Maybe, but not a viable solution
The first elected civilian government at the federal level is completing its full tenure on 16 March and the stage will be set for new general elections. It is expected that the provincial governments will also come to an end on that day so as to hold the national and provincial elections on the same date. If the provincial assemblies are dissolved a few days later, their elections can still be held along with the elections of the National Assembly.
The elections and the setting up of new elected civilian governments at the federal and provincial levels are going to be the major test of the commitment of Pakistanis to democracy. The in-time completion of these processes to the satisfaction of most political parties and societal groups will improve the long term prospects of democracy in Pakistan.
A reasonable number of people still express the fear that the elections may not be held and they argue that the caretaker governments to be established for holding the elections will be extended for two-three years for focusing on ending corruption and stabilising law and order.
The other scenario narrated now-a-days is that a number of people and groups, especially some in the media, who are currently raising moralist issues regarding the electoral process would be joined after the elections by those losing the elections to question the legitimacy of the elections. They will attempt to launch street protest on the plea of corrupt practices in the elections. It is argued that that will provide a basis to the Supreme Court and the military to cancel the elections and extend the tenure of the caretaker government or the military will install a new caretaker administration for an extended period. If the Supreme Court and the military join together, such a plan can be implemented.
Three sections of politically active circles are expected to support this decision. The orthodox Islamists have strong reservations on western electoral process based on universal adult franchise. There are others who assign greater priority to creating a puritanically honest society over the elections. Their targets are political leaders, especially those belonging to the PPP and the PML-N. They want to disqualify most political leaders on the charge of corruption, mismanagement, moral flaws and bad reputation. There are individuals and parties that would not accept the results if they lose.
These three categories of people are expected to question the legitimacy of the elections through the media campaign or launch a 1977-like street agitation against the elections. Those opposed to the elections or its results are expected to take their battle to the Supreme Court for cancellations of the elections result. The Supreme Court has become an active arena of political contestation for competing political and societal interests. For political cases, it has in many respects become the first court for initiating cases.
A section of the media that is already engaged in a campaign against the electoral process, especially the political leaders, is expected to launch another campaign against the elections results. They will be more vocal if violence, especially terrorist incidents, intensify in the run-up-to the elections or on the polling day. Already, the Abbas Town (Karachi) terrorist attack, bomb explosion in a mosque in Peshawar and the violent attacks on entire neighbourhood of Christians in the wider Lahore area are being cited as the factors that make it difficult to hold the elections on time. Every new violent incident will bring forward the question if the elections can be held in Pakistan.
All this does not mean that the support for the election either does not exist or it has evaporated over time because of the alleged flaws in the electoral process and violent incidents. A large section of politically active people, especially the established and known political parties support the holding of the elections on time. However, what worries those favouring the elections on time is that the sustained anti-election campaign has continued unabated in the media and the political circles even when the election date is about to be announced.
Pakistan faces serious threats to internal stability from violence and especially terrorism. It is not possible to rule out the possibility of some terrorist incidents in the course of the election campaign and on the polling day. This threat can be addressed with more active security arrangements by the state agencies. The political parties and societal groups should increase monitoring of their localities and neighbourhood. The big size marches and public meetings should be avoided. Instead small sized meetings may be held and the political parties should make their own security arrangements, especially for identification of their voters and supporters. There is a greater responsibility on the political parties on the polling day. They need to keep their workers under control so that they do engage in violence against their political rivals. They should also be watchful of the activities around the polling station to see no bombing device is secretly planted there.
The holding of the elections on time poses challenges but its postponement does not guarantee that these challenges will be resolved. The delay in the election will multiply Pakistan’s existing problems and make political management a more problematic task.
If the elections are postponed due to terrorism what is the guarantee that the postponement will remove the threat of terrorism? This will amount to surrendering to terrorists who are endeavouring to undermine the working of Pakistan’s constitutional and administrative system. If there is violence in some constituency to the extent that people cannot cast their votes, the elections in that constituency can be held later. Rest of the election can be held on schedule.
Any attempt to extend the tenure of the caretaker/interim arrangements to two-three years will be unworkable. Pakistan’s political and societal affairs have become so complex that any attempt to deal with them to the exclusion of political and societal leaders is bound to fail. The extended caretaker administration cannot survive without an active and direct involvement of the military which is neither good for the country nor for the military, especially at a time when it is directly involved in countering insurgency and terrorism.
An earnest attempt should be made to hold fair, free and transparent election on time and improve governance by elected civilian government rather than excluding them from the political process or subordinating them to non-elected and non-representative state institutions.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.