Too large to manage — even by rigging

Yesterday it was Bhutto, today it is Imran Khan, whose popularity despite all forms of oppression has peaked

Sarwar Bari May 10, 2023
The writer is National Coordinator of Pattan Development Organisation and has served as head of FAFEN


‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’ Our ruling elites have proved every word of Karl Marx true — not once but repeatedly. The country’s beginning however looked noble, as the right of every adult to elect their representative was legally acknowledged, but the choice of the people was dismissed arrogantly and unlawfully. Since then, every electoral exercise has proved to be a farce.

Let’s recall. In March 1954, the first general election was held in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which turned into a bloody tragedy by 1971. Since then, our rulers — instead of learning any lesson — have kept the people in perpetual tragedy. Consequently, the country could not progress. But naively, we embraced every farce as a new beginning. For instance, when Ayub Khan was overthrown in the wake of the 1968 students’ movement, people celebrated the change. I could not forget the enthusiasm I had experienced when General Yahya Khan announced the date for general election — the first countrywide election based on adult franchise.

Though social media was nonexistent then, every nook and corner, cafeteria and barber shop in our neighborhood turned into a debating chamber. Like most of the college students, I actively participated in the anti-Ayub Khan movement and suffered police brutality, which turned me into an activist. I was just 16 then. We would spend more time in political activities than in studies. I thought the only way to fulfil our hope for a prosperous and egalitarian society was through peaceful struggle and democratic election. It proved to be a farce. Yet, I had and still have no regrets. However, it is imperative to inform today’s youth to learn about farcical games of our ruling elites. Here is the empirical evidence.

To test the authenticity of the perception that establishment never allowed political parties to grow beyond a certain level of popularity and secure sufficient majority in assemblies, I analysed results of 14 elections held since 1954. As votes are likely to be the best barometer to test the popularity of political parties, which are transformed into seats in the elected houses, the gap between winner and runner-up is taken as Popularity Gap (PG). My analysis seems to validate the public perception. Moreover, it also reveals that whenever PG between a compliant political party and an undesirable one expanded to more than 30%, conspiracy was hatched to sabotage transfer of power or deny election.

Between 1954 and 1977, four general elections were held. On average, the PG was as high as 54.2%. It was 72.5% in seats, while 36% in votes. In 1954, the United Front government was dismissed soon after it came into being. In 1971, instead of bowing to the wishes of voters, the establishment with the support of its political allies launched a military operation. In 1977, once again a nine-party alliance refused to accept the election result and launched violent agitation which ended in military takeover. For 11 torturous years, people were punished for voting for an “unwanted” party.

Between 1988 and 1993, three general elections were held. As PG remained at a manageable level (16%), elections were held within 90 days after each dismissal. As the PG increased to 50.2% in 1997, and Nawaz Sharif became unmanageable, he was dismissed through a military coup in 1999, which lasted a decade. The PG also remained very low (17.5%) during the 2002 and 2018 period, so elections were held within the stipulated timeframe. Though Sharif was dismissed from premiership, his party was allowed to complete its tenure. But the PTI was deprived of that option as it opted to resist.

To fully understand the malaise, we must examine its roots. After a prolonged delay, in March 1954, first general election was held in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opposition United Front, led by some leading politicians of the Pakistan Movement like Fazlul Huq, HS Suhrawardy and Maulana Bhashani, defeated the Muslim League by capturing 223 (73%) of the 309 seats in the East Pakistan Assembly. Muslim League could win only nine (3%) seats. The people of East Pakistan conveyed a categorical message to the rulers. However, the message was not only ignored, but after a few weeks the public mandate was thrown in the Bay of Bengal. The government was dismissed by Governor General Ghulam Muhammad. And it proved to be the beginning of the end of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Even though Ghulam Muhammad is a cursed character in the political history of the country, ruling elites have continued to walk in his footprints pretty steadfastly.

Consider this also. After Bangladesh came into being, some political scientists thought that establishment had learnt its lessons. They were wrong. The generals under the command of Zia didn’t hesitate for a moment to hang the most popular leader of the country. This was perhaps the first execution of any ruler in the sub-continent. Though Bhutto had committed blunders, his only ‘crime’ was that his popularity was too large and could not even be defeated by rigging. For instance, in the 1970 elections, his party had won 75% of the seats in West Pakistan. In the general election 1977, though the PG narrowed to 24%, it had expanded to 79% in terms of seats. Had the general elections been held within 90 days, as general Zia had promised, Bhutto would have returned to power with more than a two-thirds majority. So, the generals and their toady politicians conspired to eliminate him physically. But, like the PTI today, the PPP too became more popular in the aftermath of the oppression and victimisation. In both cases elections were denied.

Strangely, today the heirs of Bhutto have joined hands with his killers. Yesterday, they were nine, today fourteen. Yesterday it was Bhutto, today it is Imran Khan, whose popularity despite all forms of oppression has peaked to an unprecedented level. In the 2018 general elections, PG between PTI and PML-N was just 17.5%. Despite rigging, PDM could win only four of nineteen seats of the Punjab by-polls held on July 22, 2022, while PTI won 15. Moreover, recent opinion polls show that PTI is far ahead of PDM. The gap is too large to manage, even through rigging.

That has deterred the current dispensation from holding general elections for the dissolved assemblies. No wonder, twice the elections have already been postponed despite a clear popular demand and categorical orders of the Supreme Court.

The above facts clearly negate the much-touted perception that the establishment has been solely responsible for derailing democracy. In fact, it has happened only when a set of politicians have joined hands with the establishment. The farce thus continues.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2023.

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