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2018 polls served to highlight ‘deficiencies in the political system’: Report

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This is an excerpt from Jinnah Institute’s report on Democracy and Inclusion published this month. This part of the report deals with ‘2018 Elections and the State of Democracy’.

A high powered and divisive campaigning season preceded Pakistan’s general election of 2018 that revealed the extent of political polarization in a country that has experienced only two transitions of uninterrupted democracy. Political turbulence in the months preceding the election, due to the prolonged Panama Leaks investigation against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his subsequent incarceration following the Supreme Court’s order, created faultlines along constituencies of support for Sharif and those who bitterly opposed him.

It was a long campaigning season that saw political reconfigurations in all four provinces, chiefly benefitting the incumbent Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) whose political campaign was directed against anti-corruption. Notwithstanding young PTI’s support base, there was a widely held perception that the establishment was circumscribing the political field by ‘engineering’ electoral outcomes for a favoured power dispensation.

A generational change has occurred in Pakistani politics, whereby a younger electorate comprising no less than 46 per cent of all voters, has forced political parties to reorient their election strategies and manifestos towards the youth’s political aspirations.

The election campaigns of major political parties offered dissimilar political values, governance mandates and futures: PTI’s ‘naya’ Pakistan contrasted against the corruption of traditional political elites; PML-N’s reprimand (“respect the vote”) directed at the establishment for ‘stealing’ the Sharifs’ popular mandate; and the PPP’s promise to achieve what their martyred leader Benazir Bhutto stood for.

A generational change has occurred in Pakistani politics, whereby a younger electorate comprising no less than 46 per cent of all voters, has forced political parties to reorient their election strategies and manifestos towards the youth’s political aspirations. The elections of 2018 demonstrated high participation by young people, many of whom were first time voters, but their inclusion in national decision-making, policy and implementation processes remains lacking.

The demand for socio-economic and political rights has been articulated through multiple identity-based social movements on ground that ask for the creation of a Seraiki province; equal citizenship rights for Pashtuns; and the extension of a common legal regime to FATA.

There are significant aspirational changes as well, reflected in Pakistan’s vibrant contemporary political discourse. The demand for socio-economic and political rights has been articulated through multiple identity-based social movements on ground that ask for the creation of a Seraiki province; equal citizenship rights for Pashtuns; and the extension of a common legal regime to FATA. There are calls for improved governance and social service delivery across urban and rural densities; and safeguards for human security in the face of terrorism, poverty and climate induced stress.

Much of this is reinforced by the 24-hour news cycle on electronic media and vastly popular television talk shows that have expanded public inquiry on governmental performance, as well as state policies. The brutal silencing of journalists by state and non-state actors continues, and the systematic intimidation of media organizations has been termed by rights organizations as a “creeping coup”.

Pakistan too has experienced a shift towards rightwing politics. The elections of 2018 validated the presence of new right-wing coalitions that have demonstrated significant street power over recent years, and staked a formal claim to authority by contesting and winning seats in the general election.

Increasing penetration of the internet in rural and urban centers has led to the widespread usage of social media in Pakistan, where as many as 92 per cent of 44 million internet users have Facebook profiles, followed by other social media accounts. This has increased public attention towards socio-political trends in Pakistan, with large viewership and online participation in public discourse that reportedly swelled before the election of 2018. Online participation comes with the predictable downside of ‘trolling’, intimidation and threats to opinion leaders, many of whom have been violently attacked for espousing ‘liberal’ viewpoints on religious issues or national security.

As the world over, Pakistan too has experienced a shift towards rightwing politics. The elections of 2018 validated the presence of new right-wing coalitions that have demonstrated significant street power over recent years, and staked a formal claim to authority by contesting and winning seats in the general election. The fifth largest political presence in the national legislature now belongs to the far-right whose political stance on the blasphemy issue enjoys nation-wide support. The rise of populist nationalism in Pakistan’s mainstream discourse presents a grave challenge to progressive policy agendas on fundamental rights, security and peacebuilding.

This forms part of an evolving context of unbridled radicalization and extremism that found accommodation in governance structures through elite patronage and bazaar-backed community support. Ever since the 2014 attack on Army Public School Peshawar, there have been a series of state-led operations across the country to combat terrorism and extremism which have brought about a multifold decline in terrorism incidents and casualties.

Roughly half of Pakistan’s 106 million registered voters cast their ballot in 2018, of whom 23.26 million voters were women. As many as 3,459 candidates vetted by the Election Commission of Pakistan contested 272 general seats of the National Assembly, among whom 171 women ran for general seats.

The lead up to the general election of 2018, and the polling day itself on 25th July, saw deadly violence that claimed hundreds of lives in different parts of Pakistan. Even so, some rural constituencies recorded very high voter turnouts, especially among women. Roughly half of Pakistan’s 106 million registered voters cast their ballot in 2018, of whom 23.26 million voters were women. As many as 3,459 candidates vetted by the Election Commission of Pakistan contested 272 general seats of the National Assembly, among whom 171 women ran for general seats. This included 105 women backed by political parties and 66 contesting as independent candidates.

Overall, 8,396 candidates ran for election on 577 seats of the provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. For the first time in Pakistan’s electoral history, transgender people contested the election although none of them secured a seat.

International observers monitoring the election approved the balloting process, and noted the modest policy gains made during the election cycle, such as increased numbers of women and marginalized groups through institutional and legislative reforms. Donor-led capacity building and training at the Election Commission of Pakistan strengthened the election procedure; whereas civil society participation in election programming, monitoring and reporting improved implementation and provided real time information.

The mandate of any government then corresponds to half the electorate’s participation and verdict, while the other half’s claim over the electoral process is forsaken. Governments that win majorities fail to acknowledge this gap, whereby millions of Pakistani citizens lack representative access to the state by being left out of the vote.

But for all its anticipation as the second consecutive election between full-term democratic governments, the ballot served to highlight well entrenched deficiencies in the political system. Despite hope for an increased voter turnout, roughly half the registered voters could/did not cast their ballot in 2018, making the aggregate vote marginally less compared to the last election in 2013. The mandate of any government then corresponds to half the electorate’s participation and verdict, while the other half’s claim over the electoral process is forsaken. Governments that win majorities fail to acknowledge this gap, whereby millions of Pakistani citizens lack representative access to the state by being left out of the vote.

This is particularly true for women’s participation. The relative closure in male -female voter ratios brought about through revised election laws, allowed more women to vote, but the vast majority is still held back from exercising their constitutional right and continue to be underrepresented at all levels of government and bureaucracy. As for other marginalized communities, including transgenders, the right to run for office has not translated into holding public office, or improved access to state resources and decision making.

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