This article was published in Dawn on June 25, 2022 and is available at the following link
GENERAL elections may be 16 months away if the existing legislatures complete their full five-year term but election season seems to have already hit the country. This is partly so because local government polls, after years of postponement on numerous pretexts, are taking place on court orders and because of the dogged persistence of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
KP completed its two-phase LG election relatively smoothly in March this year. The first phase of the Balochistan LG election involving 32 out of a total of 34 districts has also been completed under surprisingly peaceful conditions though there were apprehensions due to reports of possible violence by separatist militant groups which recently stepped up their activities by staging some high-profile attacks. LG elections in the remaining two districts of Balochistan, ICT, Sindh and Punjab are overdue and expected to be held in the next two to three months.
The current electoral scene is, however, tense. What has made the political environment extraordinarily tense is the simultaneous by-elections in 20 high-stakes constituencies of the Punjab provincial assembly next month. These constituencies had become vacant after PTI members were de-seated for defecting from their party to vote for Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, the PML-N candidate for chief minister. Since the sustainability of the Hamza Shehbaz government is dependent on the PML-N’s victory in these constituencies and the PTI’s popularity will also be tested in the constituencies which were won by the party in 2018, these elections have assumed extraordinary significance and the situation is getting tenser by the day as July 17 — the date of the by-elections — approaches.
An ugly incident involving an armed clash between the workers of two candidates in Lahore last week in one of the 20 constituencies has highlighted the rising political temperatures in the province. Although, fortunately, no fatality was reported, several workers were reportedly injured in the free exchange of fire involving automatic firearms. Both the candidates accompanied by their armed guards and supporters also came face to face at one point and it was only a miracle that no one was harmed.
Another election-related violent incident took place last week on the day of a by-election in Karachi for the NA-240 constituency that had become vacant after the death of an MQM-P MNA, Iqbal Mohammad Ali Khan. Although the PTI had decided to not contest this seat, the election was very keenly contested by other parties such as the MQM-P, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, MQM-H and Pak Sarzameen Party. The degree of close contest can be measured by the small difference of only 65 votes between the winner who belonged to MQM-P and the TLP runner-up.
A viral video on social media can ignite public sentiments and almost wreck an entire election.
The armed clashes, which had started since the morning of polling day, intensified towards the closing hour. In particular, one polling station appeared to be the epicentre of violence when an attempt was made to steal a book of unused ballot papers. The attempted theft was filmed by someone and uploaded on social media. The video went viral and provoked people to react against the reported rigging. It was reported that at least three polling stations were attacked by workers of different political parties and a serious clash took place in one of them, resulting in the death of a worker and injuries to several others. When the result was announced, it transpired that the voter turnout was a mere eight per cent although the turnout in the same constituency had been a little over 37pc in the 2018 election.
What lessons can be drawn from these two incidents and the prevailing tense environment to avoid violence and disruptions in other elections including the 20 by-elections in Punjab next month and, more importantly, the general election due next year?
First, does the extremely low voter turnout in Karachi’s NA-240 constituency indicate general voter apathy and lack of interest in the electoral process? Is it an isolated episode or part of a pattern? How far is the PTI claim justified that voters’ disinterest was because the PTI was not contesting? Was it because the ECP scheduled the poll on a working day rather than a weekend? Was it violence or fear of violence which kept voters away from the polling stations? It is difficult to give conclusive answers to these questions, but it is extremely worrying that voters failed to turn up to vote in the largest city of the country.
The two violent incidents and related circumstances may be taken as a wake-up call to focus on the factors which may disrupt future elections.
The extreme level of polarisation that has gripped Pakistani politics for the last four years or so, has reached new heights after the vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan, the subsequent resignation of PTI MNAs and Imran Khan’s repeated charges against his political opponents of complicity in a foreign conspiracy against the country. Although the PTI demands an early election, it is difficult to imagine holding peaceful polls in this environment.
The second key issue is the expression of lack of trust by Imran Khan and the PTI — the largest political party in the country — in the Election Commission. Constitutionally, the current four members and chief election commissioner are charged with the responsibility of holding all elections including the next general election. The strong language used by Imran Khan against the ECP and especially its chief has created an atmosphere where the holding of peaceful election may become a nightmare.
The abuse of social media and directing campaign funds for this purpose will constitute another huge challenge for the ECP. As the Karachi incident has shown, a viral video on social media can ignite public sentiments and almost wreck an entire election. The ECP may need additional powers and new laws to forestall the abuse of social media and the misuse of the data available with large international technology companies.
The political leadership and the ECP should start a series of consultations to address these and several other issues likely to be faced in the coming elections.