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Pakistan Election 2013: More Rejection, Less Election

Not since the 1970 election have the people of Pakistan turned out in such great numbers to vote. Two differences are notable, however. First, while in 1970 they voted the Pakistan People’s Party to power, this time, they came out in droves to boot it out. Second, while 1970 was a time of great hope and optimism, this year cynicism was palpable even as they voted. This was understandable as all the main contesting parties appeared committed irrevocably to the same market liberalism that has characterised Pakistan’s governments for the last three decades. In the end, people followed the only path open to them in most democracies: vote the incumbent out, even if the alternatives promise more of the same!

The 11 May elections boasted a voter turnout that was remarkably high in the context of Pakistan. Whereas recent elections saw turnouts of 30-40%, according to the Election Commission this one involved the participation of 60% of the electorate. Even if we discount this number in view of allegations of significant rigging, the overall participation level is still extraordinary. This is particularly curious given the absence of any significant ideological or policy differences across the main parties. In other words, why should 60% of the electorate bother to come out when there is little choice across the spectrum and little hope on offer?

Lights Out

For all the rhetoric about change and revolution, the policy outlooks of all main parties happen to be based squarely in a neoliberal paradigm, with a firm belief in the supremacy of the market mechanism. Take the energy crisis, a core issue in the recent elections. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP)paid a heavy price for prolonged and unpredictable power cuts that have brought industry to a grinding halt and made life miserable for millions. Power outages of upto 18 hours in major urban centres, and of days on end in rural areas, have created immense discontent in a populace increasingly reliant on electricity not just for daily comfort, but to earn its living. From large factoriesto tailors using electric sewing machines, everyone is forced to either use expensive private sources of power or go out of business.

Yet, sloganeering aside, none of the contending parties have offered solutions that promise any relief for the common man. Instead, all have carefully stayed clear of the main source of the problem: the World Bank sponsored 1994 power policy, which has allowed private providers to deploy the most expensive fuel in the world (oil) to produce power and then conveniently pass on the entire cost (along with guaranteed profits of 12-15% per annum – in dollars no less) to the government1. It is not surprising that the government keeps running out of cash to pay them every few months! And yet, it is not the guaranteed returns that are in the crosshairs, nor the pass through costs. Instead, it is the ‘subsidies’ or the difference between the monstrous costs incurred to produce a kilowatt of power under these arrangements,and the slightly lower retail price - which is all the poor customer can bear and is being charged - that everyone wants to get rid of. While there is acknowledgment of the senseless fuel mix and the need to go for cheaper fuels, the rents on offer for private producers are almost never questioned, nor alternatives to that fundamental problem offered.

Privatisers All!

Similarly, none of the parties have acknowledged the implications of rampant privatisation of education and healthcare. Indeed, as bizarre as it may sound, in its just expired tenure, Shahbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz’s [PML(N)] government in Punjab relied on McKinsey, a corporate consulting firm, to design Punjab’s education policy. Influential texts produced by international (expat) economists advocating the privatisation of education guide policy making. While promises abound to double or triple the funds for education, with a general declaration of an “education emergency”, not one party opposes the inroads that profit-driven entrepreneurs, and international universities, have been making into the education sector. In recent years, education has emerged as possibly the most lucrative business opportunity in Pakistan. While paying lip service to ideals of social mobility, social capital and equality of opportunity,the for-profit model of education is segregating society further according to purchasing power. McKinsey, of course, cannot be expected to suggest that segmenting a market according to price points creates difference rather than equality, and destroys social capital rather than build it. Unfortunately, their clients - the Punjab government - did not seem bothered by this either.

The same goes for healthcare. For all the fiery speeches about socialisation of healthcare, private care remains, and is likely to remain the dominant trend. Apart from fighting the occasional epidemic (eg, dengue mosquitos), negligible resources go into public health. Regulation is getting more lax, with private pharmaceutical companies increasingly able to pass on their costs to the public. Just like education, the sector reflects appalling polarisation, with five star facilities for the haves and rat infested, disease spreading, overcrowded and underfunded hospitals for the have-nots.

Overall, the PPPgovernment has left the Pakistani economy in tatters. Pakistan has been de-industrialising, thanks to the energy crisis as well as a shortage of long-term financing by the privatised, and highly profitable, banking sector – which is more interested in making money from deposits and lending to the government than financing development. In the last five years, average growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) was stagnant at 3% a year. In the same period India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have posted an average annual GDP growth of 7.8%, 6.8% and 6.1%, respectively. More critically, inflation as measured by consumer price index has jumped by 69% in the last 4 years (from May 2008 to May 2012). Investment to GDP ratio has collapsed to 12.5% in financial year 2012 compared to 22.5% in the financial year 2007. Some of these developments are a result of the insecurity created by the ongoing war in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan that the Musharaf regime signed up for and the Zardari regime supported with its full might.But has any party articulated a vision of how to get out of this mess? The answer sadly is a resounding no.

Smoke and Mirrors

Failing to find any substantive difference between the parties in terms of their analysis of the current travails of Pakistan and their solutions for the same,some analysts have suggested that the real divide in this elections is between the secular (read progressive) and religious (read regressive) parties. Among the secular parties are arraigned the PPP, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The religious parties comprise the usual lot --the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), the Jamait Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) [JUI (F)], etc, that have suffered in the elections -- but also Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).The PTI in particular, is placed in this camp by most analysts because Imran Khan has taken a strong stance against drone attacks and a softer one towards Taliban.

