In 1999, I won my first and last elections, and promptly lost faith in the democratic process.
The elections in question were for the student council in my school, the CAS. Unlike most other schools, the council wasn’t chosen by the teachers based on who had the best scores/tutta-lifting abilities, but rather a relatively diverse set of students were nominated and given a few weeks to campaign.
Essentially, this process turned the whole exercise into a popularity contest. And if we were to go by popularity, I should’ve lost. For starters, I was an unathletic, rotund, risk-averse good student with a burger-cut hairstyle, and despite being 16 still had to display the virility that puberty bestows. Indeed, the breakup of my voice was a more painful and protacted experience than seven seasons of Ross and Rachel.
Furthermore, the guy we all expected to win was H, who was also chubby but was an ace cricketer, had an outsized personality, and had already began marking notches on his bedpost. (The Pakistani minimum requirements for marking a bedpost notch are not as stringent as in other countries.) The real winner should have been A/S, who we used to call “Master”. This was because Master was from a glamourous family and was impossibly handsome, which meant that all the things that 16 year olds desire came naturally to him. In case you feel we were all toadies, I would point you to the fact that A/S has repeatedly made it to every single list of ‘eligible Pakistani bachelors’ and ‘Weekly hotties’ liberal Pakistan has ever seen. Seriously.
But A/S didn’t bother campaigning at all, while H put in a half hearted effort. As cool, suave seniors, making sparkly charts was never going to be their forte. Yet most of us assumed they would win.
On election day though, I came out on top, by a resounding margin.
For starters, the school was littered with my relatives. I had no idea of biraderi politics at the time, but those Shia Biharis came in good use. But what genuinely swung the vote was something so simple it made me doubt the wisdom of the masses for a long time to come. Two days before the elections, I converted the chart-paper wrist bands I had made into personalised ones. Basically, I took the name of each student from the yearbook (ours was atiny school, so these were no more than 200) and then handed out each person their very own ‘I am XYZ and I will Vote for Ahmer’ wristband. That simple, personalised branding gesture won me a popularity contest I had no right to win.
It took more than a decade to change my mind about democracy and politics. In 2008, I was a journalist and felt increasingly disillusioned by the messy and horribly violent exercise I saw unfold in front of me, and so I chose not to vote. But the past five years have slowly begun to change my mind.
I could launch into a 10,000 word tangent on why, but lets keep it simple.
Democracy is not ideal, but it’s the least worst alternative available to us.
Take India for example. Six decades of almost uninterrupted democratic rule has not ended poverty, religious or gender discrimination, corruption or inequality. But what gets ignored in this context is that the Indian state has had to use (comparitively) little violence to hold onto a nation comprising one-sixth of the world’s population. Just a brief read on the recent election history of Uttar Pradesh – a state whose population exceeds all of Pakistan’s – gives you a good idea of how rapidly new interest groups find their voice, lose out to even newer challengers, and then come back reformed and rebranded. UP continues to have all sorts of problems, but the democratic release prevents it descending to chaos.
And this is what we need to learn, memorise, rattofy about #Elections2013.
When you wake up on May 12th, even if your wildest, most glorious election projections/desires have come true, Pakistan would still be the same place. And I would bet an obscene amount of money that even when the next election comes around, things would feel similar if not worse.
Before you lose your shit, I am not trying to say that any and every future government would be a failure. Rather, things will look and get worse because they are getting better.
Pakistan has, and is undergoing, a rapid once-in-a-generation change in its demographics. The population is young, and its increasingly become urbanised. The tumult of change associated with such transformations is going to produce people who would inherently be conservative as they attempt to deal with the flux and chaos of moving away from home, and all the linkages, patronages and benefits it entails, to a new place with completely different power structures and survival strategies. They would face resitance from those already inhabiting the cities they move to, as competition for already scarce resources would further intensify. They would find themselves living a lifestyle for which they would have no precedent, and thus the desire to hold onto vague notions of tradition would increase.
At the same time, the presence, nay ubiquity, of mobile phones and the electronic media would mean that the amount of reporting (both in the media and to the authorities) that various crimes and misdemeanours receive would rise exponentially. As much as I hate to say it, instances like the Sialkot lynching, or the Shahzeb and Arsalan murders, have been a dime-a-dozen in our country’s past. But now, not only do they break on all sorts of media instantly, we have pixelated videos and photos to go with them. The same goes for corruption scams, political do-numberi, violence on women and minorities and a lot else. In such a context, it becomes impossible to ignore them.
With (relatively) more proactive courts, and politicians operating with some fear of accountability, you would also see more recourses for justice becoming available. Many of the cases though would exhaust the state’s meagre resources, and its likely that such things would also make it to the national or local debate via the media.
All this would mean that suddenly, things would appear to be getting out of control, and we would begin to hear of far more deplorable instances than ever before. But all of that would be a consequence of positive changes slowly cleaving their way through the existing situation.
