x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pakistan itself was the real winner in Saturday's election

Pakistan's May 11 election was a remarkable success for a country where democracy has been sadly fragile.

May 11th 2013 - last Saturday - will be remembered as a watershed in the history of Pakistan. It could even be called the real birthday of the country, or at least the day of its rebirth.

After May 11, no one who holds a green Pakistani passport should feel embarrassed to present it.

It's the day the people of Pakistan went to vote - and won.

Even before the polls opened, this election had promised to be a historic event. This is, as has been widely noted, the first time in this country that an elected government has been directly replaced by another. It is also the first time women from the Tribal Areas contested general seats, not just those reserved for women. It is the first time that, in some portions at least of the troubled Tribal Areas, women were encouraged to vote. The first time that our independent media (perhaps encouraged by donation from US- funded NGOs) ran advertisements exhorting people to use their vote.

The enthusiasm was palpable, even though the threat of terrorists was at a high point unparalleled since 1970, when Sheikh Mujeeb in erstwhile East Pakistan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in West Pakistan set the election scene alight.

Better still, the election last Saturday delivered far more than it promised.

Unfortunately, some terrorists did get through; killing more than 60 on voting day, and wounding more. There were also isolated incidents of mismanagement and vote- rigging; some pointed out by the Human Rights Commission and international observers.

Still, the day was far less violent than most people feared, and a stunning defeat to the Taliban. Against their threats the people spoke out loud and clear: "do your worst, we will vote for our future; which does not include you".

Before dawn people started gathering outside polling stations. Many brought their children along, despite the threats: astonishing. Many carried breakfast and bottles of water, creating a sort of picnic-election. Not famous for discipline but perhaps conscious of momentous change, in most places Pakistanis queued in an orderly fashion, no jostling. The polling staff was helpful as were security personnel. Everybody seemed keen to help.

At some voting stations in Karachi, the polling staff failed to turn up, due to threats to their families but there were no reports of would-be voters leaving.

Media encouraged people to stay; those who could afford it got together and arranged for meals to be served to the less affluent, exhorting them to wait.

Numbers continued to swell and, when polling finally began people lined up in an orderly fashion again, helping senior citizens to go first.

Final statistics will come in time but the indications so far suggest that there was a record turnout across the country, except in Balochistan. It is estimated that this is the largest participation by women in any elections ever in Pakistan. The national overall turnout is estimated at above 55 per cent but in Balochistan the rate did not exceed 50 per cent and, at some places, is estimated to have been less than 30 per cent.

On the other hand, Karachi and the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had a consistently high turnout. In those KP constituencies where women were discouraged from voting by the patriarchal social norms imposed there, many women cast their votes anyway.

If polling day generated surprises, however, the results did not. As expected, Nawaz Sharif's PML-N won the largest number of seats in the national elections as well as in Punjab; it will form the central government and rule Punjab. Imran Khan took KP but not with a sufficiently large margin to form a government without a coalition. PPP took Sindh but will also need a coalition. Balochistan is again a potpourri but, it is likely that PML- N will be able to form a coalition with Mahmood Khan Achakzai's Pukhtoonkhwa Milli Party and Baloch nationalists.

PML-N had hitherto been a party more or less confined to Punjab. As expected, this time it has emerged as a real national party with representation in each province. And with by-elections on surrendered seats plus elections for reserved seats still to come, it is possible that Mr Sharif may yet muster a majority in Parliament. If he does, he will have no excuses for a failure to deliver.

Mr Khan's PTI has, to its credit, emerged onto the national scene as the second-largest party, overshadowing the PPP, MQM, ANP and all others.

Except for Sindh, where the PPP has a respectable presence, the ruling party and its allies have paid the price of a five-year incumbency during arguably the most corrupt and ill-managed tenure of governance ever. It is possible that President Asif Ali Zardari's PPP may be in its death throes.

It is also possible that in the next election - in 2018, I hope - the PPP torch could be passed to another branch of the Bhutto clan or one of its older non-Bhutto stakeholders.

A few days ago a young journalist, Bilal Lakhani of the Express Tribune, wrote something so beautifully formulated that I wish I had written it. Even at that time, before election-day, I knew it to be true:

"There is one secret no political party will share with you." he wrote. "This election has been rigged - in favour of Pakistan. Whichever party wins or loses the election, Pakistan will win".

He was prophetically accurate: Pakistan is the victor. Let us hope that Mr Sharif can meet the phenomenal challenges that he faces, and so give Pakistanis increasing hope.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer