Pakistan Elections 2024: Beyond a Level Playing Field

Pakistan Elections
Image Credits: Express Tribune

On February 8th, 2024, Pakistan went to the polls for its much-anticipated General Elections. Amidst the usual pre-election fervor, a grand narrative dominates discussions: the specter of “establishment interference” swaying the electoral outcome. While acknowledging the historical validity of such concerns, it is crucial to recognize that free and fair elections and electoral outcome remain to be a convergence of complex factors, encompassing a far wider spectrum of issues.

Beyond the simplified narrative of external influence lies an intrigue landscape, which is shaped by political shortcomings, societal structures, and cultural factors.

This article delves into these ramifications, urging us to expand our understanding of what are the real hurdles towards the quest to free and fair, democratic principles based electoral process.

Deconstructing the “Establishment Interference” Narrative

Undoubtedly, past interventions by powerful institutions have marred Pakistan’s Political milieu. However, oversimplifying “establishment interference” obscures the nuances of the issue. Allegations regarding institutional interference frequently lack concrete substantiation, leading to an inaccurate and generalized portrayal of all institutions.

The Judiciary and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) have demonstrably taken steps towards greater transparency. The Judiciary’s assertive rulings in recent years, such as disqualifications based on electoral malpractices, and the ECP’s ongoing initiatives to improve voter lists and polling procedures, including measures to address vulnerabilities to manipulation, showcase a commitment to fair play.

Read More: Who Holds the Torch? Pakistan’s General Elections 2024

Short-Termism and Populism

A significant obstacle to free and fair elections lies within the political sphere itself. Short-termism and personality-driven politics dominate the discourse, overshadowing policy-based agendas. Politicians prioritize immediate electoral gains over formulating long-term solutions for national challenges. This myopic approach fuels populism, where rhetoric trumps the substance, hindering informed voter choices. Voters swayed by emotive slogans and unrealistic promises struggle to evaluate candidates on their ability to deliver tangible results.

A shift towards mature political discourse that focuses on long-term national goals and policy debates remain essential for fostering truly informed electoral decisions.

Image Credits: Dawn

Misperceived Role of Candidates and Accountability

Another crucial aspect often overlooked is the public’s understanding of the role of elected officials. Many citizens view elections as a “one-time fix” for societal problems, expecting immediate solutions from their representatives. This unrealistic expectation fosters disillusionment when elected officials fail to deliver on lofty promises made during political campaigns. It is important to recognize that elected officials operate within a complex system with limitations. Holding them accountable throughout their term, not just during elections, is key to ensuring responsible governance.

Read More: Escaping Accountability – Pakistan’s Political Culture

Cult Following

Political leaders often cultivate a cult-like following around themselves, encouraging blind loyalty and allegiance among their supporters particularly evident with the cult followership of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan. This phenomenon undermines the principles of democracy by prioritizing individual personalities over policies and platforms.

A notable example from history is the Bhutto family’s influence in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), where loyalty to the Bhutto name often supersedes critical analysis of the party’s agenda and this is still persistent in the province of Sindh. Despite Sindh’s despicable condition under the PPP rule for decades, it enjoys a very comfortable position there. Hence, political landscape of Pakistan is so much more than just establishment’s interference.

Image Credits: AFP/ Wiki Commons

Patronage Trend

The patronage trend in Pakistani politics perpetuates a system of favoritism and nepotism, further distorting the democratic electoral process.

Political parties rely on patronage networks to distribute resources and secure votes, leading to a cycle of dependency and clientelism. This trend is exemplified by the PML-N and PPP, where loyalty to the Sharif and Bhutto family is rewarded with political positions and access to resources, undermining meritocracy and fair competition in elections.

Weaponizing Religion

Moreover, the exploitation of religion for electoral gains is a pervasive issue in Pakistani politics, diverting attention from substantive policy debates and exacerbating sectarian tensions. Political parties frequently manipulate religious sentiments to mobilize voters, often at the expense of minority communities. The use of religious rhetoric and symbolism by parties like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) highlights the extent to which religion is weaponized for political purposes, undermining the secular foundations of democracy.

