x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pakistan's vote is an imperfect but vital step

Despite all the turmoil and bloodshed, Pakistan's election campaign is an investment in the country's future.

Pakistan's election campaign has been tumultuous on a scale few other countries can match, and none would envy. And yet democracy, even in Pakistan's hectic and attenuated form, still offers the best hope of a better future.

On Saturday more than 86 million voters are eligible to go to 70,000 polling stations to choose among 4,670 National Assembly candidates and 11,000 aspirants to provincial assemblies.

This enormous exercise in democracy is being complicated, to say the least, by violence. More than 100 candidates, activists, officials and bystanders have been killed in six weeks of election-related terrorism. Yesterday Ali Haider Gilani, son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was kidnapped by gunmen who killed his aides.

The main culprit in these incidents, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also vows to stage suicide attacks at polling places on Saturday; TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud declared that "we don't accept the system of infidels which is called democracy".

Looming over all of this is the possibility that the country's military leaders could, especially in case of unclear or disputed election results, decide to reclaim the control of government they have exercised for roughly half of Pakistan's history since independence in 1947.

But it is the avoidance of this fate so far that makes these elections so historic, and vital. Indeed, never in Pakistan's history has one civilian government completed its term and handed power over to another. Coups have always come first. Against that background, Tuesday's accidental fall that badly injured former cricket superstar Imran Khan, now the leader of a popular upstart party, seems almost minor.

Saturday's turnout - the proportion of eligible voters who actually cast ballots - will be revealing, because under these circumstances simply taking part is itself a courageous vote against the TTP and extremism.

Even without the threat of being blown up, Pakistanis who shun their polling places can hardly be blamed: kickbacks, nepotism, abuse of office, regional squabbles, the enduring power of landowning families, sheer bad governance and a bewildering profusion of parties and alliances have all combined in such a way that democracy has accomplished little for ordinary people. Total economic output per capita last year was a mere $2,900 (Dh10,650), 179th in the world.

And yet only democracy offers real hope. There's a reason the TTP is trying so hard to spoil the vote: it fears the rule of law and the will of the majority.

No matter how the election goes, Pakistan's problems remain. In such rocky soil the compromises that are the essence of democracy will take root slowly. But dictatorial rule, by extremists or generals or anyone else, offers a much worse future.