Yet, this classificatory scheme of equating progressive politics to secular parties fails miserably. The so-called secular parties epitomize the failure of the democratic process. For five years, the PPP marched on with anti-people policies regardless of public opinion. The only province that the PPP has won is Sindh – for which they should be thankful to the continued hold of feudal politics in the province. The ANP similarly failed to deliver on even the most basic promises to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) electorate in a context where the excuse of a hostile centre did not hold because it had formed an alliance with the ruling PPP. It comprises a corrupt elite that has closed ranks to the KPK people and indeed, even to a newly emerging middle class. For years now, it has been waging a war against its own people. And surely we can, by now, stop pretending that the MQM is an internally democratic and politically representative party? It may be “middle class” and free of feudals, but there are few doubts left now about the destabilising and subversive role it plays in national politics. Led from London by a visibly senile Altaf Hussain, the party controls Karachi through a combination of “bhatta” (weekly collections of money) and killings. In these elections, MQM candidates polled often impossible numbers of votes and then threatened to kill anyone who alleged rigging.

This is not to suggest that the so called “religious” parties are more progressive but to point out the fallaciousness of assuming that secularity and democracy are inseparable. PTI brought a mini-revolution in Pakistani politics by carrying out free and fair intra-party elections, electing party officials rather than appointing them by decree. For all of Shahbaz Sharif’s faults, he has been physically present on the ground making sure projects are completed on time – in stark contrast to the PPP’s or MQM’s absent leadership! Moreover, parties such as the PML and PTI are overtly nationalistic in their tone and rhetoric. While nationalism has become a dirty word after we have all worked our way through the horrors of created nations and imposed boundaries, it is critical to remind ourselves that in a world of global capital sometimes the nation state can be a useful political unit and bulwark against the exploitation of the poorest.

Finding the Victors

Fed up with five years of subservient foreign policy and an anti-development, neoliberal economic policy that has left the vast majority of the country in sheer misery, the Pakistani electorate turned out in droves to reject the party most closely associated with these failures: PPP. Here, the elections in Pakistan reflect a larger trend in the region and elsewhere. When there is little difference between parties, and no real organised and coherent plan of alternatives available to voters, they do the next best thing that they can do: they throw the incumbents out. From Britain to India to Pakistan, this is an emerging pattern of contemporary politics. Since the 1980s the paucity of clear alternatives to market oriented reforms and liberalisation has meant the erosion of real choice for voters. Parliamentary democracy leaves voters with few tools in the face of homogeneity among the political parties; anti-incumbency voting is the easiest one for limiting damage.

For the National Assembly elections, all provinces except Sindh have voted against the incumbent. PPP has been routed in Punjab and Baluchistan, and ANP in the KPK province. At the provincial level, where the incumbents either held long standing feudal power, as in Sindh, or were seen to be opposing the PPP’s economic policies, whether foreign or economic, they were rewarded. The PML (N) should probably be thankful to Imran, whose close scrutiny, constant criticism and increasing popularity forced them to start and finish development projects (whatever their merits) in record time. The PML (N) raised their game in response to PTI’s surge, but the PPP failed completely.

PTI’s anti-corruption and pro-change message resonated with the middle classes in the Punjab. He was able to mobilise middle and upper classes thus enhancing the level of political engagement amongst a previously inert segment of the population. In the end, notwithstanding the rigging that likely took place in several constituencies, this two-pronged message fell short of the working class’ expectations.

KPK was different, however. There, the PTI rode an anti-incumbency vote but also benefitted from the one distinctive political project that Imran Khan had articulated early on and stuck with throughout his campaign: his protest against drone attacks. This protest and his soft stance towards the Taliban (negotiations, not bombs) almost cost him the support of his middle and upper middle class supporters in Karachi, Lahore and among the diaspora in the West, but resonated deeply with those who live intimately with the consequences of America’s “War of Terror”. Had he given it up then, he would have lost KPK to a coalition of PML(N) and local religious parties. Many upper class voters in the major urban centres of Pakistan are seemingly unable to understand this. On social media they have struggled to comprehend this phenomenon. Racist jokes about Pathans, who form the majority ethnicity in KPK abound (“You have to be either very educated or a Pathan to vote for PTI”; “Who would have thought Pathans would know what is best for the country”; etc), and heartfelt laments about the stupidity of Punjabi lower classes (“Truly ashamed to be a Punjabi, these idiots have voted the PML(N) in!”).

The PTI played an important role in inspiring many middle class urbanites to vote for the first time. But voters turned out primarily to reject those closely aligned with the “War against Terror” and a neoliberal economic policy. In many ways, PML (N) has accepted a poisoned chalice. Changing these two policies drastically within five years will be difficult for them given their own lack of analysis and policy insight; later they may find themselves facing the voter’s wrath. Still, there is little any major party can complain about.

The outcome could not have been better. With PTI in KPK, PPP in Sindh, PML (N) in Punjab, and largely independents and JUI (F) in Baluchistan, every party is getting a great opportunity to prove themselves. Truth be told, most eyes will be on KPK and the central governments, though. PTI might feel aggrieved because of alleged rigging, but if they deliver in KPK, they could be forming the next national government in five years (if it gets to that). Similarly, in the centre, the PML (N) will spend the next five years discovering the challenges of switching course from the present foreign and economic policies. All said and done, the elections could not have produced a more interesting outcome!

For more details on Pakistan’s power crisis, see Munir and Khalid, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLVII No. 25, June 23, 2012

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