Pakistan is a flawed democracy, but its shortcomings should not lead to a dismissal of the country as a 'failed state' or an intrinsically undemocratic one. Pakistanis are demonstrating that the arc of Pakistan's politics, bends towards democracy.
No matter who loses the election, Pakistan will win.
Pakistan has never had a civilian government take the baton from an elected government, and hand it to the next. On July 25, Pakistanis participate in a third consecutive timely election. This country of almost 210 million people has never had the kinds of choices and opportunities it does today.
The traditional center of gravity in Pakistani politics has been the military, which has explicitly taken over the country three times, and maintains a firm grip over key issues of national importance, like Pakistan’s relationship with India, and with key global powers like the United States. But in recent years, this dominance has been corroded by three factors.
First, the evolution of Nawaz Sharif (and his PML-N party) as an anti-establishment figure who claims to seek to curtail the power of the army. Second, the emergence of critical alternative voices across the country—including academics, disenchanted ordinary citizens, and ethnic and religious groups—that have emerged from a decade and a half of the country’s battle against terrorists. And third, the development of the Pakistani judiciary as a robust and confident national institution that proactively competes for space in the national discourse.
Retire the binaries
In the past, a binary view of Pakistani politics as a contest between those that favour civilian democracy versus those that meekly submit to the military’s appetite for civilian powers, may have been accurate. But today the national polity is a fractured, disorganised mess in which even the traditionally well-organised family-led political parties are experiencing deep fissures.
Young Pakistanis make up the majority of Pakistan’s over 100 million registered voters, and they do not follow the orthodoxy of political rules in Pakistan.
Among the key choices available to them is Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned politician that appeals to the simplistic appetites of urban voters that view traditional politicians as meriting contempt and jail terms.
But equally relevant to the menu of choices available to young Pakistanis are the offers from the traditional twin towers of tradition politics. The PPP is led by an impressive and eloquent young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N has had to campaign with its leader and his telegenic daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif in jail on a corruption conviction. In their absence, the incumbent PML-N is being lead by Shehbaz Sharif, an effective administrator with a legendary appetite for delivering tangible outputs for his voters who has sought to soothe the frayed relationship between his party and the army.
Along with these three choices are an array of regional and issues-based parties that compete for the affections of the Pakistani voter based on ethnicity, and various kinds of appeals to religion.
The military has certainly not shied away from engaging the public discourse on issues that are seen by many in Pakistan as outside its domain. Part of the space it enjoys in the public imagination has been the product of how successfully it has retaken the pockets of Pakistani territory where terrorists and insurgents roamed freely as recently as 2014.
But perhaps, the one source of constant legitimacy for the military is the clumsy, incompetent and allegedly corrupt practices of political parties and their leaders. The noose of corruption has been tied around elected civilians many times, and it has been loosened as many times.
Nawaz Sharif’s jail term is fresh, and thus seems new to many young Pakistani voters—but their elders have seen this movie before.
Those within the military and security establishment that spend a lot of time thinking about politics would no doubt love the election on July 25 to be contested on the issue of corruption. If it is, Imran Khan is likely to come out as a winner. Those that feel that the military has hounded elected civilians for too long and the time for true civilian supremacy has arrived, such as Sharif’s PML-N, would love the election on July 25 to be contested on the issue of civilian supremacy and the power of democracy. If that happens, the PML-N may surprise many with a win at the ballot box.
If the most recent polls are anything to go by, the partisans cancel each other out and the decision for Pakistan’s immediate democratic future is in the hands of the fence sitters and undecideds. The most likely scenario is a fight to the finish that delivers a weak and fractured mandate to a coalition necessitated by the absence of a clear winner. For many this is, in and of itself, a defeat for democracy in Pakistan.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Pakistan's people are its strongest institution
Pakistan is a complex and diverse country with challenges that range from a looming financial and economic crisis, to the ongoing fight against Daesh terrorists that struck again on election day, killing nearly 30 voters, to the entrenched and deep economic deprivation that plagues every part of the country, including its most shiny cities.
If Pakistanis are unable to decide between two political poles, it may be because the country is tired of a national discourse that ignores them, and privileges the already pampered elite—be they members of the superior judiciary, the generals that run its military, or the politicians that adorn the halls of parliament.
The debates that Pakistanis are fed through the 24-7 news cycle barely scratch the surface of the issues that shape their lives. A fractured or hung parliament would be a stinging rebuke to both the military and its puppets who pretend that corruption is the unique domain of the traditional Pakistani politician, and it would be a stinging rebuke to the traditional political parties that deify democracy only when it means that they get to rule the country.
Whatever happens on July 25, the fact that Pakistanis are voting, and even its powerful military has no idea who will win is a tribute to the stamina and tolerance of the Pakistani people.
As the third consecutive timely election, it is a historic day. Neither terrorists, nor anti-democracy naysayers within the country, nor the barely disguised contempt of some Western analysts will diminish the heroism of ordinary Pakistanis.
No matter who loses the election, Pakistan will win.
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