“Pakistan is about to cross an important threshold: this weekend’s elections, if all goes to plan, will mark the country’s first transition between elected governments. But this is not a moment for triumphalism,” writes a prominent analyst.
Opinion surveys show extremely high levels of public disgust with politicians and, indeed, with the workings of Pakistani democracy in its present form,” writes Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country. “If the lives of ordinary Pakistanis are not significantly improved over the next five years, a return to authoritarian solutions remains a possibility.”
Popular support for democracy is dangerously thin in Pakistan, according to a Pew Research Center Survey. By almost a two-to-one margin (56% to 29%), respondents prefer “a leader with a strong hand” over “a democratic form of government” to solve their country’s problems, say Pew’s Alan Cooperman and James Bell.
“This is among the lowest levels of support for democracy in the 37 countries and territories where the question was asked, as the chart on the right shows, and in a new Pew Research infographic (see below),” they note.
The most influential actor in the election is not even contesting the poll.
The Pakistani Taliban – other campaigner – “is setting the election agenda as much as anyone,” The Economist notes.
This week’s kidnapping of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son highlights the insecurity and violence that have marred the election campaign.
“The kidnapping is likely to demoralize the Pakistan People’s Party leadership and supporters alike,” said Raza Rumi, a political analyst with the Jinnah Institute, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Thus far, they had adopted the strategy of minimum risk to the top leadership,” he said, “but now the family of the former prime minister has been targeted. This does not augur well for the democratic transition.”
“It also reflects that lawlessness and nonstate actors are gaining more and more power and voice in Pakistan.”
The Pakistani Taliban has waged a campaign of deliberate intimidation and targeted assassination against secular parties and ratcheted up its attacks towards the end of the campaign.
“It’s obviously a new tactic,” said Peter Manikas, director of Asia programs for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which has sent 44 poll watchers here. “It’s a different type of violence in trying to disrupt the election as a whole. It makes everything unsafe.”
Imams at the country’s mosques are echoing the Taliban’s election message, according to Islamabad-based Victor Mallet and Farhan Bokhari.
“Pakistani liberals like to recall that overtly Islamist parties have never won more than 12 per cent of the vote in the country’s elections,” they write for the FT:
They argue that the beliefs even of the majority Sunni – let alone – are too heterogeneous, traditional and steeped in saint-worship and Sufism for Pakistan’s 180m people ever to embrace a narrow, Saudi-style form of puritan Islam. Yet for all the television stations and mobile telephones, society has nevertheless become markedly less tolerant over the past four decades. Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler who ran the country until his death in 1988, is still mentioned with venom by liberals in Lahore for imposing fundamentalist laws and co-opting extremists for his own political advantage.
A strong vote for the Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, or Justice party (PTI) “would demonstrate both that many ordinary Pakistanis are disgusted with the record of the main parties; and that for the moment they are still prepared to express their anger within the existing system,” writes Lieven, a professor at King’s College London.
But more fundamental reform is needed to ensure the sustainability of Pakistan’s fragile democratic institutions, he adds:
To tackle what is really a kind of criminal conspiracy of the elites against Pakistan, one thing that is absolutely necessary is a rebalancing of the distribution of parliamentary seats from the countryside to the cities, both to reflect the actual distribution of the nation’s increasingly urban population and to reduce the power of the “feudal” elites who are at the heart of tax prevention. This, however, would require the new governments to attack some of their own crucial supporters – for Mr Khan, too, has had to form alliances with rural bosses in order to be elected.
Some imams have countered the Taliban message by encouraging voters to go to the polls, the FT’s Mallet and Bokhari note:
Tahir Ashrafi, a Deobandi who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), an umbrella group of Islamic scholars, has been promoting the council’s 40-page fatwa telling Pakistanis it is their duty to vote. The fatwa, he says, “supports elections so that well-meaning people can go as public representatives to the parliament and reform Pakistan”.
Mr Ashrafi’s moderate views, however, place him in constant danger of assassination at the hands of his enemies. In a recent interview in Lahore, he said he had survived the sixth attempt on his life when an active telephone Simcard in an iPad in the boot of his car allowed police to trace his whereabouts and free him from his abductors.
Mr Ashrafi boasted then that more than 60 per cent of students at the 5,362 madrasas affiliated to the PUC were “not involved in any training or terrorist activities”.
Did that not mean, he was asked by his startled interviewer, that 40 per cent or so of the madrasa students were involved in such activities? “That’s the reality,” he replied.
Most of Pakistan’s Muslims doubt that they can have any real political influence, Pew’s Cooperman and Bell write:
Two-thirds of Pakistani Muslims either completely agree (53%) or mostly agree (13%) with the statement that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Just 25% disagree, either completely (20%) or mostly (5%).A plurality of Pakistan’s Muslims say Islamic parties are about the same as other parties (39%). Just 10% say Islamic parties are worse, while 29% see Islamic parties as better than other parties.
More broadly, many of Pakistan’s Muslims think that religious leaders should have a role in politics. About half say that religious leaders should have either “some influence” (27%) or a “large influence” (27%) in political matters, while about a quarter say religious leaders should have “not too much influence” (12%) or “no influence at all” (14%).