This election is the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another. Instead of it being a two horse race between the usual political dynasties who have dominated the landscape of Pakistani politics for decades (the Pakistan People’s Party, PPP and Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, PML-N), a third contender, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf or Movement for Justice (PTI) entered the playing field.
This has been called the bloodiest election in Pakistan’s history with over 150 people killed yet in spite of the violence, large political rallies were held in most cities with the exception of Karachi. On election day itself voter turnout was high at approximately 60% which was : unprecedented given the threats of violence; it was inspiring to see the determination and passion of so many people of different classes come out to vote, many travelling miles, many first time voters, both young and old and a huge number of women queuing for hours in the heat in order to cast their ballot.
Although the system of “Baradri” voting (along clan lines where entire communities vote en bloc) and so-called feudal democracy still holds sway, there was far greater awareness of the choice of candidates and more discussion and critical appraisal of policies rather than just personalities.
The results were not suprising, with Mr Sharif’s party coming out on top and a close battle for second and third place between PTI and PPP gaining about 30 seats each. The official tally has yet to be confirmed. However, no party has swept across all four provinces to gain a national mandate. Most seats were won along regional loyalties (PMLN gaining much of Punjab, PPP the Sindh, Balochistan was a patchwork of nationalist parties but interestingly the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa gave PTI a large number of seats, allowing them to form a coalition government with other parties). This fragmented voting pattern adds to growing concerns about the gradual “Balkanisation” of Pakistan.
Although PTI did not deliver the Tsunami of change promised, the party did well and is now the third largest political force to be reckoned with. Its task in Kyber Pukthunkwwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province) should not be underestimated; this is one of the most challenging, violent and unpredictable regions within Pakistan. PTI has been given a chance to show what it can do; if it can implement good governance, accountability, meritocracy and above all tackle extremism and ensure peace and stability, who knows what could happen in the next elections.
The concerns raised prior to the election about vote rigging and electoral fraud appear to have been validated by evidence of widespread vote rigging. These elections were by no means “free and fair”. Although disappointing, this was not unexpected. However what was different this time was that the media was on hand to capture images of blatant rigging and transmit them worldwide. This has led to a huge debate about electoral fraud and although international observers estimate rigging to have affected 10% of the vote, the actual figure is probably significantly higher.
The judiciary has been woefully silent on this issue and the Election Commission of Pakistan has not acted as swiftly and comprehensively as it ought to have done. However, what is refreshing is the debate and scrutiny which is being applied by the media and in particular the courage of journalists in revealing what went on in spite of open threats to their safety. This is something which could never have happened previously. The public reaction to this has been surprising too. Whereas in the past, people did not dare to question the results, we now have people taking to the streets peacefully to demand that action is taken against the fraud and re-counting is underway is some areas.
Though not widely reported in the international media, there are huge demonstrations and sit-ins going on in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and many other cities where many people feel their votes were stolen. Moreover, when one looks at those demonstrating, it is not the poor but rather middle and upper-middle class men, women and children who have come out in droves to fight not only for their rights but more so for the rights of the downtrodden, poorer classes who are seldom if ever heard. This is something which I have not previously seen in Pakistan and did not expect. This compassion and empathy is a positive sign for the future social cohesion and wellbeing of the country.
The challenges that lie ahead for the in-coming government are huge; crippling energy shortages, corruption, poverty, law and order breakdown, a broken health system, a rapidly growing gap between rich and poor, debt, terrorism, growing unemployment, sectarianism, attacks against minorities, and foreign policy issues such as the US drone strikes. Yet, in spite of the rigging, violence, intimidation and usual chaos which seem to be part and parcel of Pakistan’s precarious political situation, what is emerging is a greater awareness and willingness to act amongst the public and to no longer be subjugated. As I watch the proceedings in Pakistan I sincerely hope that these elections, however flawed and bloody, herald the dawn of a new chapter in Pakistan’s democratic evolution and offer a glimmer of hope for her people. Anything less would be a travesty.