Celebrating Elections and Forgetting History in Pakistan

** this article is available in the April 2013 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Subscription to the digital copy is only $10 a year; print is only $44 a year! I highly recommend it as an excellent source of progressive political reporting and analysis on South Asia and the Middle East! ——

The media is atwitter: Pakistan is headed for elections.

This March an elected government will complete a full term for the first time in Pakistan, an accomplishment paraded with fanfare by the incumbents. With no serious challenge to a ballot-box transition imminent, a second elected government is expected after the polls. A stable democracy, noted Swedish political scientist Staffan Lindberg says, is one that has completed three consecutive non-violent elections. With its second election expected early this summer, this moment is being hailed as historic for Pakistan.

In fact, given the country’s checkered democratic history, the transition still seems so unlikelyPTCL-Pensioners-hunger-strike-protest-camp-in-Multan-10 to many that apprehensions of a military or technocratic abortion abound. The mid-January arrival of politician-theologian, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, whose demand for electoral reform threatened to postpone elections, had lent significant fuel to the rumors. However, an interruption of the transition seems increasingly unlikely. The country’s military lacks the requisite legitimacy for a takeover, and judicial and media power-houses appear firmly committed to the electoral process. Lively negations on a caretaker government to oversee the elections, and the constitution of an election commission headed by respected activist and former Supreme Court Judge, Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, additionally bolster expectations of honest and transparent polling.

And electoral competition is intense. The incumbent Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), which rode to victory on a sympathetic vote in the wake of the assassination of its former leader, Benazir Bhutto, has squandered support through its abject governance. A return to incumbency is unlikely. Its primary rival, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), would have benefited in what was largely a two-party national electoral landscape, but now faces a new challenger.  Imran Khan’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), after nearly two decades as a political pariah, has established itself as a potent force in PML-N’s electoral bastions of Punjab and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa. Control of federal government will be contested by this triad.

Regional parties, such as the Karachi and Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa-based Awami National Party (ANP), who each garnered roughly a third of the seats in their provincial strongholds in 2008, can be expected to perform similarly this election. Meanwhile, the religious right, with Jammat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-Islam (JUI) strongest among them, historically only a marginal force in Pakistan, are expected to continue their electoral decline from their 2002, post American invasion of Afghanistan high to cumulatively secure less than five percent of the national vote.

However, despite this encouraging vitalization of electoral processes, we must arrest the temptation to indulge too sanguine a picture of Pakistani democratic development. While the elections augur an optimistic trend, it is critical to realize that contemporary electoral achievements and considerations are largely an elite concern, and remain divorced from the myriad of woes that ordinary Pakistanis face daily. Devastating electricity and fuel shortages cripple the country. Hospitals are facing medical shortages; public transport is in ruins; kidnappings, robberies and general lawlessness abounds. Despite positive trends in the higher courts, justice remains ever inaccessible for ordinary Pakistanis. And an inflation rate of well above 10% has put basic commodities out the hands of many citizens.

And that’s in the relatively peaceful provinces. Elsewhere, secessionist movements and insurgencies have become long-standing realities. Baluchistan, territorially the largest province, remains caught in the turmoil of an armed separatist movement and the military’s brutal response. Assassinations and urban bombings claim hundreds of lives each month. Khyber-Puktunkhwa, meanwhile, continues to be the battlefield for American and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan; its residents – over a million homeless, thousands dead – pay the cost of these imperial ambitions.

In this atmosphere, a consecration of these elections as a monumental achievement in national history is at best a uni-dimensional portrait of contemporary Pakistani progress. Less charitably put, the discussion continues the worrisome trend among many Pakistani and American commentators of privileging elite perceptions and concerns of the country. In Pakistan, the preoccupation with establishing these elections as a milestone in national progress fits neatly into the government’s historiography. School textbooks present a story of Pakistan focused on political power-players, from Jinnah to Zia to Musharraf, systematically erasing from national memory the inconvenient consistency of marginalization evident in the histories of wage-laborers and nurses, share-croppers and teachers, and the other communities that constitute the majority of Pakistan.

The uninterrupted electoral process is certainly a welcome boon in Pakistan, but it marks achievement along but one axis, a notch-in-the-national-belt in but one telling of Pakistani history. Its unqualified celebration obscures the misery of the common Pakistani.

Pakistanis have long contested their exclusion from national history. In the years immediately following the country’s creation, its then-vigorous progressiPAK: Bhutto's Widower Campaigns Ahead of Electionsve movement argued for a continued struggle for independence, claiming Pakistan would not achieve substantive freedom until its masses were emancipated from economic and political destitution. Today, despite the vitiation of progressivism by decades of economic and social conservatism, some commentators continue to prioritize issues of cyclical poverty and political marginalization over the glamor of elections. Unfortunately their voices are drowned out by privatized media channels in Pakistan competing for ratings, and by American audiences hungry for positive news with recognizable buzzwords.

But the limited relevance of this electoral achievement is an inescapable reality on the Pakistani street.

Weary of economic turmoil, some fondly remember the (if illusory) prosperity under Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. The sentiment is abundant enough to deserve mention early this February in the farewell remarks of Das Spiegel’s departing Pakistan correspondent. Musharraf himself continues to head a political party that enjoys pockets of support.

Rejection of the elected government also issues from those who have become the targets of violence through state complicity or its ineptitude. In mid-January, following the massacre of almost a hundred community members, Hazara Shias in Baluchistan asked for a military removal of the provincial government that had failed to protect their lives and property. Similarly, in early February, the otherwise staunchly anti-junta Pashtun ANP called for a military deployment in the southern metropolis of Karachi where Pashtuns have become the targets of kidnappings and assassination campaigns.

Pakistanis, like all people, want a government attuned to their demands. Grass roots democratic movements are active in every part of the country. But they remain as much in antagonism with the current electoral process as in symbiosis with it. The Lawyers Movement of 2007 that precipitated Musharraf’s dismissal also marched against his electorally sanctioned successor in 2009. Just as Punjabi peasants were beaten under Musharraf for protesting military appropriation of their land, today electricity and telecommunication industry employees are intimidated by the government and beaten by the police for protesting their abysmal working conditions.

Brecht famously begins his 1935 poem Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters: was it the kings who hauled the heavy blocks of stone to build the seven gates of Thebes? The temptation is high to celebrate Pakistan’s first electoral transition, and certainly, one does not wish to diminish the benefits of democracy to Pakistan. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that a singular focus on the achievement of elections is a disservice to those Pakistanis who struggle for democratic representation under this regime as they did under the junta.

The gates of Thebes maybe rising, but those hauling the stones are seeing little change in their lives. We cannot turn our faces from this reality in favor of spurious fantasies of democratic salvation if we wish to understand and sympathize with life in Pakistan.