In letter but not in spirit
There is no doubt that history has already been created. Never before in Pakistani politics an elected government has completed its term nor allowed to hold elections under its watch.
There are a number of firsts in the May 11 general elections. Despite the hiccups in evolving a consensual caretaker setup, this is the first time that elections are going to be held under ostensibly neutral caretaker governments at the Centre as well as in the provinces.
This is a unique experiment that has its own appended complications. Nowhere in a functioning democracy such a system is in vogue to hold elections.
Bangladesh briefly flirted with such a dispensation with a military backed caretaker government headed by a judge to conduct general elections. Owing to its inherent complications the system was discarded for subsequent elections.
In Pakistan unfortunately the letter of holding fair and free elections is being followed but not the spirit. The federal government kept the banking system open on its last day, which happened to be a Saturday in order to disburse funds literally till the last minute of its tenure.
The federal as well as provincial governments being in the election mode for almost a year now have been mercilessly using state funds to bolster their standing. Dr Mubashar Hasan, the veteran politician, has already filed a writ petition challenging these measures. In his view they militate against the holding of fair and free elections.
Only a few weeks ago finance minister Dr Hafeez Sheikh was made to resign from his post as well as relinquish his Senate seat. At the time he was portrayed as the hot candidate for the coveted slot of caretaker premiership.
People in the know of things were never in doubt that this was a red herring. The soft-spoken economist might be a myth in his own mind but he is no Turgut Ozal – the late economic Czar of Turkey who is credited for turning around the country’s sinking economy in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Dr Sheikh’s backers knew that his name is associated with all that is wrong with the country’s economy. Hence no one would have agreed to his candidature as caretaker prime minister.
Unlike Dr Sheikh his successor Saleem Mandviwalla does not sit on files. He is quick on the take. Decisions that the federal government wanted to take in unholy haste before the end of its tenure have been taken at breakneck speed.
Neither have the provincial governments including the Punjab government have lagged behind in their endeavour to extract extra mileage in the twilight of their tenure. Thousands of ad hoc employees were made permanent, development funds allocated and doles given at state expense as if there was no tomorrow.
The manner in which caretaker governments have been formed in Sindh and Balochistan has also left a bad taste in the mouth. Similarly the obstructionist attitude of the leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in tinkering with the process of selecting a caretaker prime minister harks back to the no-holds-barred political confrontation of the 1990s.
Theoretically an independent and consensual election commission, an unconstrained and assertive judiciary, and a fiercely independent press should be more than enough guarantee to hold fair and free elections. However the constitutional provision added under the eighteenth amendment to form a neutral caretaker government for holding of elections, by itself is symptomatic of the lack of consensus amongst our polity.
While in exile Benazir Bhutto Shaheed and Nawaz Sharif signed the Charter of Democracy in London in 2006 with much fanfare. The spirit of the COD has however come to naught. The only major difference is that the opposition was not boxed in a corner by the PPP led coalition.
No longer being a zero sum game, no one is interested to invite the military to rule. Nor is the military under Kayani keen to intervene. How the squabbling politicians are using this space to strengthen democracy leaves much to be desired.
Another first in the May 11 elections is that it is going to be decided by relatively young voters. According to estimates, almost 58 percent of voters are 40 years old and 34 percent of voters are even younger – 31 years old. It is generally perceived that these 40 million plus votes are up for grabs.
The PTI headed by Imran Khan thinks that young voters are the rump of its support and hence form the basis of its so-called tsunami. No doubt Imran is running a well-organized, concerted and well financed campaign.
Interestingly although he claims, ‘plague on both their houses’, the brunt of PTI chief’s wrath is reserved for PML-N. Naturally his aim is to cut into the core support of PML-N in Central Punjab. The PML-N now filmy entrenched in its citadel for over two decades is well aware of the challenge being thrown at it.
Sharif’s laptop scheme, Danish schools and development projects in Punjab are specifically aimed at appealing to the young voter. But portraying himself as the only agent of change, Imran is however poised to eat into the vote bank of established parties.
Will his tsunami be enough to erode the vote bank of these parties to the extent that he bags substantial number of seats? Or he will end up playing merely a spoiler’s role is the big question.
Coming weeks will be testimony to how Imran fares. He is banking a lot on his Lahore rally today. A lot of money and organizational savvy is being invested to make the gathering a roaring success.
The PTI vociferously denies that it has any truck with the military establishment. Maybe not. But the army, which has never gone along with Nawaz since the demise of his mentor and patron Gen Zia ul Haq, will not mind an Imran Khan-led government emerging from the elections.
The military has had a relatively smooth sailing with the PPP-led coalition. However the consistent downward slide of the economy under its watch hurts the khakis’ long term interests.
As for Pervez Musharraf, he is returning to the country on Sunday to try his luck at the elections. He is welcome to the club! But as Shahbaz Sharif, who like his brother were hounded out by the former military dictator when they made separate attempts to return to Pakistan, said the other day: “What goes around comes around.”
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today