Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The good and bad news from Pakistan's May 2013 elections

by Shandana Khan Mohmand

The Pakistani election of 11 May 2013 marked many positives in Pakistan’s political development, and just as many negatives.

Tentative steps towards democracy

It has been depicted as the making of history, for the fact that it marked the end of the first ever completed term of a democratically elected government, and the first ever democratic transition of power. This is only partly true. The oft-repeated fact of this being Pakistan’s first ever full 5-year term has been intriguing right from the start. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, elected in 1970, completed a full term, albeit after a very shaky start during which the country split into two (with the creation of Bangladesh). Previous elections have also been far more historically significant. The 1970 election marked an incredibly dramatic transition from the 11-year military rule of General Ayub Khan, and brought into power Pakistan’s first ever elected government. The 1988 and 2008 elections were significant for the same reason, and marked the transition to democratic rule from the military dictatorships of Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf respectively.

The historical significance of this most recent election lies in the fact of one democratically elected government completing its 5-year term and then peacefully handing over power through an election to another elected government, with the election result and handover being accepted by all concerned parties, barring a few allegations of rigging. That certainly has never happened before. While the three elections mentioned above marked transitions to democracy, this is the first to signal Pakistan’s tentative move towards the consolidation of democracy.

Strong voter turnout despite the threats of violence

Other positives include a phenomenal increase in voter turnout. The average turnout for the 8 elections held between 1977 and 2008 was 40%, with the highest being 47% in the 1977 election (International IDEA). Since then fewer and fewer Pakistani voters have chosen to step out and vote on election day. This time the figure is about 55% (according to some closer to 60%), and this despite the fact that it was an election with the greatest ever threat to the regular voter.

Since about April, the Taliban were reported to have distributed pamphlets in various cities warning people against coming out to vote. There was a strong fear that voters would be targeted as they lined up at polling booths. And yet over 50 million voters lined up on 11th May, earning Pakistan the label “the world’s bravest democracy” from one columnist.

Emergence of a third national party

The turnout has much to do with the emergence of a new party – the ex-cricket captain Imran Khan’s PTI – that ran a strong campaign to get out the vote. Its main incentive for doing so was the perception that its largest vote bank lies within Pakistan’s young voters – 48% of Pakistan’s voters are below the age of 35 – and if they could get this group to vote, the party could get quite close to a majority win.

The irony is that though they managed to get the vote out, not all new voters cast their vote for the PTI, choosing in many cases to vote instead for the country’s older parties. Nevertheless, the larger voter turnout and the emergence of a significant third force in what was fast becoming a two-party competition between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), are definite contributions of the PTI.

Lack of a level playing field

There are two main negatives, besides of course the allegations of rigging and the fact that the winning party’s seat tally is beyond many expectations (an expert survey by a leading news magazine, published on the eve of the election, gave the triumphant PML-N an average of 35% of the seats in the National Assembly. It ended up getting 45%, or 125 out of 272 seats).

First, it seems no party except the winning PML-N had a level playing field. The PTI and its supporters believe that they have been cheated out of seats that they had expected to sweep, and have directed these allegations against both the PML-N in Punjab and the MQM in Sindh. More importantly, the incumbent PPP, along with two other secular parties, the ANP and MQM, were unable to run campaigns because of terrorist threats and the targeting and execution of some of their candidates. The impact was clearly reflected in their abysmal seat tallies.

Conservative values supported by the youth vote

Second, the election was won by parties on the right, and revealed the growing number of youth to be particularly right leaning. The major electoral agendas that carried the day were corruption, drone attacks, nationalism and anti-Americanism, and promises of infrastructure development. Poverty reduction, labour issues, minority rights and tax reforms were almost entirely absent from the electoral discourse. The winners are admittedly not religious fundamentalist parties (who received less than 0.05% of seats in the National Assembly), but they are certainly conservative and promise nothing in their agendas that can be considered socially transformative. And this the newly mobilised youth has no issues with.

Shandana will be giving a seminar on the elections at the Institute of Development Studies on 23 May.

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