Sunday, 12 May 2013

Pakistan: Vote for Change?

At the point of writing, there are few surprises following the election in Pakistan. The process has been marred by violence, and the sad deaths of dozens. There have been allegations of coercion, vote rigging and polling stations closing early or not allowing people to cast their vote. For Pakistan though, the election presents something of a democratic milestone. For the first time since the country was founded in 1947, the outgoing government was the first civilian government to have lasted its term without dismissal or a military coup. This is an achievement, no less, though even at this point, whilst some votes are being counted, the people seem to have made their choice. 

Out goes the PPP (Pakistan People's Party), and in comes the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif). This is the usual passing of the baton between the ruling parties. The dauphin, stealthily waiting in the wings was of course, Imran Khan, ex-cricketer and  leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (the Justice Party). His campaign trail invited the attention of the media and caught the attention of Pakistan's youth (46% of whom are aged between 18 and 29). In the Pashtun heartlands, in particular Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial government led by the ANP (Awaami National Party) has been voted out and replaced by the Tehreek-e-Insaaf. Both Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan's assembly will be made up of a mix of parties, but in south, PKMAP (Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awaami Party) are set to take the larger portion of seats.

So what does this all mean? Well it means, that whilst this election was fought on the ticket of change, some things will remain remarkably the same. Nawaz Sharif is set to return as Prime Minister - despite being dismissed twice, jailed and exhiled, for, amongst other things, corruption and mismanagement. His clear rival, on the home patch was Imran Khan who at least at the urban youth level, had the potential to split the PML vote. This has largely not affected the result in the Punjab which has traditionally been safe PML territory. Sindhis in Pakistan will vote along tribal and ethnic lines and the MQM in Karachi will pick up the Urdu-speaking/Mohajir vote. In short, not much has changed.

The change of personnel, will be seen mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the nationalist ANP could not capture the mood of its traditional support base. That has gone to the Tehreek-e-Insaaf and really should be the talk of the election. The question is why and to understand what is deliverable. The ousted Awaami National Party claims the inheritence of Bacha Khan's legacy - nationalist, focussed on Pashtun issues, traditionally pro-Afghanistan and non-antagonistic towards India. The Tehreek-e-Insaaf is less clear about the latter issues, but has made a ticket of opposing one of the main issues of the present time - that of unmanned drones, said to target the militants along the Af-Pak border, but often making ordinary civilians the victims. This is one of the key points of appeal, and that of Imran Khan's rock-star-like persona which appeals to a young voting public, keen on change. Beyond this, it is difficult to determine what else seperates the PTI from PML. Ideologically there is considerable shared common ground and therefore arguably, despite the different guises and the recent banter between their respective leaderships, politically speaking they appear to offer more of the same. A key common ground between the PTI and the PML is their relationships with the ISI (Pakistan's notorious intellignce agency) and a conservative affliation with the Taliban.

The 2014 NATO/US withdrawal in Afghanistan is set to create a number of possible scenarios. One of those may be a resurgent Taliban. How, the new central power in Pakistan, and the new provincial power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's percieved appeasement of the Taliban plays out is yet to be seen. My vote, however, rests with the people. Pashtuns are a conservative folk - I live with that. But they are remarkably open, accomodating and egalitarian. Contrast this with the rest of Pakistan which voted largely on tribal, traditional or ethnic lines. It this Pashtun notion of fair play that has returned a PTI victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We're willing to give the promisers at PTI central, their chance. 

What I would like to see, is not just the stopping of drones, but genuine economic and social prosperity for the Pashtuns, lifting of educational standards and moves towards recognition of our history and language. Pashtuns have been used as cannon fodder in someone else's war for long enough. Outwardly, unless the PTI or PML can change the outlook of the army or the ISI, I am not sure how this can change for Pashtuns either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Right now, we watch and wait to see what will follow.

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