Two days after the general elections in Pakistan, I sat watching a debate between senior leaders of the PTI, the MQM and the PML-N regarding rigging in elections. The most amazing part of the conversation was the suggestion by the PTI leader that perhaps, intelligence agency wallahs were stuffing ballot boxes at a polling station from where a PML-N candidate won. The same leader also talked about an opinion piece suggesting that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was bribed to ensure a certain win. The other day, I heard a ‘so-called’ journalist talking in a television programme, of foreign countries like Turkey being involved in ensuring certain election results in Pakistan. Notwithstanding some genuine complaints of rigging, the conversation and suggestion reflected a desire to delegitimise the larger election process, which did not bring about results that a certain segment of the population desired. While it is necessary to sort out the urgent issues regarding glaring discrepancies in results and measures to strengthen the ECP, it is also necessary for the post-May 11 Pakistan to find closure. Instead of constantly delegitimising the process, it is necessary to accept the fact that a large part of Pakistan that voted differently from how certain people thought they would, also represents the country. Its opinion ought to be respected as well.
There is a great risk of a segment of the population that was enthralled by the idea of Naya Pakistan getting depoliticised out of frustration. Like others, I have also heard conversations in which the Naya Pakistan wallahs were going around cursing people’s decision, calling them stupid and even suggesting that participating in elections was an effort not worth their while. Some even went to the extent of calling people paindu (rural) and illiterate. Besides a lot of institution-building and strengthening that is required, Imran Khan must nurse the wounds of his supporters at the earliest and draw their attention towards the fact that it is a great achievement that the PTI has risen from being a party of one in parliament to over 30 members. Moreover, unfavourable results do not mean that we stop emotionally and physically investing in this country. People’s choices must be respected. This nursing of the wounds is part of the larger process of making efforts to bind the country together.
The other interesting trend pertains to the image of regionalisation of politics. To an outside observer, Pakistan does not feel tied together. The PML-N has emerged as a big force in Punjab, the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the PPP relegated to rural Sindh, the MQM in urban Sindh and Baloch and Pashtun nationalists in Balochistan. A lot of people are hugely angry on the PPP’s lacklustre performance of the past five years. So, one could argue that it got what it deserved. Notwithstanding the errors made by its leadership and erosion of ideology from the party, the fact remains that we are observing the breakdown of what was once the only genuine national party. The federation needs to be connected, which it is not at the moment. The PPP’s weakening as a party within Sindh itself will have repercussions for sociopolitical development in the region and its connection with the federation. The crippling of the party, for which the leadership is to blame as well, has and will create spaces which will be dominated by pro-establishment parties or the nationalists. In both cases, it does not bode well for the province or the federation. It is necessary to appease the disgruntled youth in Sindh who may be tempted to fight against the state, especially in reaction to the use of force by it. The number of missing people and dead bodies is increasing in the province.
The above narrative means that party or parties have to move rapidly to shun their character of being regional entities and reach out to other regions. In the past five years, the PML-N leadership has shied from visiting other provinces. At least, this is a complaint one heard from urban and rural Sindh. The PML-N winning seats in the Balochistan Assembly is a good sign. It now needs to do more to expand in other parts. Shedding the image of a Punjab-based leadership and party is necessary. The development agenda also has to extend beyond a single province.
As part of the effort to strengthen the federation, the ruling party at the centre will also have to look more carefully to the needs of south Punjab, which seems to have given a huge mandate to the party. As a region known for both poverty and popularity of the PPP, some were surprised to see the PML-N sweep elections there. This happened due to a combination of factors, such as the party aligning with emerging power centres in the region, especially those representing new capital. In some cases, it also partnered with electables from amongst the Seraiki-speakers, who were already disgruntled due to the PPP not properly marketing the idea of a new province of south Punjab and Bahawalpur. An ordinary voter was left with pragmatism to support a party that might win and deliver. But the more important thing is that the people have honoured the PML-N by putting their confidence in it. The best way of consolidating such gains is to not ignore the need for a new province and offering a plan for better distribution of resources even within Punjab. The PML-N has done well in improving Lahore but now it also needs to distribute development to other parts of the country and the province itself.
While the list of things that the new government ought to do is endless, the need for strengthening the federation should be one of the primary goals. Accepting the legitimacy of the electioneering process and legitimising political and development agendas through meeting people’s needs will go a long way.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2013.