This year’s impending general election has been the cause of much collective anxiety in Pakistan. If it goes ahead, it will be a significant achievement — the first time that a civilian government has lasted its full term and will transfer power to another through the ballot box. Perhaps it is the pressure of this potentially historic moment that is causing so much anxiety about the election — or perhaps, it is the weight of past example. The main worry is that the election will not happen at all, whether this is because of the increased threat of violence from extremist militants, or because of intervention from the army. There is also concern about the neutrality of the process, whether ruling parties will seek to cling onto power, and whether the election will be truly free and fair. Separating out these issues — violence, the role of the army, and public confidence — how likely is it that the elections will be undermined?
The problem at the front of most people’s minds is the threat of violence. A huge bomb attack in Karachi last week left 48 people dead and more than 200 injured, ripping off the front of two multi-storey housing blocks. These attacks, primarily targeting Shia civilians, seem to be increasing in their frequency and scale, and the trend looks set to continue as elections approach. If the intention of militant groups is to create a climate of fear, they are succeeding. At the best of times, most politicians are reluctant to take decisive action against terrorism. During election season, when they will be required to appear frequently at public rallies, their reluctance to speak out and put themselves directly — and literally — in the firing line is further reduced. These fears are not unfounded. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated during a campaign rally on December 27, 2007. During that election period, more than 100 party supporters were killed as a result of attacks on political gatherings, while more than 50 died in clashes between different activists.
A chilling effect on political campaigning is not the only impact that violence has. In certain areas of the country, those manning polling booths or going out to vote do so at considerable personal risk. Militancy in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) or Balochistan may affect not only the ability of candidates to go out and campaign, but of local election staff working at polling stations, and of individual citizens casting their votes. Indeed, many have suggested that the law and order situation in Karachi, Balochistan, and parts of K-P will be used as an excuse to postpone the election. In 2008, there were fears that polling stations would be targeted by terrorists. While violence did not materialise on the scale that had been anticipated, by 2pm on election day, the media had already reported 35 violent incidents at polling stations, including eight bomb blasts, 12 instances of gunfire and three kidnappings. Dozens of people were injured and seven killed, and there were further reports of threatened and actual violence. The number of incidents may have been proportionally small, but the climate of fear remained. If anything, the security situation has deteriorated since then.
This week, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has given assurances that the army will provide security at polling stations “in Karachi, Fata, parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and stations declared sensitive in Punjab”. This is reassuring, but underlines another persistent worry in the mind of the pubic: the role of the army. Pakistan has spent nearly half of its 64 years under military rule. One of the reasons that this parliament is so historic is that it hasn’t been deposed by the army: the exception rather than the rule. The sudden entrance into politics of cleric Tahirul Qadri late last year brought fears of an army intervention to the forefront. While his agenda focused on anti-corruption measures, Qadri’s frequent and overblown praise of the military and the judiciary, not to mention his coyness over his funding, prompted accusations that he was acting on behalf of the army and staging a coup by the back door. Whether this was true or not, the incident demonstrated that anxiety about army intervention is never far from the public consciousness. But at the present moment, the evidence suggests that there is not much appetite among the army for seizing control. Its resources are stretched, with 100,000 officers fighting insurgents on the border with Afghanistan. The military retains a huge say over foreign policy and national security, meaning that the generals at the top are enjoying power without the responsibility of running the country. There is little to indicate that this will change, but of course, nothing is certain in the world of Pakistani politics.
There have been some significant achievements in recent years. The 2008 election was hailed as a pluralistic process in which parties were free to express a broad range of views. There was greater scrutiny from the media and civil society than there has been in previous elections, and as a result, greater public confidence in the system. Yet the picture was not entirely rosy. According to the European Union’s election observation mission, there were still “serious problems with the framework and conditions in which the elections were held”. These problems included an abuse of state resources and a bias in the state media in favour of ruling parties; a lack of confidence in the ECP; and serious problems with the electoral roll which saw many duplicate entries or omissions. In the intervening five years, have these issues been addressed? One of the primary achievements of this government has been in the unglamorous arena of constitutional change. The Eighteenth and Twentieth Amendments devolved power to the provinces and took measures to guarantee more free and fair elections, including an independent election commission. Yet serious problems remain. The process of door-to-door voter verification was badly implemented and electoral rolls are still chaotic. Moves have been made towards guaranteeing independence in the electoral commission, but similar progress has not been made on transparency.
Ultimately, not all of these concerns can be addressed before this year’s general election. While there are still significant problems, it is important to recognise that progress has been made, too. With the current climate of uncertainty, it will do wonders for public confidence if the election goes ahead at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2013.