What Are People Voting for?
S. AKBAR ZAIDI
THERE are multiple levels at which individuals who constitute the
electorate will decide who to vote for. In Pakistan's eleventh general
election in a couple of days, the metanarrative points to a choice between a
vote-ko-izzat-do (respect the vote) slogan that underlies a violent injustice
done to the electorate's civic and political rights and a party with some
illusionary notion of a 'naya Pakistan'. The latter party promises
governance reforms, having made multiple compromises with the very old
Pakistan, where elderly and established veteran electables have switched
alliances in the hope of supporting what they expect to be the winning
party. At least on this count, there is no difference between naya and old
Then there is the third, formerly great progressive party, led by a younger
leader trying to revive the notion of an older social-justice social contract
within the paradigm of an advanced neoliberalism, the contradictions
between the two quite lost on him and his party. Of course, old and recently
mainstreamed Islamist parties continue to raise their demands for an 'Islamic' Pakistan, where different formulations and interpretations and
shades of Sharia dominate their political programme. Broad formulations
of ethnic politics, which were formidable, particularly in Sindh and
noticeably in Karachi, while still present, have now been fractured and
compromised under different political banners.
Local, real-life issues seem to trump broader issues,
supposedly related to principles or ideology.
In most countries, political parties have a 'base' of voters who usually stay
loyal to their party. Of course, the base changes as and when the party
changes, say when the spouse of a popular leader replaces her, giving a
completely new meaning to the identity of her former party. Some
committed and so-called diehard supporters stay with the party, but many
are disenchanted as they realise that the old party no longer exists. Then,
with a new kid on the electoral block rallying Pakistan's youth with a party
founded 22 years ago, many first-time voters are willing to support this new
politics, often saying that he should be 'given a chance'. Over the decades,
we have moved from a sort of two-party system, and now with one of them
revitalised, to more of a three-way contest, with local, provincial and
regional parties and individuals completing the vote bank.
If this had been a very free, fair and transparent election, perhaps many of
the base supporters would have voted for their preferred candidates and parties, with a fair indication of what the results would have looked like, as
every local and international poll had indicated. Yet, now as the Human
Rights Commission of Pakistan has told us, the coming general elections
will be the "dirtiest, most micromanaged ... in the country's history". They "have serious doubts that elections will be free and fair", and see "blatant,
aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the
upcoming elections", suggesting that who people vote for will be
compromised by the limited choices they have in front of them. This
attempt to break the hold of the base raises further questions about who
people vote for now.
Given the similarities in most parties, so-called ideology and principle will
probably play a minor part in how people vote, and, hence, what counters
the metanarrative is that voters will probably vote for candidates who
address and have delivered on local issues. Every TV channel has been
showing responses by voters in numerous constituencies about who their
preferred candidate would be, and invariably the voter ends up talking
about very local issues - water, sanitation, roads - and who has or has not
delivered on their promises.
At times, this is the only concern of the voter, not whether a particular
leader is in jail, or whether someone already thinks that he is the 'chosen
one. Local, real-life issues seem to trump broader issues, supposedly
related to principle or ideology.
What is surprising is that most voters believe that their National Assembly
representative is supposed to provide water in her constituency, rather than
hold forth on issues of foreign policy, economics and broader, supposedly 'national', matters. There is certainly some truth in the clichÃ©, that 'all
politics is local', especially in an age where ideology does not differentiate
between political parties. Who needs local government when voters expect
their formidable MNA to be responsible for clearing their streets?
For a city that has known only ethnic politics for three generations, this is
the first time when identity may not be the primary concern in making their
choice. This is especially so, when the same ethnic identity is pitted against
itself, and when the single dominant party has been made an example of,
literally being cut down to size and parcelled out. If ever there is going to be
a split vote, this election will demonstrate it in Karachi. Moreover, while
much is made of biradaris, political parties are aware of biradari
bifurcations and politics, and usually candidates belonging to the same
biradari contest against each other. Hence again, either party affiliation - the base - or service delivery at the local level would determine who is
The consensus now voiced by numerous political parties, human rights
groups, citizens and analysts is that considerable pre-poll rigging has
already taken place. If before they even get to vote, voters feel that their free
and fair choices have been compromised and constrained by the limited
options available to them, who and what they vote for might count for very
Worse still, one expects that after the elections, active attempts will be
made to manufacture a government more suited to the establishment.
Whichever way Pakistan's voters vote, they have already been
disenfranchised and an election has been stolen from them. Yet, vote we
must, to try to resist and challenge every attempt to undermine democracy.
The writer is a Karachi-based political economist.