What people voted for and against

  • February 17, 2024

The PTI has called these elections a show of support and nothing short of a landslide victory

People walk past a banner with a picture of the former prime minister Imran Khan outside the party office of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a day after the general election, in Lahore. —Reuters/File
People walk past a banner with a picture of the former prime minister Imran Khan outside the party office of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a day after the general election, in Lahore. —Reuters/File

The recent general elections in Pakistan reminded me of what Sydney J Harris, a journalist for the Chicago Daily News and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times, once said about democracy. He said: “Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be”.

And what ‘ought to be’ is precisely the question on every Pakistani’s mind right now. On the back of lacklustre election campaigns, delayed manifestos, cries of pre-poll rigging, victimisation, and clear messaging as to who was acceptable in power and who was not, Pakistan came out to vote on the 8th of February 2024.

People came out and voted in droves for candidates, and much to the chagrin of some in power, many voted for those who were supported by the PTI. It was surprising, if not downright shocking, considering that the PTI chairman was in jail, his party was unable to campaign, and even their candidates would ‘occasionally’ find themselves missing.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has called these elections a show of support and nothing short of a landslide victory. It has claimed that none of the contesting parties was able to garner nearly as many votes, and hence, could not be considered representative of the people’s will.

There is a certain degree of truth to what the PTI says, but as always, it isn’t the entire truth. Although there were voters who voted simply because of the charisma of Imran Khan, there is also a category of voters that perhaps never supported Khan, to begin with but nonetheless voted for him. The question that arises, predictably, is: why?

To understand this, it would be appropriate to look at the progression of our election cycles and how they have seemingly been perceived by this particular segment of the electorate.

The 2013 general elections were in essence a battle between the two established mainstream parties of Pakistan — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – with the PTI being a spoiler (although potent). This was the beginning of the PTI, which showed its promise, if not presence, in the political arena.

The 2018 elections, in terms of perception, could perhaps be summed up as being a contest between the establishment-backed PTI versus all those parties that had assumed the role of guarding the sanctity of the vote. During this time, many had alleged that the PTI was coming to power on the back of the establishment’s support, whereas the other parties, particularly the PML-N, were seen as the victims, who were being marginalised and disbanded for the success of ‘Project Imran Khan’. In essence, these elections were seen from the prism of the anti and pro-establishment divide.

In the current elections, however, the battle lines seem to have moved on from the shackles of yesteryear. The battle, for better or for worse, no longer remains about pro and anti-establishment parties, so it seems, but rather about who is perceived to have this support and backing versus those who do not.

These phrases may seem like the same thing, but in actuality, they are not. Let me explain.

The ‘pro and anti’ characterisation revolves around a battle between parties with supposed ideological positions regarding the democratic process, with the debate centring around whether the people have the right to decide who governs them or whether someone else is better suited to decide it for them. The party and its ideological inclinations take centre stage, and voters decide their destinies by placing their trust in the parties whose ideology or stance they concur with.

The ‘establishment supported or not’ classification is not about that at all. In this, it is assumed that no party has any ideological positioning whatsoever, and they shall all do the bidding of the powers that be if given an opportunity. In the current election cycle, this was particularly noted, where every party, from the PTI to the PML-N, to even the smaller parties, appeared to be jostling for the support of those who matter, and of course when I say that, I don’t mean the people.

Hence, a dim view of the parties is taken in this characterisation, and the distinction between them is merely in opportunities, not principles. In this, what the party says or does is secondary, with the primary concern being whether the party is seen to have the support of the all-weather establishment or not. The question still converges on the role of the establishment in politics, but with a sharp focus on the establishment itself, and not the political parties perceived to be doing their bidding. In this way, it actually renders the parties somewhat irrelevant, other than being a vehicle for the electorate’s communication with the ‘powers that be’.

With this context in mind, it appears that many of those who voted in favour of PTI candidates, other than their die-hard base itself, understood that the political parties in the field aren’t ideological, or principled for that matter, but rather opportunistic. As such, the question no longer revolved around who will fix their issues, but rather as to who is responsible for those issues in the first place. In an interesting turn of events, the question was not as to which party was paying the piper, but rather who the piper was playing for.

This is why many of those people who did not support the PTI nonetheless voted for them.

The motivation, in line with the above characterisation, was their opposition to the perceived interference in the political sphere. In a nutshell, the vote was cast against the establishment’s perceived transgressions, not necessarily in favour of any specific party. It was a message for the political parties banking on outside support and a reflection of the sentiment on the ground.

This, in my opinion, will cause many restless nights. First, it reflects a wave of anger and disenchantment, which, interestingly, has less to do with the politicians and more to do with their benefactors. In fact, if this election depicts anything, it is that the electorate, or at least a part of it, directly blames those it perceives as the puppeteers and not their puppets.

Secondly, it also indicates that people are reacting strongly against perceived interference in the electoral process, and every attempt to strong-arm a certain result has only emboldened the electorate to resist it even more. Third, and most importantly, the voting patterns indicate a dire disconnect between the mood of the populace and that of those in power, and such disconnect, as history is a witness to, never bodes well for the health of a polity.

As is clear from the above, this election was not merely a vote for Khan. In part, at least, it was a vote against those who, despite not being political players, are perceived to interfere in the electoral process by ‘managing’ it. The debate has long moved on from ‘whether there is interference?’ to ‘when will it stop?’ – and the powers that be need to move on as well.

The people want stability but with due representation. They want reforms through their chosen ones, and not through those chosen for them. And they want their own government, not someone else’s idea of what their government should look like. In the words of Bob Dylan, ‘the times are a-changing’ – and the powers that be, one hopes, will change along with them.

The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer. He tweets/posts @basilnabi and can be reached at: [email protected]

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect Geo.tv’s editorial policy.

Originally published in The News

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