Shrinking political space


The emergence of a potential game-changer

Last week was full of political fireworks which saw the emergence of a potential game-changer in Lahore. The mammoth public meeting held at the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan was symptomatic of the frustration that runs deep among people and their eagerness to throng around anyone who promises ‘change’ in their depleted lives.

At the same time, Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri’s speech was structured around considerable logic. His demand for electoral reforms preceding the next general elections was the centre-piece of an articulate presentation. He mixed his rhetoric with a definitive game plan: do it by January 10 or face a million-march on Islamabad. The prospect has created a wave of visible unrest among the traditional political mafias who are eager to use the artificial and fragmented electoral structure and mechanism to further perpetuate their hold on the country’s destiny. Interestingly, while he was delivering a message of ‘change’ from the pulpit, a large contingent representing one of the most corrupt political outfits of the country shared space with him on the stage.

PML-N appears to be excessively un-nerved in the wake of the impressive gathering as their bastion of power has come under direct assault. It is on the basis of their mostly ‘perceived’ performance in Punjab that the Sharif Brothers would have liked to launch their election campaign. PTI’s 30 October gathering in Lahore had jolted their confidence the first time forcing them into double-shift to erase its impact. This is the second time in about a year that their citadel has come under attack and for good measure. But there is also a big difference: while PTI reiterated its faith in the electoral process subject to addressing some critically contentious issues, Qadri’s approach is based around the prospect of forcing the change by using the street power of numbers.

The basic question that is being debated in the aftermath of the allegedly ‘sponsored’ Tahir-ul-Qadri show is whether the interim government has the requisite constitutional authority to undertake a cleansing operation prior to holding the elections, or whether their only job is to hold the elections, hand over power and quit? Quoting of article 254 of the constitution has initiated a lively debate with odds even: there are people who believe that for any meaningful change to accrue, it is absolutely vital to implement electoral and societal reforms prior to holding the next elections, but there are also people led by the traditional political mafias including the PML-N and PPP who believe that any such change, if at all, should be left to the elected government to implement.

The likelihood is that the debate is going to intensify in the days and weeks leading up to the elections with all prospects remaining open to the last day. No one can question the legitimacy of the demands contained in Tahir-ul-Qadri’s address. These have been voiced by some other political parties also. It is only in the ascertainment of the mechanism to implement the changes and its timing that there is bound to be division along the middle putting the traditionalists apart from the non-traditionalists: the former will go with the elections first and leave it to the next government to implement changes if deemed necessary while the latter would opt for incorporating the changes first to make the election process more meaningful and representative.

There is another interesting development that should not go unnoticed. After a ‘chance’ meeting with the COAS on 26 December at the NADRA headquarters in Islamabad, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Justice (retd) Fakhuruddin G Ebrahim went back on his earlier pronouncement regarding fresh delimitation in Karachi which had followed the SC directive in the matter. Instead, he has now stated that it was not possible to carry out delimitation of constituencies in Karachi and these will remain unchanged. He also added that he was awaiting suggestions from political parties in this regard. It is in the same meeting that the COAS assured the CEC of his full cooperation in holding the elections. Was the about-turn a result of the CEC’s parleys with the COAS, or are there other pressures that have come into force since the CEC’s last declaration that he would abide by all SC judgements?

Both the issues, the one raised by Tahir-ul-Qadri and the one regarding the delimitation in Karachi, are critical to the holding of the next elections along with so many others when looked upon in the backdrop of the political governments having failed miserably in delivering the fruits of ‘democracy’ to the people. Any perception that these issues will evaporate with the passage of time is rather erroneous, even pretentious. The first issue relates to ensuring that only a clean and competent leadership is elected transparently through the process of elections and the second issue relates to the right of others having been usurped through forced delimitations that suit only one political party.

Any election held on the basis of the electoral laws as these stand today is not likely to provide a solution to the problems that the people are afflicted with. For ensuring any relief to them, the process will have to be radically altered so that the marauding bands of dual-nationality and fake-degree-suspect tax-evading legislators are blocked effectively and replaced by a service-oriented educated and credible leadership that focuses principally on an economic-salvation agenda over the next few years and also works towards rehabilitating the confidence and resolve of the people so that they could become powerful instruments in the vanguard of the movement for ‘change’. This ‘change’ has not come and will not come by replacing a smaller thief with a bigger bandit by following the incumbent election process and allowing space for dry-cleaned political mafias to come back adorning deceptive garbs. The system should block the path for all such bandits from being elected and should provide avenues for a new generation of people to come forth laden with the tools of education, expertise, competence, dynamism and selflessness. But it is the fast shrinking political space that may prove to be the ultimate arbiter in the game plan.


The writer is a political analyst. He can be reached at: [email protected]