsibility for themselves, they need to be stakeholders in the political process and political parties because minority views in political parties may not be heard, but majority opinion is very hard to ignore — even for the dynastic leaders of our political parties. The current dilemma of our political parties is the lack of committed workers and second-string leaders with any vision for the future.

It’s easy to complain about political dynasties if your political activity never leaves your own drawing room. Perhaps the leadership of the political parties does behave like family business in some regards, but if there is no one else willing to take the responsibility, what choice is there?

We cannot continue to wait for someone else to take care of our problems. There is no political Mahdi who is coming to end all corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. We can sit around waiting all we want, but all we are doing is reinforcing the same political dysfunctions that we are complaining about also. It is up to us to take care of ourselves. No one will do it for us.

And we must not contemplate political suicide by calling for some ‘patriotic generals’ to step in and make yet another coup. It will not be America or the Taliban or the Army or anyone else who can fix the problems in our villages, our cities, and our government. Nuclear weapons cannot feed our families, and medieval clerics cannot improve our economy. We have won the right to govern ourselves through incredible sacrifice. Do not let that sacrifice go to waste.

We cannot complain that there is no hope of getting some influence in politics if we never even try. That sort of fatalism is the attitude of serfs. We are not serfs, we are free men. We must act like free men. We must take responsibility for ourselves and stop Waiting for Ghafoor.