Pakistan is in the grip of a heat wave (or two) these days. It is not just the weather that continues to sizzle with temperatures hitting the mid-40s or even higher accompanied by frequent interruption in power supply. On July 25, the country will hold parliamentary elections that have also generated much excitement and heat. To the politicians’ ludicrous promises one must now add the screaming matches on television with anchors outshouting guests.
In Pakistan, elections are not just a contest between contenders or parties with alternative agendas; they are virtually a life-and-death struggle. Vast sums of money change hands; parties sell tickets to the highest bidder. If “elected,” these “parliamentarians” then have to recoup what they invested in getting a ticket and getting “elected.”
Electoral fraud, backstabbing, and even actual stabbings are not uncommon. Candidates are killed; beatings and fist-fights are common at polling stations on election day. This time around, however, there is a glimmer of hope that massive rigging as took place in 2013 would not be allowed because the military has said it would supervise elections. Even that cannot guarantee free and fair elections because those bent on cheating have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. They have honed these skills over many decades.
Those familiar with Western-style democracy know it is a fraud. It is essentially a contest between two or more sets of elites that represent the same vested interests. People are treated like cattle much like the American racist Harold Lasswell expressed his disdain for ordinary people. He described them as too stupid to know what is good for them. That is the job of the enlightened elite to decide for them.
People have little or no say in how policies are formulated. It would be much closer to the truth to say that people are treated like mice and asked to choose between different shades of cats: black, white, grey, or whatever other color. If they do not like the black cat ruling them, they are free to choose a white or grey cat!
In the West vast sums are spent on advertising campaigns, organizing rallies and transporting people to various venues. Stuffed envelopes are not handed out to people as it is done in Pakistan (and neighboring India, supposedly the world’s largest democracy). It is quite blatant. During election time, candidates go about distributing bags of flour, rice, sugar, etc. This is considered normal. The reason is simple: getting elected has enormous attraction; it opens up vast avenues for amassing fortune and plundering state resources. An added bonus is the perks that go with being a Member of the National Assembly (MNA): vast sums for “development” projects are made available and access to the corridors of power open up; this enables illegal things to be done.
It is, therefore, not surprising that there is a mad rush to get party tickets with people falling over themselves to be chosen as candidate for the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaaf (PTI), the party led by Imran Khan that is seen as being best positioned to win a majority in parliament and hence form the next government. There are three main contenders for power at the centre: PTI, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group) (PML-N) — the former ruling party — and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
In the last election (2013), PTI captured the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province and while the party did not fulfill all of its promises, at least on two fronts, it delivered: health, and planting a billion trees in four years. It managed to surpass the target and planted 1.18 billion trees throughout the province. It is a singular achievement for which the party must be lauded. No other party comes close in fulfilling promises.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has a mere 4% land area covered with forests (the minimum required is 15%). Deforestation is a major problem leading to massive air pollution in the country. Some cities, like Lahore and Karachi, are heavily polluted.
There is general consensus among opinion-makers that the previous ruling party, the PML-N will lose its majority in parliament. It may still capture the most populous province — Punjab — that it has ruled for decades. The party’s ex-leader and ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif and a number of his associates are embroiled in corruption cases. Nawaz is barred from contesting the polls.
This, however, does not mean his party will not win control of the Punjab assembly where the people’s attitude is shaped more by personal benefits they get from the party than what it does or will do for the country. Sharif has also been making scandalous allegations against the country going so far as to allege that state institutions (meaning the army and intelligence agencies) have been involved in sponsoring terrorism. This constitutes treason.
The third main political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — called “main” only because it once ruled at the federal level but is now confined to its home province of Sind — is unlikely to make much headway at the federal level. It has no leader of the stature of Benazir Bhutto or her slain father and party founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Zardari are pygmies compared to the party’s two dead icons. The party founder was hanged on murder charge while his daughter Benazir was shot and killed on December 27, 2007. Her killer or killers have still not been apprehended. There is strong suspicion that Zardari himself got her killed to pave the way for his rise to power.
Then there are a host of smaller parties, some as small as one-man parties. The smaller parties include the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) comprising mostly gangsters and blackmailers. It is confined to the urban centres of Sind, especially Karachi. Another party that continues to hold some sway is the Jamiatul Ulama-e Islam (JUI) led by maulana Fazlur Rahman, better known as “maulana Diesel.” This man of ponderous bulk is a disgrace to the religious class but continues to hold sway over ignorant masses in the rural areas of the KPK and Baluchistan provinces. For much of his political career, he has managed to align himself with whichever party is in power. He is as slippery as an eel and knows how to wriggle his way into power.
In the KPK province, there is also the Awami National Party (ANP) that had at one time ruled the province. It still enjoys some support in the KPK heartland around Charsadda and Mardan. It has little support elsewhere. Finally, there is the Jama‘at-e Islami, a well-organized party internally but it has little support among the masses today.
While we can ignore other smaller parties, they may end up with a single seat in parliament. If so, they will become powerful brokers if no party wins outright majority. There is, however, one party that while not contesting elections directly has enormous influence over the outcome: the party in uniform. It must be candidly admitted that it is the military, or army to be precise, that often determines political outcomes. Parties getting on the wrong side of the army can end up in the doghouse. The PML-N may find this out soon.
There is one final caveat: some observers are of the view that elections will not be held on July 25 as planned. If so, PML-N would be largely responsible for this state of affairs. It sees its narrow interests best served by being as disruptive as possible. Should that happen it would be a setback for the people of Pakistan since regardless of the state of its democracy, it is better to operate through this system until a better alternative — an Islamic revolution — becomes viable.
Finally, regardless of which party comes to power, the problems facing Pakistan are so serious that no party would be able to solve them. Over the years, these problems have become more intractable largely as a result of massive corruption and the gross incompetence of the ruling elite. If one wants to see how not to govern a state, Pakistan offers a very good example.