Image Credits: Reuters

Exploitation of Ethno-Linguistic Identities

The exploitation of ethno-linguistic identities for political purposes exacerbates divisions within Pakistani society and undermines national unity.

Parties such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) often appeal to specific ethnic or linguistic groups, prioritizing narrow interests over the broader national agenda. This trend perpetuates ethnic tensions and hampers efforts to build a cohesive and inclusive political landscape. Overall, these trends demonstrate the challenges facing Pakistani democracy, as political actors prioritize personal loyalty, patronage, religious manipulation, and ethnic divisions over the principles of accountability, representation, and inclusivity.

Systemic Challenges: Feudalism and Biradari Politics

In regions like Sindh and Balochistan, the deeply entrenched feudal system presents a formidable barrier to free and fair elections. The dominant influence of Waderas and Sardars, traditional landowning elites, restricts electoral choices. The Biradari System, based on kinship and loyalty, dictates voting patterns, limiting individual agency. Intimidation further exacerbate the situation, silencing dissenting voices and perpetuating the power dynamics within these structures. Dismantling this system requires a multi-pronged approach, including structural reforms promoting land ownership rights, education initiatives empowering marginalized communities, and robust legal frameworks safeguarding individual voting rights.

Read More: The Idolatry Trap: How Deifying Politicians Erodes Democracy

Beyond Bribery: Social, Political, and Cultural Factors

Vote buying is a serious problem in Pakistan’s elections. It undermines the democratic process by giving an unfair advantage to candidates who are able to buy votes. This can lead to the election of candidates who are not the best qualified to represent the people, and it can also discourage people from voting if they believe that their vote will not make a difference. There are a number of factors that contribute to vote buying in Pakistan.

One factor is the poverty of many voters. Voters who are struggling to make ends meet may be more likely to sell their vote for a small amount of money. Another factor is the lack of enforcement of laws against vote buying. Vote buying, though often associated with rural areas, transcends geographical boundaries. The lure of immediate gratification extends to urban voters as well. Pre-poll gifts, community pressure, and cultural expectations can significantly influence voting decisions.

The trend of swaying voters with food distributions and festive celebrations like Biryani and Haleem adds another layer of complexity. While not inherently illegal, such practices can create an uneven playing field, disadvantaging candidates without similar resources.

Educating voters about the true value of their vote and encouraging them to prioritize long-term national interests over immediate gratification are crucial steps towards mitigating the influence of these factors.

Empowering the Electorate

Ultimately, the key to achieving free and fair elections lies in empowering the electorate. Voter education and awareness are fundamental building blocks. Equipping citizens with the knowledge to identify misinformation, understand policy stances, and evaluate candidates’ qualifications is crucial. Active civic engagement, including participation in debates, community discussions, and election monitoring initiatives, can strengthen the democratic process.

By holding politicians accountable, demanding policy discussions, and actively participating in the electoral process, citizens can become the driving force behind truly free and fair elections. It is heartening to note that the process of democratic political transition through General Elections has taken place in Pakistan on 8th February 2024.   People turnout has been inspiring as citizens from all walks of life have used their power of vote to chose their representative for next five years. This is the value of resilience for which Pakistani nation is known in the world.

Read More: Democracy Prevails: Pakistan Polls 2024

Conclusion

The pursuit of free and fair elections in Pakistan demands a multifaceted approach that transcends the singular narrative of “establishment interference.”

Recognizing the complex interplay of political wisdom, candidate understanding, regional dynamics, and socio-cultural factors is crucial. The road ahead may be challenging, but the journey towards a truly representative and participatory democracy in Pakistan begins with a collective commitment to addressing these complex realities. It is evident from the above factors that the issue lies more deeper than mere establishment meddling in political affairs.

“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime.”

The opinions shared in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not necessarily align with the institution’s official stance.

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