The wrong foot forward

IN the upcoming national elections, it seems democracy itself is at stake. The electoral process has been reduced to an `undemocratic farce`.

A reputable pro-democracy civil society watchdog has urged that course correction is needed for transition from hybrid to a normal functioning democracy. It has affirmed the reality that the top political parties are addicted to patronage by the establishment. `Deferring course correction may not be an option much longer. It may be a luxury the country of young Pakistanis cannot afford,` Pildat has said.

Pakistan is dubbed an `electoral autocracy` by certain international democracy rating think tanks.Parties addicted to patronage are busy managing alliances to form fractured governments for the string-pullers to call the shots. Their leaders suffer from a crisis of confidence as their fate depends on keeping the establishment on board. They are content to play second fiddle.

Democracy, security and constitutionalism are the key issues confronting the nation. In the aftermath of the use of force against peaceful Baloch protesters in Islamabad, the issue of enforced disappearances has become part of the national agenda. A critical question arises: what does the state owe to its citizens, especially those who have been marginalised for decades? The plight of the Baloch, embroiled in a struggle for recognition and justice, is a clarion call for immediate attention from the state. It is not just a political issue but a humanitarian crisis. The current ptotest, characterised by its urban, middle-class, and youth-led nature, and notably the inclusion of women, is a testament to a changing Balochistan. As this paper has observed editorially, `enforced disappearances and extrajudicial tactics only deepen the schism and perpetuate a cycle of violence and mistrust`. The state`s response to these protests must be of engagement, not suppression. The judiciary has a crucial role to play. Its courage in addressing this issue is essential for meaningful change. The state must abandon its outmoded tactics and adopt a more inclusive, humane approach to governance. It must act to build bridges of trust andunderstanding. The longer it delays, the greater the risk of permanent alienation.

The controversial remarks by the caretaker PM regarding the Baloch protest clearly undermine the `very essence of the struggle`. His remarks for those who show empathy for the cause of the Baloch protesters to `join the militants` were clearly in bad taste. It amounted to adding salt to the wounds of the marginalised segment of the polity. The march of the Baloch to Islamabad is a peaceful protest against the state for the recovery of the missing persons and against the reprehensible tactics of enforced disappearances as well as against extrajudicial killings, like the one reportedly carried out through the CTD in Turbat a few weeks back that became the trigger for the current protests seeking truth and justice as their basic fundamental rights.How can the state deny them these rights? It clearly indicates `intolerance towards dissent and criticism`. One expected empathy, understanding and constructive approach from the political leaders instead of indifference and apathy. Dialogue and reconciliation, not deterrence, are the keys to heal the festering wounds of dissent smouldering in Balochistan for over two decades now. It is time to build bridges, not widen schisms.

It is also a matter of grave concern that in the pre-poll scenario, militants have been `spreading their vicious tentacles.` Violence-related deaths shot to a six-year high in 2023 as some 789 terror attacks and CT operations resulted in more than 1,500 deaths, including about 1,000 civilian and security personnel casualties last year. The failure of the state is quite evident,especially considering the trends of increasing violence in the preceding two years. As reported, `The year 2023 saw a staggering 69pc upsurge in violent incidents as the militants struck with impunity with 53 attacks per month on average, compared to 32 strikes a month a year earlier.

Moreover, `banned groups like the Tehreek-iTaliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) were involved in over 82pc of terrorism-related casualties and conducted 78pc of terror attacks last year,` according to a security report. The worrying signs for the key stakeholders should be `the deepening fissures between the citizenry and the state owing to the sociopolitical instability`. This paper warned that `any misstep may trigger long-lasting repercussions that could haunt us for years`.

In this grim scenario, all eyes are on two chiefs. The chief justice of Pakistan has shown his commitment to ensure that the national elections date of Feb 8 is etched in stone. Will the Supreme Court ensure a level-playing field for those whose right to contest elections is being denied through machinations that amount to `political cleansing`? And then there is the army chief, who pledged protection to the nation on New Year`s Eve. `We take pride in our unwavering commitment to the people of Pakistan. Army and the nation are one. No one can defeat the spirit of Pakistan… Undoubtedly, our great nation will rise, in line with the dreams of our forefathers and aspirations of the people`.

In the light ofsuch sterlingresolve,he cannot afford to move the wrong foot forward at this crucial stage of democratic transition. The people of Pakistan demand free and fair elections.

Let them exercise their choice without any fear or coercion.

History will judge both chiefs: one for ensuring justice, impartiality and the rule of law and the other for secure, fair and truly democratic ele ctions. • The wnter is former IG police and director of Centre for Govemance Research, an independent civil society think tank.

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