The question of regionalism is as old as the 1940 Lahore resolution where Pakistan was presented as a collection of “sovereign” territorial units or regions. The subsequent episodes of the country’s story are well-known, including the 1971 second partition. More than 40 years later, the coming general election offers a great opportunity to assess the resilience, or otherwise, of regional political cultures.
An election has an important role in building the nation. If candidates are loyal and honest and the election is free and fair, its fruits are second to none. Since its establishment in 1947, Pakistan has had an asymmetric federal government and is a federal parliamentary democratic republic. At the national level, the people of Pakistan elect a bicameral legislature, the Parliament of Pakistan. The head of government, the Prime Minister, is elected by the majority members of the National Assembly and the head of state (and figurehead), the President, is elected by the Electoral College, which consists of both houses of Parliament together with the four provincial assemblies. In addition to the national parliament and the provincial assemblies, Pakistan also has more than five thousand elected local governments.
The Pakistan Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how general elections are held in Part VIII, Chapter 2 and various amendments. A multi-party system is in effect, with the National Assembly and the Senate.The Constitution of Pakistan more broadly and briefly defines how general elections (to a basic extent) are conducted, giving the time of elections, and the framework under which the elections are to be conducted set up the Constitution of Pakistan in Article 222-226 in Chapter 2:
No Person shall, at the same time, be a member of, both houses (National Assembly and Senate) or a House and a Provincial Assemblies.
When the National Assembly or a Provincial Assembly is dissolved, a general election to the Assembly shall be held within a period of ninety days after the dissolution, and the results of the election shall be declared not later than fourteen days after the conclusion of the polls.
A general election to the National Assembly or a Provincial Assembly shall be held within a period of sixty days immediately following the day on which the term of the Assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been sooner dissolved, and the results of the election shall be declared not later than fourteen days before that day.
Between 1947 and 1958, there were no direct elections held in Pakistan at the national level. Provincial elections were held occasionally. The West Pakistan provincial elections were described as “a farce, a mockery and a fraud upon the electorate”.
Unfortunately, all the elections that have been held in Pakistan since 1970 to 2013 could not change the fate of the people while every elected government contributed to an increase in domestic and international debts, besides corruption.
The sentiment of “Pakistan-ness”, has made significant progress in the course of time. A major survey published in 2008 (but conducted in 2004-2005), entitled The State of Democracy in South Asia, showed that Pakistanis were proud of Pakistan wherever they lived (the interviewees of rural Sindh were the “least” proud – with 69 per cent – whereas the inhabitants of northern and central Punjab topped the list with 96 per cent).
Sindhi nationalism is a case in point: it has declined after Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) emerged as a vehicle for the Sindhi’ upward political mobility. The Punjabi had already nationalized themselves according to the same logic: why should they retain a separate regional identity when they could dominate the whole country? In the State of Democracy in South Asia survey, 64 per cent of the Punjabi respondents declared that they felt only or predominantly Pakistani whereas 19 per cent felt only or predominantly Punjabi. Their role in the army partly explains this commitment to nationalism.
The resilience of ethnic identities is consistent with different political cultures. In The State of Democracy in South Asia survey, only 21 per cent of the Punjabi considered that democracy was preferable to any other regime, against 35 per cent of the Sindhi, 32 per cent of the Pakhtun and 29 per cent of the Mohajir. But as many Punjabi and Baloch – 34 per cent – thought (for different reasons) that democratic and military regimes made no difference whatsoever.
Interestingly, democracy did not mean the same thing for every ethnic group. For the Baloch it meant primarily “peace and security”, for the Sindhi, “justice and welfare”, and for the Mohajir “freedom”. But for none of these groups (except 3 per cent of the Sindhi) it meant “election”. This is exactly the conclusion one draws from the evolution of voter turnout in recent years. In spite of a positive trend in 2008 (in tune with 2002 figures), it has remained 10 percentage points below what it was showed.
Ethnicity is far from being the only variable shaping the vote of Pakistanis. The Herald survey provides interesting insights in this regard, by suggesting that the vote for certain parties is over-determined by age. Thus, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) would be the “oldest” political party in Pakistan, with 46.2 per cent of the registered respondents aged 70 and above declaring their intention to vote for it.
The level of education seems to play a more complex role. It does affect some parties — voting intentions for PPP, for instance, are inversely correlated to the level of education, at least until the masters level, while the vast majority of PTI sympathizers seem to come from the educated classes (77 per cent of the respondents declaring their intention to vote for the party have done matriculation or above). PMLN seems to have a more balanced ratio of highly educated/less educated voters.
Finally, the influence of gender remains quite limited, although some significant discrepancies seem to prevail in the case of two parties: PPP (which, proportionately at least, would find larger support among women than men) and PTI (so much for Khan’s charm: only 18.3 per cent of registered women voters declared their intention to vote for PTI, against 21.8 per cent of registered men).
By requesting political candidates to refrain from seeking votes “on the basis of religion, sect, caste or ethnicity” and threatening violators with a three-year jail term, the Electoral Commission of Pakistan recently confirmed the persisting relevance of ethnic bonds in shaping electoral choices. Yet, while most political parties aim at cashing in on this elusive “ethnic vote”, their leadership remains aware that ethnicity is only one factor among others shaping the decisions of the Pakistani electorate.
Regrettably, the pre-election survey of the Herald did not factor in the role of another crucial variable in this regard, at least in rural areas: biradari/clan affiliations. But as the experts engaged by the Herald in another survey emphasize, these bonds and the vote banks that they sustain remain determinant come election day. This is particularly true in Punjab, where the fate of the next government will be sealed.
Pakistan’s burgeoning middle class and young, educated population desire an improved economy, better public services, increased employment, and social justice. Such an electorate is likely to demand explanations for any foreign policy decisions that may impact domestic growth. Additionally, without state institutions that function as laid out by the constitution and informed political participation by the people, there can be no working democracy in Pakistan.Pakistani political parties have seldom taken an interest in debating foreign policy issues during elections. There are two main reasons for this: first, like most other countries, Pakistani voters are generally more concerned with immediate problems that directly impact their livelihood, such as poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to basic services such as electricity, to name a few.
But presentation of First hundred days plan by a party and hanging of sword of tampering on The issue of finality of Prophethood by another party to the last unending PPP’s political breaths and making the perception of rigging strong before election have all made the upcoming election most controversial but demands of a voter must be addressed first of all.
Dr. Zeeshan Khan is a medical doctor by profession ,a content writer, freelance writer, certified trainer and Poet.
You may reach the writer at Twitter: @DrZeeshanKhanA1