Election season in Pakistan

That Pakistan is having successive elections is a good a thing. But, regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming election, not much will change there as far as the key issues go

Imran Khan: No enemy of Tehreek-e-Taliban
Ghaffar Hussain
On 30 April 2013 14:18

Pakistan's troubled transition towards democracy took a huge leap forward in March of this year when the first democratically-elected government in that country's history completed a full term in office. This has injected renewed vigour into the election season currently underway, and party leaders are energetically touring the country promising competing political visions as I write.

But this election season is also different for another reason. The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) has, from the very start, promised to disrupt the elections by targeting secular-leaning parties out on the campaign trail. This includes the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP).

The ANP, founded by the son of the great Pashtun peace activist Ghaffar Khan, has borne the brunt of many TTP terrorist attacks. Its rallies, campaign offices, and political leaders have been consistently targeted in suicide and truck bomb attacks that have claimed many innocent lives. In fact, the ability of the ANP to conduct a campaign at all has been severely undermined.

The ANP previously held the majority of seats in Khyber Pashtunkhwa (KP), a Pashtun-dominated province in north-west Pakistan, which is also a stronghold of the TTP as well as other jihadist outfits. The TTP fear the return of a secular-leaning provincial authority that will be keen to raise local militias to resist TTP advances.

If the TTP-led terrorist campaign achieves its goals and secular-leaning parties are undermined, Pakistan could face being ruled by a religiously conservative political establishment that would be unwilling to speak out against religious extremism at a time when coalition troops are leaving Afghanistan – all of which would be a huge boost to the Taliban, both in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. On the other hand, attacks on secular-leaning parties could potentially garner sympathy votes and turn the tide in their favour.

The exact political impact of the terrorist campaign remains to be seen. In the meantime, it does raise a number of intriguing questions about Pakistani politics. How can a country transition towards democracy, or hold free and fair elections, if it can't prevent a large number of politicians and campaigners being routinely killed? Furthermore, why are other parties, such as Imran Khan's Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) not being targeted?

The answer to the latter question, at least on the surface, seems very simple. These are not secular-leaning parties, they have refused to condemn the TTP, and they blame Pakistan's rampant and ubiquitous terrorism problem on US foreign policy and India. Or, in other words, they adopt the easy option and prefer to appease the masses rather than make statements that may rock a boat that needs rocking. This is not only a farce but a tragedy.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has been called Taliban Khan in some circles, owing to his inability to call a spade a spade. But that accusation has not done much to dampen his soaring popularity, especially with young Pakistani voters. After all, he is a national sporting hero with dashing good looks and a reputation for honesty and integrity. He is also, as an untested quantity, able to take advantage of the poor track record of other secular-leaning parties, such as the PPP, which have gone from one corruption scandal to another.

That said, his obsessive focus on corruption alone betrays an inability to deal with other issues that Pakistan needs to tackle, such as human rights abuses, arcane blasphemy laws and a deteriorating security situation for minority communities. Imran could, in return, argue that other political parties have not done much on those issues either, and, of course, he would be right.

What Pakistan lacks most of all is moral leadership. It lacks a political class that is able and willing to take tough decisions and bring about the kind of change the country really needs. Even military dictatorships have not been able to get to grips with the instability caused by the wide availability of weapons and jihadist cadres, which means Pakistan is really stuck in a rut.

The fact that Pakistan is having successive elections is surely a good a thing and some comfort can be taken from that. But, regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming election, not much will change in Pakistan as far as the key issues are concerned. This is a country in which deadly violence and inequality have become a way of life, alongside political corruption and economic mismanagement.

A fundamental cultural shift, induced by higher literacy rates, openness to new ideas, and reigning in of an increasingly assertive and aggressive religious establishment, is what is needed before meaningful change can be bought about. In the meantime, the slow and painful emergence of democracy, albeit against a backdrop of violence and intimidation, should be welcomed. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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