Elections, now – 06 Mar 2023

CRISIS is an overused term in Pakistan, but there is little else that can adequately describe the current state of affairs. A long-brewing crisis of the economy is now playing itself out in agonising detail. Inflation is at its highest in five decades,food and fuel costs are pushing thousands of working class households deeper into poverty, and the finance ministry`s gross mismanagement has translated a difficult global economic context into a catastrophic domestic one.

There is also a multipronged political crisis currently afflicting all major institutions. The National Assembly is dysfunctional for several reasons, most notably the existence of an unwieldy coalition in government and the absence of the largest political party, the PTI. In the face of PTI`s popularity, the military establishment is witnessing a severe curtailment of its ability to curate and bend political outcomes to its will. Instead of reflective withdrawal, it is responding with coercion. And the judiciary, while facing its usual crisis of external pressure and partisan expectations, now appears stricken with significant internal fracturing as well.

These crises have been in place for the better part of 10 months. The latest addition has been a crisis of the Constitution, ie, of the nature of the state itself. It was the sole outcome of an intransigent PDM government refusing to go for provincial elections, egged on further by a fractured judiciary. While legal analysts debated the finer points (and score line) of the Supreme Court`s ruling over an election date for the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies, the ECP belatedly caved in and provided a time frame for the first week of May. The president has now announced April 30 as the poll date.

Nothing, however, changes the fact that any delay beyond the 90-day limit, for whatever reason, is a violation of the Constitution. And if a state does not have regular answers to the most basic of questions when do people choose their government, who gets to form it, and how do laws get made it opens the door to discretionary turmoil. Fifteen years into closing the chapter on the last martial law regime, the fact that such questions have not been conclusively resolved shows regression rather than progress.

There is no one solution to these multifacetedcrises. Each has its own underlying reasons and its own circumstances of origin. However, tackling these crises requires a longer-term horizon than the one currently available. That can only be achieved through a general election.

Some argue that an election does nothing to fix these multiple crises, and will in fact open up new problems. The most pressing crisis, the economic one, is unlikely to go away any time soon.

The country suffers from a systemic problem of an unproductive, rent-captured economy. The economic crisis is actually a crisis of how production and consumption are organised and the inequality of resources within society. An IMF agreement or a few billion from friendly coun-tries does nothing to resolve it.

But it is also clear that the kind of steps needed to fix these systemic issues requires a longer-term time horizon and some type of a political mandate. The current mismanagement has only made it worse. There is no guarantee that the next government will be able to fix it, but at least it allows the electorate to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the current mess. It tells whoever is in charge that the current state of affairs is untenable. Some manner of demonstrating pressure from below, regardless of how temporary it is, is better than nothing.

A general election would also go some way in fixing the crisis of the legislature. A functional parliament is a necessity. There are many areas of governance that require urgent legislative attention, none of which has been received in the past 10 months. Restoring the institution,allowing public representatives to engage in debate and deliberation, is also the first step towards reducing political polarisation. If one was being truly optimistic, they could argue that a restored National Assembly would help move politics away from street mobilisation and court cases towards something slightly more productive.

The crisis in the higher judiciary is mostly internal, but an election would at least take off some of the pressure of partisan expectations.

Right now, every decision and deliberation is seen from the perspective of which party it favours and what pressure must have been applied by whom. This is purely an outcome of the court stepping in (and being dragged into) political conflicts, and its past legacy of subservience to the establishment. The fracturing spilling out now needs to be resolved both internally, away from the political limelight, and through any legislative steps that are required.

The latter would once again need a functional, representative parliament.

There is one `crisis` that a free and fair general election will not fix. If anything it will make that `crisis` even more apparent. This is the `crisis` that the establishment faces as it sees that it cannot unilaterally bend political outcomes according to its preferences. The past few months have shown once again what growing popular support can do for a political party`s and its politicians` prospects, regardless of what the establishment`s own position may be.

Not for the first time in the past few years (though louder than in the recent past), large sections of the public are expressing deepseated dissatisfaction with the practice of selecting and de-selecting on a whim. There is also a greater recognition of the abuse of power that usually goes alongside such interference.

The necessity of an election is precisely because it will throw the public`s disenchantment with meddling in full display. It won`t turn Pakistan into a constitutionally secure state overnight. But any push in that direction and any rejection of closed-door, behind-the-scenes politicking is welcome. • The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Read more