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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Healing touch

After the launch of ‘Project Imran’ and its failure, Pakistan’s society has faced the worst kind of polarisation. As a colleague says, it was not political engineering that was done but social engineering

Mehmal Sarfraz Published 08.02.24, 07:11 AM
(From left) Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

(From left) Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari Sourced by the Telegraph

Pakistan goes to the polls today. For months, nobody was certain whether the election would be held or not. This uncertainty was for many reasons; one of them pertains to the fact that elections were not held in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces as per the constitutional provision that they be held within 90 days after both provincial assemblies had been dissolved by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in January 2023. Caretaker set-ups have been ruling Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for over a year now. The Supreme Court was finally able to set a date for the general election back in November 2023 after a consensus was reached between the president, Arif Alvi, and Pakistan’s chief election commissioner on a date — February 8, 2024.

However, the election has become controversial due to various reasons. There are terrorist threats in some areas as well as chances of violence (over 20 people have been killed in bomb blasts in the election offices of two candidates in Balochistan). Almost 51% of the polling stations have been categorised as ‘sensitive’ by the Election Commission of Pakistan for the polls. Last week, the army top brass issued a stern warning against any attempt to disrupt the general election.

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Many are wondering what the results will be like and whether they will be credible, given that Imran Khan’s PTI is not being allowed to campaign freely. On top of that, Imran Khan was sentenced to jail in three different cases — the cipher case, the Toshakhana case and the iddat/illegal marriage case — one after another. Analysts say that while these verdicts won’t be upheld in the high courts when challenged as due process was not followed, the quick succession of jail sentences for Imran Khan in three cases and even his wife in the latter two means that there is a clear message for the PTI: Imran Khan is not acceptable and is not going to make a comeback, at least not for now. In Pakistan, we have seen this before: political leaders being put behind bars before elections. However, some say that this time it is different. The word is that there will be a ‘Bangladesh model’ wherein Imran Khan will remain incarcerated like Khaleda Zia while whoever forms the government would be allowed to work without any disruption.

The prediction this time is that Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz will form the government, but it may be a coalition government with smaller parties. Some say the Pakistan Peoples Party may be part of the coalition while others believe it will be in the Opposition since the PTI is facing a battle for survival. However, the PTI is banking on a large voter turnout today and its slogan is ‘zulm ka badla vote se’ (revenge against injustice through vote). Some political analysts believe that many PTI voters would be disheartened due to the dismantling of the party and would not come out to vote as they think the election is rigged against their party. But the PTI is still hopeful of a ‘surprise’. While analysts say that the election will not be free and fair — the poll in 2018 wasn’t either — to suggest that it will only be free and fair if the PTI wins is also not right. Recent surveys have shown that the PML-N has gained popularity over the last few months in Punjab. Political experts say that voters also see which way the winds are blowing and they vote accordingly. Moreover, analysts point out that just because the PTI and Imran Khan are popular does not mean that one of the most experienced politicians in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, is unpopular. He has a large votebank of his own. Sharif started the PML-N’s political campaign quite late — just weeks before the elections — but his rallies have been huge across the province of Punjab. Many believe that he may become the prime minister for the fourth time if his party forms the government after today’s elections. Some say he will give the premiership to his brother, Shehbaz, and that he would want his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, to be the chief minister of Punjab. These, obviously, are speculations and everything will depend on the number of seats won by the PML-N, how many seats independent, PTI-affiliated candidates win and which party they join if they don’t stick to the PTI, as well as on the number of seats won by the PPP and the smaller parties. The real battleground is, of course, Punjab where the majority seats are. Whoever wins Punjab will most likely form the next government. We will know this in the next 24 hours.

What is important though in all this is that whoever forms the government will have to give Pakistan a healing touch. After the launch of ‘Project Imran’ and its spectacular failure, Pakistan’s society has faced the worst kind of polarisation. As a colleague says, it was not political engineering that was done but social engineering. The cost of the entire plan to launch Imran Khan was grave as it damaged a free media, an independent judiciary, institutional independence, and society. The real challenge is the ‘hybrid system’ that has replaced democracy in many ways. Many believe that parties like the PML-N and the PPP are not like the PTI. Imran Khan was not willing to talk to his political opponents. These parties have seen many ups and downs but they never close the doors to political dialogue. In a recent interview, Nawaz Sharif said: “Pakistan needs hope and unity to start a new chapter to control the damage and to build the nation as a strong and meaningful entity.” His daughter, Maryam, also said that for Pakistan, she is willing to forgive and forget everything and move on despite what has happened to her family in the past. The chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, has also said there is a need to end the politics of vendetta.

These are important statements coming from our leadership. Whatever happens today, it is to be hoped that the next Parliament will use its forum to reverse the hybrid system gradually while also promoting reconciliation with all political stakeholders.

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore; mehmal.s@gmail.com

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