Elections Without A Mandate

The 2013 election is stillborn – at least till now. With less than four weeks left to the polls, the political landscape has barely moved forward from the preliminary stage of filing the papers, followed by appeals in both the ECP and the courts.
There is no campaign on the ground in a real sense, no door-to-door canvassing, no public meetings and no media hype. Some party manifestos have been issued, such as by the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI. Others are expected. But issue formation is totally absent and policy formulation is visionary – even farcical.
The only major activity is alliance-making. However, it lacks direction inasmuch as shared hostility, not shared friendship, remains the uniting factor among political parties. Expediency has reduced the 2013 elections into a mere change of guards, if at all.
The political class is on the defensive after surrendering to the ECP the initiative for forming the caretaker government in Islamabad. Lack of vision, sense of compromise, and ability to outgrow mistrust of the other contender for power has led to a backlash. The PPP and the PML-N did not show maturity in this regard and paid the price by putting the whole political community at the receiving end.
Prior to the 2013 elections, the judiciary controls the right, left and centre of the political stage, thanks to the unimaginative political leadership of mainstream parties. The lordships of the Supreme Court maintained a high profile for four years. With no elected government in charge now at the centre, their space has further expanded.
Indeed, Chief Justice Chaudhry went beyond his brief to instruct the ROs – who were at the disposal of the ECP– to make Articles 62 and 63 the yardstick to judge the bonafides of contestants. But the political community, media and civil society refused to accord to judges the status of the new guardians of the ideological frontiers of the state.
The ECP represents the second domain of the judiciary under the current setup. The most experienced and efficient administrators would shudder at the idea of meeting the requirements of a mission of such gigantic proportions as organising the national elections. The honourable judges comprising the ECP may have the requisite neutrality but they lack the administrative skills to handle the colossal task at hand. Next time the nation should move beyond an obsession with the non-partisanship of the ECP to administrative excellence as the criterion for ECP membership.
At the other end, four out of five caretakers in the federal and provincial capitals are again honourable judges. The only exception is Najam Sethi in Punjab who is a representative of the civil society. This situation is tantamount to the complete depoliticisation of the vision and contextual framework directing the most political function of the exercise in mass polling.
Meanwhile, political parties are engaged in sorting out their allotment of tickets, making seat adjustments and issuing manifestos. The PPP has displayed a lack of will to fight. There is a leadership crisis in the party. President Zardari is not much visible, thanks to a judicial verdict. Bilawal is far from taking the reins in his own hands. The second line – Gilani, Amin Fahim, Faryal Talpur among others – are typically operating behind the scene.
The PML-N has been able to create an image of a ‘mini-wave’ for itself in Punjab. It has the profile of a stable leadership on top in the form of the Sharif brothers and a skilful exercise in coalition-building both within the party and outside it. Some change in its rhetoric is visible. It has avoided issuing statements against the army’s role in politics for two years now. It has stopped criticising the ECP’s initial intent to probe into the bonafides of electoral contestants. It shies away from ‘owning’ Islamists – read the Taliban – in public.
The slow grounding of Imran Khan’s tsunami shows that our society is not yet ready for the third option. The PTI has no core area of support as opposed to the PML-N’s Punjab, the PPP’s rural Sindh, the MQM’s urban Sindh, the ANP’s KP and the BNP-M’s Balochistan. The vast difference in the two estimates of the number of the PTI’s MNAs after the May elections – at 100 and 10 by the PTI and its opponents respectively – make Imran Khan’s electoral fortunes highly unpredictable.
Indeed, uncertainty is the name of the game, be it the MQM, ANP, PPP, JUI-F, PML-F, PML-Q or a plethora of political parties from Balochistan. For many, it is a shot in the dark. Nobody is sure about the extent of indulgence of the judiciary before or after the elections, through the courts or the ECP. The nation’s will is even harder to judge.
The Islamic parties – old and new – contesting elections are empty shells of their past ideological agenda, which has been hijacked by extremist and jihadist groups spewing violence. The election campaign can be adversely affected in terms of killing of candidates as already threatened by the Taliban and even implemented in the case of the ANP and the MQM.
The judiciary is pursuing the black letter law. The Taliban are taking over the streets of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, threatening life and property. The army has been asked to take care of the printing of the ballot papers, which is a far cry from its more exalted function of maintaining security during the polls. The election is fast losing its efficacy as a source of legitimacy. The nation was spared the most ridiculous non-event in this context, ie the proposal of inserting an empty box on the ballot paper allegedly for rendering the whole political class illegitimate.
The PPP has no strongman in the largest province of Punjab to lead the campaign. Manzoor Wattoo remains an outsider who triggered the defection of several diehard party workers. The PML-N has no strongmen in provinces other than Punjab, nor in fact outside Lahore. The MQM is worried about shrinkage of its electoral base in view of the change in demarcation of constituencies. Absence of strongmen outside the core areas of political parties keeps them tied to locality.
Not surprisingly, localisation of the election strategy is a visible characteristic of elections. From the PPP and the PML-N through to the PML-Q, ANP and JUI-F down to miniscule Sindhi and Baloch nationalist parties and Islamic outfits, the main issue is who can muster together how many electables and – within the constituencies – who controls how many vote bankers and deliverers. Primary loyalties of caste and biradari are being invoked at the cost of issue-based party lines.
Does a passive rather than an active voter look to be the norm in the May 2013 election? Is a hung parliament already a given? How much damage can Taliban and proto-Taliban groups inflict on the two-way communication between the voters and contestants? Will morality overcome popularity in the long run? Is democracy on hold – pending ‘good behaviour’ of politicians?
One can only hope that a party with a dynamic leadership and a firm set of policies rather than a collection of local winners take charge of the government after the 2013 elections. The nation cannot afford a dead mandate at this critical juncture in its history.