Saturday, March 1, 2008

Elections in Pakistan

This was posted over at the Newshoggers. But just in case my two readers didn't see it.

The elections were reasonably free and fair as I had assumed they would be. I never quite understood the somewhat hysterical insistence by normally well informed individuals like Ahmad Rashid that there would be "massive" vote rigging. The reason the military had allowed Benazir and Nawaz Sharif back into the country was because they needed a partnership with the feudals. As I have written earlier there are only two real power centers in Pakistan, the military and the feudals (some include the bureaucracy as a third power center - I don't). The military was clearly unable to meet the challenges posed by the jihadis without the support of the feudals. Their support of The War Against Terror (tm) had resulted in their involvement with disappearances of individuals - tactics that had previously mainly been associated with civilian governments in Pakistan - which had led to genuine opposition from civil society in the form of the lawyers movement. By allowing the exiled politicians back into the country the military was suing for peace. The elections were the mechanism by which the feudals were going to elect the team which would partner with the army. I t would have been counter-productive from the military's standpoint if they had then proceeded to rig the elections. The results of the elections have been reasonably satisfactory for the military. As can be seen from the graphical representation of the election results, outside of the PML-Q the PPP has emerged as the only truly national parties with significant representations from all four provinces.

And the PPP is not too anxious to bring back a judiciary which seemed on the way to voiding the ordinance that Musharraf had signed dropping the corruption cases against the late and current leaders of the PPP. Which means the feudals and the military are united against the lawyers' movement. The PML-N, because of Nawaz Sharif's personal antagonism towards Musharraf, might have taken some anti-military stance. But despite the significant presence of PML-N in the National Assembly it has become a provincial party - albeit from the most significant province. Almost all the National Assembly seats for PML-N are from Punjab. In the provincial assemblies I couldn't find a trace of PML-N in the Sindh and Balochistan provinces and only a few seats in the Frontier province. Finally, while I do not equate the military with Musharraf. If the military as an institution needed to sacrifice Musharraf they would not hesitate - though based on tradition they would try and ease him out in the most graceful manner possible. However, even if the PPP had wanted to impeach Musharraf it is difficult to see how they could garner the two thirds votes needed to do that. So, all indications are that Musharraf will remain - at least for now.

The really bad news about the elections was the low level of voter participation. Compared to the rather tumultuous election campaigns of the past the current season was not exceptionally violent. The lack of enthusiasm of the people of Pakistan for their rulers - both civilian and military - does not bode well for the future. As long as people believe they have a voice they do not turn to violence. It is only when they see avenues of expression blocked that they turn to more desperate measures. The coming years are not going to be economically comfortable as a global recession will have a severe impact on the poorer countries of the world. This will be a time of maximum opportunity for strife. If the people feel that the government feels their pain they will be less likely to take matters into their own hands. The election turnout seems to suggest that their faith in the processes of government is limited.

But there are also several positive messages from the elections. The first is of course the rout of the religious parties - the MMA. They were swept from power in both Balochistan and the Frontier. And the rout was a lot worse than the loss of seats. If you look at the detailed election results you will find that not only did they lose - they didn't even come in second! Furthermore, they lost often to people they had previously won against. The return to power of the ANP canonly be viewed as positive both from a Pakistani point of view and from a US/NATO point of view. The MMA had been providing cover for the Taliban in Afghanistan. The ANP has a secular and progressive history. They will have no love for the Taliban. As Pashtoon nationalists they will also be in a good position to collaborate with the pashtun majority in Afghanistan. The PPP which holds the second largest number of seats in the Frontier Assembly has promised the ANP their cooperation and I think they will keep to their word. The PPP has bigger fish to fry elsewhere.

The second is the election of independents. According to this wikepedia entry, 3 independents were elected in the 2002 elections to the National Assembly. This year there are 28 independents elected to the National Assembly. Even excluding the ones in the Frontier areas where most candidates did not have a party affiliation that is still a healthy increase. I have no idea about the character of these candidates. However, just the fact that they were able to successfully mount independent runs says something good about the vitality of electoral politics.

Finally, in the National Assembly there are seats reserved for women. However, this time there were quite a few (by Pakistan standards) women contesting general seats - 64 for the National Assembly and 116 for the provincial assemblies. Most of them lost but there were still quite a few that won. That is definitely a positive sign. Change in Pakistan will depend to a great extent on the participation of women in the political process. One of the good things that has happened under Musharraf is the rise of civil society organizations in which women play a substantial role. More participation of women in politics can only be a good thing.

In the final analysis I am cautiously optimistic. Superficially the election results are a return to the status-quo ante 2002. However much has happened in the last six years to inform the centers of power. Hopefully they will have learned something and Pakistan will not return to the downward spiral of those years.

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