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Pakistan: What “historic” elections?

By Pervez Hoodbhoy
May 20 2013




How will elections change this awful situation, especially since ethnic Baluch parties have done poorly? Talk of reconciliation with Baluch nationalists comes cheap, but trust is lacking

Thankfully they are over and done with, and only a few hundred – not a few thousand – lives were lost. The PPP’s rout was extremely well-deserved. It is headed for the dustbin of history unless, by some miracle, it miraculously reinvents itself as a non-dynastic mission-driven party. One feels somewhat sorrier for the ANP in spite of its general ineptness and inability to deliver on honest governance. But it was targeted by TTP fanatics and, in the words of Asfandyar Wali Khan, the election campaign became a matter of “picking up the dead, carrying their funerals and taking the wounded to hospitals”. The long anticipated tsunami, it turned out, belonged to Nawaz Sharif. This victory of a center-right leader may not be much to celebrate but, at least for now, he is acting as a statesman and saying many of the right things. Meanwhile a certain disappointed cricketer, who kowtows to the Taliban and justifies their every atrocity, is venting his spleen from his hospital bed.

Breathless commentators have termed these elections “historic”. But what exactly will they change? Contenders had competing claims of how they served local communities, and won or lost largely on those grounds. Quite properly, those who had pocketed too much were booted out. Musical chairs are always fun to watch as various players jockey for personal power. But there was no battle of ideas. Many deeper issues were only barely touched, if at all. Here are three:

Foreign Relations

Pakistan’s steady descent into chaos and terrorism is fundamentally connected with the conduct of its foreign policy, at the core of which has been the export of jihad into Kashmir and Afghanistan. Apart from the international condemnation that this has earned for Pakistan, the blowback has been devastating. Fortunately, there now is some glimmer of recognition and a desire to change this.

Although he did not make it a major election issue, Nawaz Sharif’s keenness to normalize relations with India is probably genuine. But does that really matter? After all, Zardari too had been keen but his efforts were made largely ineffective after the Mumbai attacks. A normalization would amount to a fundamental reorientation of the Pakistani state – a reorientation that will be resisted tooth and nail by jihadist forces on Pakistani soil that operate with full knowledge and consent of the Army. Relations with Afghanistan and the United States, as well as nuclear policy, are considered by the Army as matters which are far too important to be left to politicians.

Still, there is hope that Nawaz Sharif might be able to pull some weight. The army has been weakened and divided by the relentless insurgencies it has had to fight, and its confidence shaken by insider attacks. General Kayani’s successor will formally be chosen by the prime minister. Here will lie the first test.



Expelled just after the elections, Declan Walsh, correspondent for the Guardian and the New York Times, had written a moving account of the situation in Baluchistan: “The bodies [of abducted Baloch youth] surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognizable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head.”

How will elections change this awful situation, especially since ethnic Baluch parties have done poorly? Talk of reconciliation with Baluch nationalists comes cheap, but trust is lacking. For decades the Baluch have complained of ill-treatment. They say their natural wealth has been expropriated by Punjab and that Baluchistan’s natural gas reached remote Punjabi towns long before it was available in Quetta – and then only because an army cantonment needed it. Baluch representation in the civil and the military bureaucracy remains close to zero.


Fearful Minorities

Pakistan’s religious minorities – Ahmadis, Shias, Hindus, Christians – are watching, not rejoicing. The call to create a more open and tolerant society was too weak to be heard during the election rumpus. Several Islamic extremists were candidates themselves, an indication that in today’s political climate extremism is no longer to be considered extremism. No public outrage followed as, in the run up to the elections, the TTP took upon itself the role of kingmaker by murdering hundreds they deemed as too secular or liberal.

The state’s performance in protecting minorities has been dismal. It has stood as a silent spectator to the daily murder of those citizens whose particular variant of Islam differs from that of the majority. Shia neighborhoods have been devastated by suicide attacks, and men identified by Shia names like Abbas and Jafri have been dragged out from buses and executed Gestapo style. Ominously, the PMLN hosts active, well known, Shia killers in its party’s ranks. Ahmadis have nowhere to go. The police remain unconcerned when they are murdered, or have their graveyards dug up and desecrated openly by the local powers-that-be. Although Sind was traditionally much more tolerant than Punjab, Hindus have fled Sind en masse.


A country’s politics reflects the underlying social relations between its communities, relations with the rest of the world, and the distribution of economic power. The recent election brought none of these fundamentals under serious questioning. Unlike the 1970’s election campaign of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – who had made grand promises for land reform and redistribution of wealth that he never intended to fulfill – this time around large issues were not even on the agenda. Instead we had Cricketer Khan’s hopelessly wild claims: corruption to be eliminated in 90 days; the same educational syllabi to be enforced in Waziristan and Kurram as in Lahore and Karachi; and the end of terrorism once Pakistan starts shooting down American drones.


A prediction: in the initial period Pakistan is likely to see a somewhat more efficient and less corrupt government, more hours of electricity, improved tax collection, and hopefully a tad less extremist violence as well. This will come as a relief to weary Pakistanis. But shortly thereafter it will become business as usual. “Shortly” could mean six months, or a year. In the absence of a drastic reorientation of basic attitudes, longer is unlikely.

Originally published by ViewPoint

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