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ESSAY : The Old And The New In Naya Pakistan
Thursday, 03 October 2013 12:15

The Old And The New In Naya Pakistan


The victory of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the geographically fragmented verdict, the lack of a clear ideological distinction between the political parties in the fray and the poor showing of progressive, left wing forces – suggest that there are part things “new” and part things “old” in Pakistani politics following the election results in 2013.

The main slogan for the May 2013 Pakistan elections, was one of change, for a naya (new) Pakistan. In important ways, the 2013 elections were as important and as critical as the 1988 elections which began the process of electoral politics – albeit not democracy – in Pakistan after a long, dark and cruel military dictatorship.This time round, in 2013, while the transition, the first ever from a democratically elected government to another, is very different compared to 1988, the importance of a break from the past, is perhaps more powerful than that of the 1988 elections.

Breaking From The Past

There are numerous obvious examples of what is new in these elections and the many breaks from the past. For a start, perhaps the most important aspect of these elections was, that for the first time a democratically elected government held free and fair elections in Pakistan – albeit with allegations and proof of rigging in some polling stations. Moreover, the democratically elected government of 2008-13, willingly accepted its failure and congratulated the winning parties, and for the first time in Pakistan, a fully civilian government – no signs of Pakistan’s model of praetorian democracy at play here – handed over power as per the Constitution to a caretaker government which is expected to pass on power to the elected governments in Pakistan by the end of this week. Given Pakistan’s histories of military intervention, control, meddling, oversight, and much else, all these firsts are by themselves, quite a remarkable achievement. While perhaps anticipated and somewhat expected in many ways given the apparent trends and signs since 2007 and again in 2010,1 nevertheless, it is always still surprising in Pakistan’s context that this process happened without the military’s interference.

What is also new, is that, Nawaz Sharif is about to be sworn in as Pakistan’s first prime minister to be elected to that office for the third time, a record which is unlikely to be broken for many years to come. Equally refreshing, is the fact that the military general who removed Nawaz Sharif from office in October 1999 and became Pakistan’s chief executive, and forced Nawaz Sharif into many years of exile, is today in a Pakistani jail. It is not often that one can celebrate the fact that Pakistan’s former president/general, the former Chief of the Army Staff, is under arrest and investigation by Pakistani courts, ironically by many of the lawyers of the Supreme Court who sanctified general Pervez Musharraf’s coup in October 1999. While there is speculation that Musharraf will be allowed to “get away”, even this temporary judicial and public humiliation, is an important first in Pakistan.

New, also, is the fact that almost all experts got the results of the elections very wrong. Barring just a handful, the results announced by a large and wide variety of analysts, all suggested that no single party would win enough seats to form a government on its own, and like the two previous governments, Pakistan’s next government would also be a coalition government. Nawaz Sharif surprised everyone by winning enough seats in the end to form a government which is formed largely by his own party, and by some new entrants who have joined him after the elections.

Not only that, one can also argue, that Nawaz Sharif is probably – one should always be cautious about making predictions about Pakistan – the first prime minister since Z A Bhutto in 1971, who ought to see a full term of five years ahead of him. All elected governments after Z A Bhutto – there have been seven – have been sworn in and functioned under the dark clouds of the Pakistan military, often with a serving general as President of Pakistan or with help from the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Nawaz Sharif, at the moment at least, seems to be free of such fetters, again, a novel way to start the term of a democratically elected government in Pakistan.

Other equally new developments include the rise and fall of two parties, one new, the other old. For the first time since 1968, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) did not have a leader leading it into the elections, the 10th since 1970. Not only was there just no leader, there was no Bhutto to lead the party, clearly one of the two factors which led to the party, again for the very first time, receiving the third, rather than the second, highest number of votes.2 Since 1970, the PPP has been either in government or in opposition as a formidable force lead articulately by a Bhutto. Not this time. Likewise, probably the most newest of all new trends of the 2013 elections - again a new phenomenon not seen since 1985 when the Muhajir Qaumi Movement became a major political force in Karachi - has been the emergence of former national cricket team captain Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik Insaaf (PTI). The fact that 56% of the electorate voted, the highest proportion since 1970, must rest on the emergence of a second (or third) force on the political map of Pakistan. The PTI received 18% of the popular vote, converting into 24 National Assembly seats and the ability to form government in the highly important and sensitive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This, from a party which had only one member of the national assembly and only one member of the provincial assembly in 2002, and none in the previous elections of 2008 as the PTI boycotted Musharraf’s elections. By all accounts, much credit for bringing out the elite as well as this diverse category being called “the youth” as voters, goes to Imran Khan’s highly motivated and inspiring political campaign, although perhaps not so much his political imagination – see below.

The PTI also deserves credit for becoming one of the few political parties to confront the major political force in Karachi, the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement). Others have arisen and failed, yet numerous members contesting the elections on the PTI ticket from Karachi were brave enough to challenge and confront the hold of a party variously described in the past as “militant”, “authoritarian”, “fascist”, and with such other epithets. It is certainly no mean achievement to stand up to the MQM in Karachi, suggesting perhaps that the party may be losing its hold on the city. The fact that the PTI received as many as 30,000 votes from the heartland of the MQM in Karachi, signifies a shift in the politics of Karachi, and also shows that even entrenched political parties can be challenged. The End of Ideologies? In the past, it has been possible to suggest some sort of ideological divide between political parties in Pakistan. The PPP was seen to be “progressive” by many, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) socially conservative with an Islamic bent, the Awami National Party (ANP) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the nationalist Pakhtun party of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his heirs, and of course, the Islamists parties as just that. The 2013 elections have made such categories very fuzzy, and what is leftist, rightist, and especially conservative in the course of political ideology, has become very blurred and far more complicated than one envisages. Take the argument doing the rounds in Pakistan which suggests that a “right wing wave” has swept Pakistan’s recent general elections.

The arithmetic based on the numbers of seats won and votes cast, would suggest that conservative parties have won the election, and this in turn would also suggest, at least at first glance, that Pakistanis have consciously shifted to, and chosen, conservative and right wing candidates. Clearly, such analysis simplifies electoral choices and does not fully explain Pakistan’s apparent, and differentiated, turn to the right.