ISLAMABAD — Pakistanis head to the polls Saturday to elect a new Parliament after five years of bitter disputes with the United States over bases for the Afghan Taliban, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the covert operation that killed Osama bin Laden. But those topics have been largely ignored in the election campaign.
Instead, this election season – the first time in the country’s history that elections have followed the completion of a civilian government’s term without a military coup – has been characterized by a growing sentiment among Pakistanis that casting votes is less about political preferences than it is about civic responsibility. The feeling is common that voting is the only way citizens can improve the country’s rotten system of governance.
Over the last five years, during Pakistan’s first full-term democratic government, voters have been subjected to a witch’s brew of civil wars, with Pakistani Taliban insurgents and ethnic Baluch separatists, that have cost 40,000 lives. The economy has crashed, consumer prices and unemployment have soared, and power and fuel remain in short supply.
The brunt of subsequent public anger has been borne by the coalition government of liberal political parties led by the Pakistan People’s Party of Asif Ali Zardari, the president. The administration’s reputation for corruption and its inability to get a grip on the job of governance had frequently found voice as public disenchantment with democracy.
However, there has been a marked shift in the national mood since March, when power was seamlessly transferred to a neutral caretaker administration and an election commission was tasked with overseeing the elections. McClatchy has asked dozens of Pakistanis, from all walks of life and across the country, whether they would vote or not. “Yes, certainly,” has been the overwhelming response, even from critics of democracy.
The underlying theme of responses from city residents, in particular, is that those choosing not to vote would lose the moral right to complain about the state of the country.
Indeed, there is a growing sense here that government has become accountable to public opinion, because of an apparent nexus between Pakistan’s judiciary, which became independent in 2009, and the country’s gaggle of cable news channels – Pakistanis’ favorite source of entertainment, according to audience ratings.
Together, the judiciary and the media have taken to describing the act of voting as a “national responsibility,” and that’s expected to positively affect voter turnout – traditionally less than 50 percent of those eligible, largely because of the lack of a national democratic habit, no surprise when historically the military has so frequently intervened.
Fears of another military coup had been sparked by an intense campaign of Taliban bombings against electioneering liberal party candidates in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, and the southern metropolis of Karachi, where two candidates were killed last week. The death toll rose to 95 Monday when a Taliban bomb killed 15 people attending a religious party candidate’s election rally in the Kurram tribal area.
But the coup fears were laid to rest last week by the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who in a rare public speech embraced the democratic process.
“General elections will be held in the country on the 11th of May. We must not harbour any doubts or misgivings about it,” he said.
“I assure you that we stand committed to wholeheartedly assist and support the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections,” he said. “I also assure you that this support shall solely be aimed at strengthening democracy and rule of law in the country.”
High turnout is expected particularly in the populous eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where most electoral constituencies are located, and where the two major national parties – Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, or PML-N – are headquartered.
At the last election in February 2008, the PPP had won in its southern stamping ground of Sindh province and captured enough seats in Punjab and elsewhere to form a coalition government. Its victory was largely due to sympathy that followed the assassination of its leader and former two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Zardari is her widower.
This time round, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, also a former two-time prime minister, looks set to recapture ground lost in 2008 to the PPP, and to rebels who had deserted the party after its last government was overthrown by Pervez Musharraf in a military coup in 1999.
The PPP is expected to come in a respectable second, on the back of constituencies in Sindh and pockets of support elsewhere in Pakistan. The insurgency-hit western provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the troubled city of Karachi are expected to be shared by many national, regional and religious parties.
Within a split mandate, Sharif is widely predicted to become the country’s first three-time prime minister, although his party probably would struggle to win a majority of the 272 seats being contested.
He is a right-of-center moderate whose campaign has been firmly centered on the revival of the economy and improved governance, and the resolution of Pakistan’s conflicts.
In anticipation of victory, Sharif on Sunday signaled a moderate policy stance to the international community. He has spoken, in particular, about his belief that Pakistan should work with the international community to bring about a Taliban-inclusive dialogue aimed at resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. He has similar plans for the Pakistan Taliban insurgents.
“I think guns and bullets are (never) the answer to such problems,” Sharif said in an interview with CNN’s Indian affiliate.
The great unknown of the campaign is Imran Khan, a sports star turned reformist politician whose Movement for Justice party has directed its appeal to first-time voters and people disenchanted with the two major parties, particularly in urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.
Khan is the only candidate who has sought to tap into anti-American sentiment, saying he would end the war with Taliban insurgents and order the air force to shoot down CIA drones if they entered Pakistani airspace. But such rhetoric is not reflective of a religious fundamentalist, which the erstwhile playboy Khan is not, but of a general desire among educated Pakistanis to regain national pride.
Other party candidates have generally called for the cessation of U.S. drone operations, but it hasn’t been a major theme of the election campaign.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.