If we return to the phenomenon of the young and newly urbanised, I would predict that despite a proclivity for conservatism, they would not be averse to modernity. Its likely that most would educate their children, and begin to start demanding better government services. Again, the discontent they would generate would create a media perception that the state is falling apart, when infact the reality would be that the state would have to start listening to the demands of those who had made do with a lot less in the past.
Unlike many other posts on this site, I have very little statistical data to back these hunches up with, and am going, like Afridi, on a mixture of a hunch and some impatience.
I find the precedents for my predictions in India’s recent furores about corruption (Anna Hazare) and the rape cases in Dehli (and elsewhere). Both times, it looked like India was going to hell. But in both cases, it represented the articulation of demands from people who hadn’t made them before. If Hazare was the assertion of the middle class, then the rape protests were the triumph for (amongst many others) liberal, rights-aware types.
The other precedent is the demographic changes of the 40s in British India, which led to great political upheaval (including the founding of Pakistan) and great migration. It immediately created a conservative society in Pakistan which was traumatised by partition and had little to hold onto save the mythology of the nation. But the children of that generation grew up with a more profound sense of identity, which is why in the 60s young Pakistanis were energised by national politics in a way we still have to see being repeated.
I genuinely think that while we are not on the exact same paths, we are on similar ones. Events like a democratic transition, or burger bachay going to vote, were ones I never thought possible even five years ago. And while they themselves are not signs of ‘change’ they are symbols of the democratic process becoming entrenched.
More importantly – and thankfully – I have also learnt that the politics of CAS are not the politics of Pakistan. Yes, the masses are susceptible to some kindness and a personal touch. But while the Headboy of CAS had no power to offer – despite that title, fellatio was not part of the official duties – that’s not the case for a Pakistani politician. Ammar Rashid and Umair Javed are amongst some of the people to have written excellent insights into the politics of patronage, and you can learn a lot from them. But the biggest takeway from their work is that voters are not complete simpletons – they make rational, calculated electoral choices despite (or in spite) of their educational qualifications.
And so if this process continues, and the voter – rather than the general – becomes the determinant of who gets booted out of power, then the choices voters make would keep getting more sophisticated. Already, for the first time in living memory, we have seen the galvanising of voters who don’t require the patronage goodies politicians dole out. The large majority of thse voters are converging around the populist (if ideologically vague) clarion call of the PTI, motivated by a patronage with of their ideas. The content of those ideas might be intellectually weak, but the phenomenon of their mobilisation is unprecedented (in recent history).
And if things are to change in accordance of what we want, then this is the only process where it is possible (though not guaranteed). Rather than having everything reset every other decade by a khaki, we could start exerting our own choices on the direction of the country. We could start to exercise and empower the institutions set up to provide a decent society to us. And we would do well to realise that any of these changes would require commitment from us for another 10-15 years. We would need to see out the chaos of the changes happening before us, and if we do that, we could see ideologies, ideas and idealism flourishing once more.
The point isn’t, and wouldn’t be, about who won, but who decided who won. That’s the journey we can begin with these elections, and it is one which will be very, very catastrophic and very, very transformational.
In the end, to stink out the entire place with a most odious and grotesque cliche, on May 12th no party would have won quite as much as democracy would have.
Note from Ahsan: And now for something from our newest team-member, Abira Ashfaq:
The promises and specifics of Naya Pakistan
Last time around, it was the lawyers’ movement and Musharraf’s ouster that put us in the mood for elections. This time it’s Imran’s Naya Pakistan. A new generation that came of age in the wake of unprecedented levels of violence in the country appears ready to vote balla. PTI has capitalized on peoples’ sense of despair. They’ve marketed with style, co-opted the highly co-optable “Hum Dekhain Gai” – and whether illusory or not, the one palpable difference this time is the sense of anticipation in the air. Young people who have never voted before have turned into political evangelists; middle class housewives who seemed preoccupied with tuitions and maids are forwarding PTI messages; and migrant labourers are lamenting the fact that they aren’t registered in Karachi and can’t vote Imran. It’s the rhetoric that matters in elections, not the fine print, and PTI rhetoric hits the right chords, appeases people’s cathartic need to stamp out the malaise and corruption PPP/Zardari have come to epitomize, their old school style of politics and patronage.
How party politics are reflected in legislative reform (notwithstanding the tiresome, inaccurate criticism that laws are hardly enforced) rarely makes it to the mainstream debate – be it in the drawing room, the factory floor, college campus, or from the pulpit. For many people, candid debate around labor, gender, minorities, and environmental law and policy could be a way to decide how to vote. However, apart from PILDAT publications and NGO events organized by Aurat Foundation, PILER, or IUCN on March 8th, May 1st, and Earth Day and the occasional half pager in Dawn, these issues never quite enter mainstream consciousness. Election discourse rarely evolves beyond generalities. All that PTI has to offer is – vote for us, they all are corrupt, we are not them, and we are in a state of terrible crisis.
