This year’s general elections in Pakistan will be remembered for two things: the determination of the people of Pakistan to see them through and the equal determination of the men of violence to prevent them. As Pakistanis prepare to go to the polls on May 11, there is much nervousness and hope for its outcome, potentially the first successful democratic transition between two popularly elected governments in Pakistan’s history. What my experience as a district officer has taught me, however, is that there is nothing more dangerous than changing horses in mid-stream. National elections have proven in the past to lead to the collapse of law and order and the imposition of martial law. With the promise of the current elections, this is a cycle that appears to be broken, but we should be aware of its dangers.
As an administrator in the field, I oversaw several elections in Pakistan and dealt first hand with both Pakistanis’ strong desire to have democracy and the plans of some to disrupt the process. What always impressed me was that in spite of all that Pakistanis still cling to the dream of a genuinely democratic polity.
Yet, since its inception, Pakistan has always struggled with democracy. It has oscillated between periods of democratic rule and military dictatorship. Weak and corrupt governments inevitably led to martial law and military rule which in time also became corrupt and tyrannical.
Disrupting the elections
What has been an impediment to lasting democracy has been the violence and breakdown of law and order which often accompanies elections. This time, though, it is a different kind of violence. Groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are not only determined to disrupt the elections, but also to shake and destroy the very foundations of the structure of the state itself.
In the last few days, we have seen the Hazara community in Balochistan brutalised; frequent attacks against political candidates and their supporters in Peshawar and Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and in Karachi; fighting between the Pakistan army and the Taliban in Tirah Valley which cost many lives on both sides; and the killing of the prosecuting attorney in the murder case of Benazir Bhutto.
Amidst the chaos, it is difficult to predict the outcome of this election. Given the political forces on the landscape, it appears that no single party will sweep the elections. The Pakistan Muslim League headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have strong showing in the Punjab province. There has been a lot of talk about former cricketer Imran Khan and the “tsunami” that will push him into power. Commentators compare his popularity to ZA Bhutto when he rose to power, which led to the disastrous breakup of the country in 1971.