Tigers, tumbles and Taliban: Making sense of Pakistan’s election

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The mausoleum of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Pakistan beat the odds last week and held relatively peaceful elections. But was the Taliban the real winner? 

Pakistanis voted last Saturday after five years of civilian rule, paving the way for a first ever democratic transition in the country’s history.

The elections were unprecedented given a long series of military takeovers and abrupt ends to civilian rule on charges of corruption and mismanagement stretching all the way back to the 1950′s.

The run-up to this election was marked by some bizarre events. Just a few days before the vote, upstart candidate and former cricket star Imran Khan tumbled from an elevated platform during a campaign event, suffering head injuries. A few days earlier a white tiger used as a prop in frontrunner Nawaz Sharif’s campaign rallies died of heat exposure, creating a minor scandal.

And then, of course, there were numerous attacks by the Pakistani Taliban on political rallies and offices of more liberal political parties.

The militants targeted President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the secular Awami National Party in the northwest region.

Conservative parties, like Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, were free to campaign.

These factors had cast doubts if the elections would be fair if all parties are not given a level-playing field to mobilize their voters.

On top of that, there was the fear that polling stations would come under Taliban attack would force voters to stay indoors on the election day.

Supporters of the MQM party rally in Karachi in 2009. MQM rallies were targeted by Taliban attacks during the run-up to this year's election. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Supporters of the MQM party rally in Karachi in 2009. MQM rallies were targeted by Taliban attacks during the run-up to this year’s election. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

However, people turned out in large numbers with a reported more than 60% turnout—the highest so far in Pakistan’s history. Liberal parties like the PPP argued they lost their seats because of not being able to freely campaign. But the fact is they had spent five years in power and did not solve the problems of common Pakistanis.

Now that the elections are over, the country is replete with optimism.

But the results have brought the problems of Pakistan and its relations with its neighbors and allies at the forefront.

Contrary to hype in the local and international media and predictions of many political pundits about Imran Khan’s chances, his Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party failed to win a sizeable majority needed to form the government.

Instead, the two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League secured a simple majority and enough of a mandate to form a government.

Sharif ruled Pakistan from 1990 to 1993 and later from 1997 to 1999 before military general Pervez Musharraf overthrew his government. Sharif and his family lived in exile in Saudi Arabia for years, before returning to the country in 2007.

Sharif’s victory has come as a disappointment to many Pakistani youth who turned out in huge numbers to support Khan. Youth from the elite classes, commonly known as ‘mummy-daddies’ because of their Westernized lifestyle (and tendency to call to their parents using the English words ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ rather than Urdu), were unequivocal in their support for Khan.

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) political party, casts his vote for the general election at a polling station in Lahore last week. (Photo by REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) political party, casts his vote for the general election at a polling station in Lahore last week. (Photo by REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)

So were religious conservatives because of Khan’s anti-American rhetoric.

Many Pakistani expats also showed tremendous interest in the politics of their country of birth. According to some media reports, many expats had flown to Pakistan for this election to support and vote for their leaders.

Munir Rizvi, a Boeing engineer and former President of Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle, says he did not support any particular political party but did follow the elections on radio and Internet. “I hope everything goes well,” he says. “Pakistan needs stability.”

Rizvi believes young people coming out and voting was a big change in Pakistan’s politics. “They are the people with hopes that new faces will change the country,” he said

One among many diehard supporters of PTI in Seattle area is Raza ul-Mustafa, who teaches computer science at Seattle University.

“I am not satisfied with the results, but at the same they are encouraging,” says ul-Mustafa, citing some news reports about complaints of rigging. “They should be addressed so that the confidence of people in electoral process is restored.”

Indeed, complaints of vote rigging and mismanagement prompted the election commission to reopen voting stations in Karachi almost a week after the polls had initially closed.

Ul-Mustafa believes that, despite the fact that he didn’t win, the improved results for Khan’s party bode well for it’s emergence as a third political force in the country.

Khan has gone through somewhat a dramatic metamorphosis. As a cricketing celebrity, he was considered a playboy and remained heartthrob of many Bollywood actresses of his time. Later on he married Jemima Khan, a British national with half Jewish ancestry.

Cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, whose PTI party failed to meet lofty expectations in the elections.

Cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, whose PTI party failed to meet lofty expectations in the elections.

But today’s Khan has a more religious outlook than anyone would have ever expected 20 years ago. He has tried to capitalize on Pakistan’s growing hatred for the West, particularly the US, and promised that he would shoot down US drones once in power.

His party failed to gain enough seats to come through on that promise. However, PTI did secure majority in the provincial legislature of the country’s conservative northwest region that borders Afghanistan, where the US conducts drone strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Nawaz Sharif, winner of the elections, isn’t the flip-side of Imran Khan either. He was the protege of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq who introduced Islamization in the country in the 80s. During his second tenure as prime minister, Sharif tried to introduce Sharia Law in the country and has close affiliation with the Saudi royal family. It was during Sharif’s governments when Saudi Wahibists gained significant ground in Pakistan’s religious and social polity.

His liberal opponents accuse that Sharif is soft on the Taliban and also has ties with Pakistani terrorist groups who conducted Mumbai attacks in 2008.

So what does this all mean for the US and the coalition forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014? Sharif has said he would ensure the withdrawal is smooth. But Pakistan’s ongoing relations with the Afghan Taliban still remain a question. Were the Taliban in Pakistan’s attacks on liberal parties calculated to take them out of the government so that a conservative government in Islamabad would safeguard their interests once the US leaves?

Sharif has also promised to maintain good ties with the US. Relations between the two countries have been fraught with tension since the raid that killed bin Laden inside Pakistan in 2011. Realistically, it’s the military that calles the shots in Pakistan when it comes to foreign policy. Sharif can do too little to help better relations with the US, or India for that matter, unless the military is brought under civilian purview. Given the way that Sharif’s last stint as prime minister ended, with him deposed by the military, he may not be the man for the job.

Soldiers lower the Pakistani flag in Karachi. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Soldiers lower the Pakistani flag in Karachi. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Like many Pakistanis who turned out in large numbers on Saturday’s elections, Rizvi and ul-Mustafa believe that in the big picture, democracy can solve Pakistan’s problems.

“Democracy is the key thing for any nation. Without democracy, Pakistan cannot prosper,” Rizvi said. “Initial stages are hard but eventually we’ll get through with time. People will start to realize that democracy can change the country and bring openness.”

Since its inception, Pakistanis have struggled to balance their country’s religious identity with aspirations for democracy. These elections have brought some hope for a better Pakistan, and despite all the violence and irregularities, the transition from one democratically elected government to another will truly be milestone.

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