Women seem to be cheering the concept of change PTI symbolizes rather than the details. Why does the party condemn karo kari and swara as un-Islamic but not domestic violence? Do they approve the domestic violence act passed recently? PTI wishes to rationalize labor laws (as per their manifesto) but more specifically what is their stance on the rights of home based workers for whom legislation is in the works? There are several recent events that were emotionally formative for youth — the Sialkot killings, the murder of a young man in Benazir Park by Rangers, attacks on minorities and the arson in Joseph Town, to name just a few. Why are people not connecting law and policy to these events as they vote, and questioning how the state is complicit in such violence? Why are they not demanding repeal of laws that allow draconian punishments and discriminate against minorities — condemning abuse of executive power, and a public culture that condones vigilante justice? And in this context, Imran’s statement about Ahmedis is tacit approval of violence against minorities.
Even a cursory glance at PTI’s manifesto shows they want privatization (albeit with more transparency) and the environment made friendlier for local and foreign investment (not very different from past precedent). Shouldn’t there be more educated debate about the economic consequences of such policies on the common person? Will such policies lead to an economically egalitarian society or quite the opposite? How have parliamentarians voted in the past? Shouldn’t their record on issues inform our decisions on May 11th? Notice such record is not readily accessible.
Perhaps by next elections we should be talking about the specifics instead of being perpetually starry eyed about nebulous promises even Obama made but failed to deliver. Change is always seeping through, and we don’t always need to start on a clean slate, condemn everything from the past, and perpetuate hysteria. We don’t want PTI (or any new government) to reinvent the wheel, but pick up the loose ends and build for progressive change – while implementing systemic changes to old style politics of the past.
Note from Ahsan: and now a couple of thoughts from yours truly.
What are the areas of consensus?
In the run-up to elections, parties do their darnedest to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Often these are distinctions without a difference, but we cannot really blame parties for employing this tactic. After all, a vote for X necessarily means a vote for Not Y, so it’s in parties’ interest to not look like each other.
So it’s instructive to note that, by default if nothing else, our entire political system agrees upon the outsized influence of religion in our society and politics. Remember all those debates about the blasphemy law? Or discrimination against Ahmadis? Or what version of religiose history our kids are being taught in schools? Yeah, me neither.
Obviously, it may be rational for parties to not engage in such discussions, seeing as how people who say the wrong thing on these issues can have 26 bullets pumped into their back and then not be prayed for in parliament and then have the killer be feted by “educated, middle class, anti-dictatorship” types. I get the incentive structure, don’t get me wrong. But it is fairly jarring when you note how big a problem religious extremism poses to the Pakistani state and society, and how acquiescent political representatives seem to be in the face of it. And yes, this includes the “liberal, secular” parties (remember when Ghulam Ahmed Bilour set a bounty on that nutjob “filmmaker”?).
Everyone who matters in Pakistan has signed up for Islamism. And not just Islamism, but a particular brand of Islamism. This will get worse before it gets better.
The rational case for PTI
The rational PTI supporter concedes Imran Khan is a not very bright mullah, but says that in the grand scheme of things, a not very bright mullah is not the worst thing to happen to Pakistan. The rational PTI supporter concedes that PTI knows nothing about governance or administration or coalition-building at this point, but that a stint in the opposition for, I dunno, five years may just do the trick. The rational PTI supporter concedes that Imran Khan and his party completely misdiagnose the extremism and terrorism problem, but that misdiagnosis won’t hinder the law-and-order efforts from the We Will Get Things Done party, and that security will improve.
All of which is to say, voting for PTI is not the dumbest thing ever, as I may or may not have alleged various times in the past. The issue is just tempering expectations, because the rational PTI supporter realizes they don’t have a chance in hell of winning outright, unlike what their chairperson seems to believe. The rational PTI supporter wants PTI to win enough seats to be a player, and then build on that in 2018. The rational PTI supporter is okay with sitting in opposition. Which raises the question: is the irrational (i.e. the modal) PTI supporter okay with sitting in opposition, part of the system and yet not in power? How will the inevitable let-down play out amongst supporters who have been promised the world but are unlikely to receive it?
The slow erosion of the PPP as a “national” party
For decades, the PPP has fashioned itself (quite fairly) as the only national party in Pakistan, the only one capable of adopting a truly federal outlook.
But if our man Umair Javed is right, they’re done in north and central Punjab. They are also done in Karachi. They may retain a light footprint in urban areas in KP, but even there, they face stiff competition from ANP, PML(N), and PTI.
The question the party may want to ask itself, if it hasn’t already: given the demographic direction Pakistan is taking, how smart is it to eschew a message that resonates with urban voters? Is the PPP, as currently structured, even capable of targeting urban areas? I don’t mean at the constituency level, where all sorts of idiosyncratic factors can result in the odd urban seat going to the PPP. I’m talking at the national level, where trends and trajectories don’t lie: look at what’s happened to the PPP in Lahore and Karachi.
Which brings me to a bigger question: to what extent can the PPP justifiably call itself a national party if only non-urban areas are voting for them, especially in a rapidly urbanizing country? This is not concern trolling, I am a sympathizer (if not supporter) of the PPP and think a strong, viable PPP is good for Pakistan. But they’ve got to figure this out in the next five years.