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No New Dawn, But A Parting Of Some Clouds

The February 3rd Elections In Pakistan



"The people of Pakistan have shown a certain preference for not giving a mandate to strongly sectarian parties"
"These elections may not have ushered in a new dawn, but they have cleared away a few clouds. They have given new hope," said Mohammad Qadeer. Dr. Qadeer, Director, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Queen's University, Kingston was speaking at a seminar on the Pakistan elections, organized by CERAS on 21 February. The other invited speaker was Kamal Munir, a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Management, McGill University. Between them both, the large audience was provided with a thorough analysis of the fourth elections in Pakistan in the last nine years, as well as projections for the near future.

Parting of Clouds

Kamal Munir pointed out that while these were the fourth elections in nine years, if one counted the non-party elections of 1985, they would be the fifth in the last eleven or twelve years. "That in itself is a very significant point because five elections in twelve years means that the democratic process in Pakistan has been disturbed in a very significant way and people have come to expect that it does not stand on a very sound foundation. These expectations and perceptions of people play a very important role in deciding what actually happens. The next time this process is disturbed, we cannot expect much resistance from people because they have come to expect this. A serious dent has been made and some irreparable damage done. It might take many years of the democratic process running soundly before it can be repaired."

Low Turnout

Voter cynicism can be seen, said Munir in the fact that the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot has been going down. There is disillusionment with the electoral process and with the PPP. This party used to be the representative of people's demands and in the past raised slogans like "roti, kapra aur makan" (food, clothes and shelter) and "inquilab" (revolution), but now it has stooped to the level of just another political party which gets involved in all sorts of tactics to stay in power. According to Dr. Qadeer, the PPP policies were very poor, inflation, price rise, excessive burden of taxes and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) conditionalities all ensured that the economy of Pakistan is in tatters and it lost its mandate. To top it off, Ms. Bhutto ran her campaign on a conspiracy theory. She targetted President Leghari and did not campaign very much against her opponent's party, the PML. Thus PPP was a very demoralized party and that was reflected in the vote it recieved.

Muhammad Qadeer commented that another positive aspect is that the newly elected government has strength and representation from all across the country, so that it can pass legislation to check even the President, as it can amend the Constitution. It has a two-thirds majority and can remove the infamous 8th amendment. This is a clause that permits the President of Pakistan to dismiss any elected government of the people at any time that he so wishes.

Dr. Qadeer went on to say that the major Islamic party did not contest in these elections and promoted an active boycott of them. But the indications are that by and large they were not heeded. A number of small Islamic parties and somewhat extremist ones from small districts have mostly been wiped out. "In that sense, the people of Pakistan have shown a certain preference for not giving a mandate to strongly sectarian parties."

Fair Elections

An automatic response to the election results is, "was it fair?" To this Qadeer in his arguments has contended that the elections can be called fair. One of the argument was a pre-election poll conducted by the Herald, a critical magazine that comes out of Karachi, three days before the election, based on a representative sample of 12,000 persons all across Pakistan, including small towns (no villages) showed that Nawaz Sharif and the PML stood way ahead.

Kamal Munir outlined the many challenges that are faced by the new government. The 8th Amendment still remains. Then there is the Council for Defence and National Security (CDNS), by which the army "instituitonalized the role it had been playing in Pakistani politics for many decades."

Structural Adjustments

Another challenge is posed by the conditions and structural adjustment programmes imposed on Pakistan by the IMF for the past years, which emphasize cost cutitng and expenditure reduction. This has resulted in the goverment becoming very unpopular in the country. Any government which claims it has a popular mandate cannot go through with these conditions. Raising the price of fuel and raising taxes can very easily erode any popular support for Nawaz Sharif. This was a difficulty the Benazir Bhutto government faced.

While the people should not get their hopes up too high Dr. Qadeer sees the recent elections as a positive development in "the narrow frame of the current politics of Pakistan of the last 7-8 years where there have been four governments all of whom have never completed their term and which have all been overthrown or disbanded by the presidential order, so this government at least will be more stable." As he said, "By and large the door has been opened. It all depends on what policy Nawaz Sharif follows and also if he is capable of changing his style of government. He has been in power once before. He has had opposition and corruption, he has been wasteful in the past. One only hopes that those lessons have been learnt and also there is no threat so that he can provide a good government."

Kamal Munir is a little more restrained even though he sees a lot of positive outcomes from this election. However as he said, "it would be foolish to expect things to start improving...because the administrative structure in Pakistan is predisposed to a concentration of power at the top." So even if the Nawaz Sharif government were to have the most noble intentions, they find themselves with very little room to manoeuvre or to carry through any significant, positive changes, although "they do stand on a stronger footing."

- Dolores Chew

Pakistan National Assembly Election Results 1997

Party

No. of Seats
Pakistan Muslim League (leader: Mr. Nawaz Sharif) 134
(9 Million votes)
Pakistan People's Party (leader: Ms. Benazir Bhutto) 19
(5 Million votes)
Haq Parast Party (Mohajir Qaumi Movement) 12
Awami National Party 9
Baluchistan National Party 3
Jamhuri Watan Party 2
National People's Party 1
Independent 20
Total Elected 200
Minorities and others 17

Registered Voters: 56.5 Million
Votes Cast: 20 Million (36%)

Source: Mohammad Qadeer

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