3 years


The Khan Who Couldn’t

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Nawaz Sharif’s party won a near majority in Pakistan’s National Assembly. But it was Imran Khan’s campaign that animated the polls

A chaotic day of polling has just ended. But few in Karachi are willing to call it a day. In a posh living room in south Karachi, a group of friends gather to follow the results on TV. In one corner, a small whiteboard is mounted on an easel. The group maps possible outcomes and draws a table on the whiteboard, filling it with seats won by major parties in the National Assembly (NA). Abid Butt, the host, is an avid Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) supporter and leads the activity. Intense disagreement about possible outcomes in each province abruptly ends when someone wants to move to the patio for a smoke, and resumes with the slightest remark on the political atmosphere. The fatigue of the past 12 hours is evident in their anxious voices. But the yearning to see votes turn into results energises the night.

For Abid Butt and his friends, this day has taken a long time to come. Few liked the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led coalition government. Its five-year term was marked by corruption scandals, an economic slump and the worst energy crisis Pakistan has ever seen. It crippled industry, especially in Lahore and other cities of Punjab. Lack of gas and electricity supplies to homes enraged people, while law-and-order hit rock bottom. Killings, gang wars, armed robberies, abductions for ransom and batta extortion became common.

But if 11 May has been hailed as a historic day for Pakistan, it is for a more significant reason: many regard it as a victory for democracy per se. On this day, people voted for the first civilian transfer of power since the country came into existence on 14 August 1947. Men and women had braved the odds to use the ballot to make themselves heard. Such enthusiasm for elections, people will tell you, has not been seen in Pakistan since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto swept the polls of 1977. More importantly, not since Bhutto’s 77 victory have the affluent of Karachi cared so much about a national election.

It was evident from early morning queues of voters at polling stations in NA 250, a constituency that includes areas like Defence and Clifton—prime real estate by the sea in this port city with posh housing colonies, high-end markets, shopping malls, fancy restaurants and private clubs. On 11 May, voters were neither scared away by threats of attacks on polling booths by the Taliban, nor intimidated by goons of assorted political affiliation who were openly asking them to leave polling stations. Zamzama, a market where designer boutiques, glittering shoe stores and fashionable cafes attract thousands of customers, was deserted. A short walk through its bylanes led you away from the road that dissects it to a school in the corner of a huge park. Hundreds stood in queues that ran the length of the market, awaiting their turn to vote. Mismanaged polling and the heat of the midday sun aroused tempers, but no one left. Some waited as long as eight hours to cast their vote.

“I was going to pass out,” said Uzma Irtiza, 38, “but I did not want to miss out this time.” The night before, Uzma had flown in to vote from Dubai, where she works with a real estate company. This morning, she reached the polling station with her sister and mother, hoping to breeze through the process. She did not expect such a long queue already. “Inside, it was highly disorganised. By the afternoon, my sister had sunburns all over her face. We had to take charge of the polling booth to help the staff maintain some order, otherwise the wait would have been longer,” she said. Back at their gated Navy Housing Scheme residence, telephone calls, text messages and social media posts reported even worse cases of mismanagement. At some stations, either the polling staff had not shown up in time or ballot sheets and boxes had not been delivered. At one particular station, voting began as late as 2.30 pm.

Like Uzma, thousands of Pakistanis had flown in from other countries to cast their vote, the media reported. Their purpose was to bring about a change in Pakistan, many of them responding to PTI Chief Imran Khan’s a call for a ‘New Pakistan’. But by the time early result trends appeared on TV, Khan’s supporters knew they were in for a disappointment.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has taken a clear lead. To Abid Butt and his friends, that is not unexpected. It is the second column of the results table that evokes surprise. Imran Khan’s PTI is a distant second in the race. Out for another smoke at the patio, everyone pins it on the party’s inexperience in electoral politics.

Bitterness fills the air as more results come in. The PTI is leading in 33 constituencies, while the PML-N has taken a lead in about a hundred. Little will change for men like Abid, a successful businessman whose company is among the fastest growing in Pakistan. But the deplorable condition of the masses, he says, is something that can’t be ignored anymore. Some weeks ago, as the electoral campaigns were gaining momentum, Abid and his friends took a road trip from Karachi to Peshawar to see how rural folk live, especially in ‘interior Sindh and south Punjab’. “It turned out to be an alarming experience,” Abid says.

“We thought we knew Pakistan. But what we witnessed was disturbing,” he says. “People in villages of interior Sindh roam barefoot around palatial houses decorated with Italian tiles. Such income disparity is really disturbing.” Abid’s friend Omer Ghaznavi describes it as ‘pure depression, an absolute nightmare’. “Landlords say that children are not interested in going to school. Schools have been turned into cowsheds. I saw little children and women work in the fields in the heat of the day as males laze around. I believe when the children grow up, they do the same to their children and women of the house,” he says. “The children in Punjab do not see ‘Change in Pakistan’ and ‘Naya Pakistan’ [as the slogans go] reach them.” The group started a Facebook page to record their experiences. On Pulse of Pakistan, as the page is titled, Omer posted several pictures reflecting the condition of roads, schools and health facilities in these rural areas. ‘In my opinion,’ writes Abid in a post on that page, ‘The PTI missed a trick here by not trying to win the hearts and minds of the poor farmers of Sindh. In rural Punjab, where the PTI has taken the battle to the PML-N, they are fighting against the local feudal (lord) who has actually done some work for his people.’

Few would trust Abid’s analysis. The most common argument to explain the success of traditional parties in rural Pakistan is that ‘people vote for the hand that feeds them’. Abid has his reasons to believe otherwise. “How did Imran do it in KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)? Getting votes in interior Sindh is a Herculean task, but it is possible. How otherwise did the PML-N secure a few seats there?”

Abid is not alone in questioning the PTI’s election strategy. Political analysts in Pakistan have believed all along that Imran Khan picked a few battles he should not have.

In a speech at Oxford University in 2009, Imran Khan spoke at length of the challenges Pakistan faced. Comparing his country with late-18th century France, he said that the poor paid the taxes while the rich got the benefits. Feudalism and the ‘War on Terror’ were two major challenges he identified that the Pakistani electorate would have to stand up to for a lasting change.

Back home, Khan knew he could not take on the feudal class that controls the economy and rules the country. But he raised an issue that touched the heart of every Pakistani: America’s drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The media had been reporting civilian deaths caused by such strikes in that region for more than two years. Khan declared furious opposition to these so-called ‘precision’ strikes, and began mounting pressure on the government to stop this ‘violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty’.

This brought the issue of the Taliban and terror in Pakistan into question. Khan advocated dialogue with the Taliban, arguing that war was not an option. As the polls drew closer, he began to talk of the rule-of-law to root out crime, and of improved taxation and State welfare services. Khan became a darling of the media, both local and foreign. His message seemed to be getting across, too. “Voting for the PTI was the only logical thing to do,” Abid says. “The PPP completed its term in government [only] because the opposition did not try to bring it down. I think it is mature to give democracy a chance. But things have to change now.”

But whether rural Pakistan had heard Khan’s message was always in doubt. Did it percolate deep enough to reach the less media-attuned of Pakistan’s 180 million people? After all, rural residents formed a sizeable proportion of the 86 million eligible voters who would turn up and determine the outcome of the election.

One who wins Punjab wins Pakistan. This tenet of Pakistan’s electoral politics is based on a demographic reality that places power, Punjab and Pakistan in a close clinch. More than half of Pakistan’s eligible voters live in Punjab, which has 49.2 million of them. Sindh has about 20 million, while Baluchistan and KPK have 3.3 million and 12 million, respectively.

Punjab thus elects 148 members of the National Assembly, while Sindh elects only 61. KPK and Baluchistan elect 35 and 14 respectively, 12 come from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), while voters in the federal capital Islamabad choose two. Article 51 of the Pakistan constitution reserves 60 seats in the NA for women and 10 others for non-Muslim minorities. Thus, in a house of 342 seats, a political party needs 137 for a simple majority, as only 272 members are elected. Punjab elects 148 of them.

This year, Pakistan made election history in many ways. Reports suggest that a record 30 million voters were added to the voters list. Most of these first-time voters were youngsters and the PTI had them in mind for its vision of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ of justice and transparency. But Punjab couldn’t have been left out of focus. Born to a Pashtu family in Lahore, Khan tried to appeal to Punjabis and Pashtus alike. While in KPK, his tough stance on drone strikes generated enough goodwill, Punjab proved a tough test. Sandwiched in his words on justice and an egalitarian society were scathing attacks on the Sharif brothers of the PML-N, a party that has been in power in Punjab for the past five years under Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister.

Khan’s was an act of political naivete. While he did not speak of sadak, bijli, pani (roads, electricity and water), his opponents did that quite well. Nawaz Sharif promised cheap loans through banks, drinking water, gas and electricity to homes. To big businesses, he held out infrastructure and energy supply. He also invoked Punjabi pride among voters by talking about honouring one’s pagdi (as a symbol of leadership) and reminding them of his gutsy decision to test a nuclear device in May 1998 in the face of international reproach.

Khan had no such legacy, his 1991 cricket World Cup win marking his only triumph as a leader in an official position of authority. Despite his lack of political experience, many trusted him, seeing in him an earnest—a reputation granted partly by his cancer hospital project—symbol of resistance against dynastic politics and feudalism. But the PTI still seemed a one-man show. “He was there all the time. When you give yourself so much time on TV, you lose consistency and commit mistakes,” says an angry PTI supporter from Lahore, “Otherwise people love him. I have met labourers who were putting up billboards and banners for Nawaz Sharif but chose to vote PTI.”

By midnight, the PML-N is set for sure victory. All Nawaz Sharif is asking of his supporters is to pray that his party doesn’t need ‘crutches’ to form a government. As the night progresses, the PML-N tally moves close to 130, a little short of a simple majority. Both the treasury and opposition benches in the NA have been decided.

But the battle is not over for everybody. Talk of manipulation is already in the air. Electoral malpractices of many kinds are being reported. Video clips of rigging are being circulated on the net and broadcast on TV. Constituency NA 250 was particularly affected. The Election Commission had extended polling time in several polling stations here by two hours. It did not calm voters.

The next evening, voters of Clifton and Defence staged a rally at Teen Talwar, a landmark in Karachi. A day later, men and women in other constituencies of Lahore started protests and sit-ins. “Where are our votes?” they demanded. There was no official result in NA 228, where former minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi contested on a PTI ticket against the PPP’s Nawab Yousuf Talpur. Unofficial results showed he had lost to Talpur. Qureshi alleged fraudulent counting.

Karachi, however, remains the main theatre of this last battle. Voters here openly accused the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that draws support from Urdu-speaking Partition immigrants from India, of rigging the polls. The MQM, in response, blames the Election Commission of Pakistan for mismanagement. After the protest rally at Teen Talwar, MQM chief Altaf Hussain issued a threat to those assembled there in an address over the telephone from London. Soon, Scotland Yard and other institutions were swamped with complaints by Pakistanis, demanding his arrest. Taking note, British MP George Galloway posted on his Facebook page that he had ‘called upon the Metropolitan Police to arrest Altaf Hussain, a British citizen living in London who leads an armed political party in Pakistan, MQM, on the grounds of incitement to murder. This follows televised threats to kill protesters in Karachi—made from a London studio.’

“NA 250 has become a battleground where the MQM’s strangulation of the city will begin to end,” says Omer Ghaznavi, “No one has ever challenged them in this city except the Jamaat-e-Islami. But today common people are saying that we want to vote and not be deprived.” Under intense media pressure, NA 250 may secure its right to vote again.

Tales of malpractice are getting around. One man to ask of his experience is Muhammad Ali, a 29-year-old who works at the front desk of an NGO in Karachi and commutes between Korangi and Defence for his job. Watching his higher ups engage in an intense discussion on the right to vote, his eyes light up. I ask him whether he voted. “No,” he says, “They came to my home and took my [National Identity Card]. They said they would vote for me.” He doesn’t name anyone, but everyone in Karachi knows who is guilty of NIC grabbing. I ask him who would he have voted for. “PTI,” he says. “If there were no PTI candidate, then I would vote for the MQM. But how can they say that they would exercise the right on my behalf? I want to make my own choice.”

No one reported any rigging in NA 254, Ali’s constituency. The media did not dare enter it. Voters, poor and disempowered, speak in feeble voices that high-pitched TV news networks do not catch. But results often speak louder than words. The MQM’s tally in Pakistan’s NA has gone down to 16.

Imran Khan has demanded a recount in 25 constituencies. His supporters refuse to accept that he lost in Lahore. With the Free and Fair Election Network’s report that 49 polling booths recorded more than 100 per cent voting, and EU election observers substantiating reports of rigging, calls for recounts and fresh elections in certain constituencies have gained an impetus.

From KPK to Karachi, Imran Khan’s PTI has made a beginning that might motivate many of his supporters to play a longer innings in politics. “Imran Khan may not have become king, but there is definitely a change in Pakistan,” an avid PTI supporter told me at a rally in Karachi.