Pakistan all set to embrace another democratic shift

On 25th of July, Pakistanis will go to polls to pave way for another democratically elected government for the third time.

As democracy passes through a transitional period in Pakistan, it faces many challenges; the stakes are high and so are the expectations.

When Pakistan became a country on 14th of August 1947 and formed the largest Muslim state in the world at that time. The creation of Pakistan was a catalyst to the largest demographic movement in recorded history. Nearly seventeen million people-Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs-are reported to have moved in both directions between India and Pakistan. Sixty million of the ninety-five million Muslims on the Indian subcontinent became citizens of Pakistan at the time of its creation. Subsequently, thirty-five million Muslims remained in India making it the largest Muslim minority in a non-Muslim state. Democracy took root in the Muslims of the subcontinent when the first election was held under British governance, and they were allowed a chance to elect their representatives. The minorities, including Sikhs and Christians, were also to elect their representatives. After independence, when the Objectives Resolution was under debate in the constituent assembly, all the members, i.e. Muslims and non-Muslims put forward their views at length and without any fear. Finally, it was approved by the constituent assembly. However, later on, democracy had to face setbacks, which gave birth to an impression that democracy does not suit Pakistan.

Pakistan came into being on the basis of two-nation theory. It divided the dwellers of the subcontinent into Muslim-majority of Pakistan and Hindu-majority of India. The theory is based on the ideology of Islam, which supports to resolve the differences and problems through mutual consultation in the light of Islamic teachings. Thus, it may be deduced that Muslims are born democrats, though different from the western concept of democracy. It may further be deduced that the democratic system based on Islamic doctrines guarantees political development and prosperity of the Muslims and the minorities.

The year 2013 marked a significant milestone in the history of Pakistan as for the first time democratically elected government of Pakistan People’s Party transferred the power to the newly elected government of Pakistan Muslim League. Another smooth transition following the elections in 2018 is of paramount importance as such a development would set the tone for sustainable democracy in the country. An election has an important role in building the nation. If candidates are loyal and honest and the election is free and fair, its fruits are second to none. The upcoming elections 2018 can be a turning point for Pakistan. The people who will elect the 2018 assemblies will be different from those who chose the ones that went out of business by the end of May. For the first time in the country’s electoral history, the coming elections will be dominated by the aspirations of the very young in the country. Between 20 and 22 million young people will have the right to cast their vote for the very first time. They would have reached the voting age since the elections of 2013. According to the Election commission of Pakistan, in 2013 out of the 84 million total registered voters 16.2 million (20 percent) were in the age bracket of 18-25 and another 23.8 million (28 percent) under 35. After the revision of Electoral Rolls in 2017, the total number of voters in Pakistan has jumped to 97 million. The plausible assumption is that the overwhelming majority of new voters are the young voters. This youthful voting bloc holds the key to define and determine their right to be governed democratically in Election-2018.

Since Pakistan is a democratic state, where every citizen has a right to education, to a reasonable standard of living, and in choosing and influencing the political leadership, the youth too must be entitled to an equal right to political participation. This is the way forward for the development of the country. But currently, their voice is largely unrepresented in the political system. Since the breakout of recent political upheavals in Pakistan, the youth have been active, predominantly through political movements, rather than engaging with or working as part of political parties. With the publication of the final delimitations of constituencies’ list, the only imponderable in the timely elections has been eliminated. The decision by the ECP cannot be challenged in any court. Earlier in March, both the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the Chief of Army Staff had been quoted that if the delimitation wasn’t finished on time this might lead to the postponement of elections. The ECP had however assured that it would complete the task well within time, a pledge it has redeemed.

The continuity of democracy, against all odds, is a good omen for the flourishing democratic system in Pakistan. Successive governments have completed their allocated terms. Now, the stage is set for a third consecutive election without any interference. A new wave of optimism is in the air and people are envisioning the dawn of a new era.

In this context, the 2018 elections are of the utmost importance. They promise new challenges and opportunities, with fresh faces entering the political arena for the first time. Conventional power structures are under strict scrutiny and the pressure is on to finally prove their worth to the public of Pakistan. Most of the challenges that will have to be faced are based on the emergence of new means of communication, with social media and the use of big data becoming important aspects of the design and implementation of an election campaign.

The controversies after the 2013 elections cost the country a lot of political energy that would have been better spent on fixing other problems, but they had an upshot. They resulted in a perfect storm of public pressure that fed into a well-run parliamentary process to fix the election laws. The parliament of Pakistan did what previously seemed impossible and formed a Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms, in-line with the recommendation of election observers. The cross-chamber committee and its sub-committee conducted 119 meetings altogether, heard civil society organizations, met with experts and drafted a new election law, which was enacted by Parliament on October 2, 2017.

The new law addresses many core election issues: it provides greater autonomy and strengthens the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) while at the same time introducing important transparency and accountability provisions; it formalises use of citizens registry data for creating electoral rolls and simplifies voters’ registration; improves measures for poll counting and tabulation of results; and it includes guarantees to make sure that constituencies have more or less the same number of voters so that the vote of each Pakistani counts equally. The question that now remains is implementation. The new law should not become subject to the lament of ‘good law, bad implementation’.

Early signs are encouraging. The ECP has adopted regulations which are comprehensive and systematically complement the Election Act 2017. The regulations will guide the way the Commission will implement the law and provide transparency to anybody who wants to know how the Commission will put the law into practice.

Based on our analysis of the regulations, it is encouraging to see that the Commission applied lessons learned in the previous elections, input from their own staff, political parties, election observers and international experts. In an unprecedented move, the Commission published the regulations and asked the stakeholders for input.

Politicians in Pakistan are on the campaign trail across the country, with the nation due to go in for general elections on 25 July. Pakistan is on the verge of making history. All major parties are engaged in organizing public meetings to garner support for the elections, and parties have even announced their candidates for several constituencies. Almost all political parties are busy making their political alliances for 2018.

Democracy, no doubt, is the best system of governance. It can help under-developed countries progress and make developed ones stronger. A dictionary definition of the word democracy states: “A system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.” Democratic change in Pakistan has a direct link to increased awareness and access to modern means of communication. Increased technological sophistication and globalized communication reshaped the country’s traditional posture. This wave of modernized communication has directly impacted the society by imparting awareness and consciousness among the masses. People no longer believe the narratives offered by the state. The legitimacy of the traditional power actors is also dwindling.

At the same time, the misuse of technology through direct attacks on culturally bound norms, political mishandling, derogatory campaigns and it’s utilization as an inexpensive way to launch public campaigns in favor of or against rivals has become ubiquitous.

Democracy, if implemented in its true spirit, guarantees political, economic and social development, and peace and prosperity of the country. It provides an opportunity to run the nation and country through consultation. It minimizes the chances of making wrong or bad political decisions. Consequently, democratic and political institutions get a new power, which strengthens the democratic norms and traditions in the country.

Published in Melange Int. Magazine in July 2018.

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About Erum Akbar 17 Articles
The author is Executive Editor of Mélange int’l Magazine and Secretary Information at Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR).