Symbols are often used in the elections of developing countries as an alternative to voting cards with lettering. Particularly in a country like Pakistan where the literacy rate is only 54 per cent, party symbols can help illiterate voters distinguish among parties and individual candidates. When Pakistan’s Election Commission (EC) allocated 144 symbols to the political parties contending the upcoming national elections in Pakistan, the country’s two oldest Islamist parties gained a small victory. Jamiat UIamae Islam, led by Fazlur Rehman, won the lottery by ‘the book’ as its symbol. On earlier occasions, they have utilized this opportunity to promote themselves on the grounds that that they indeed represent the word and spirit of the Holy Book.
To prevent this use, competing parties in Pakistan have sought to convince the EC that English letters should be printed on the book’s front cover instead. Otherwise the large percentage of illiterates in Pakistan could be easily seduced into believing that the symbol is indeed a holy symbol pointing them in the direction of the most pious party. The other Islamist party, Jamate Islami, was also allocated the symbol they applied for, namely the ‘scale’, a symbol that the wildcard of the upcoming election, the Pakistan Tehrike Insaf (PTI), so badly wanted because it is popularly related to what is in the very title of their party name, namely justice (insaf).
Despite these symbolic advantages, the Islamist parties should not expect a sweeping victory in the actual elections. They had their heydays immediately after the 2002 elections when they took over majority seats in two of Pakistan’s provinces, but never succeeded in securing popular credibility by addressing the vast socioeconomic challenges of the areas they governed. Instead, much points to the elections being for the most part a battle for power between the champion of the ruling coalition Pakistan People Party - led jointly by the husband and son of the late Benazir Bhutto - and the main opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League led by the erstwhile prime minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif.
The only significant contestation to a status quo election result, in which history repeats itself and the same corruption-charged feudal lords or family dynasties resume power, comes from the election wildcard, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI). At the same time, a huge balloon in the youth vote this time gives the upcoming elections a new slant.
The elections that take place on May 11 have been enthusiastically celebrated because they are seen as the first time a civilian government has lasted the whole five-year term (regardless of the fact that two of the governments’ prime ministers were actually disqualified by the Supreme Court). Pakistan since its establishment in 1947 has experienced an almost rhythmic pendulum between military and civilian rule. This time the army did not interfere directly in civilian rule and has apparently had their hands full dealing with the instability at the Af-Pak borderline, the insurgency of the Pakistani Taliban and separatist movements in Baluchistan, besides business-as-usual along the border to Indian-held Kashmir. Instead the Supreme Court headed by a renowned activist judge, has accused the civilian leadership of illegitimate activity on several occasions, ultimately leading to the disqualification of two of the governments’ prime ministers.
Reason for celebration
The real reason for celebration is therefore not that Pakistan has had a potentially corrupt, but highly resilient government that managed to stay glued to their chairs for almost five years. Whether there is a real reason to celebrate will depend on this election securing a new democratic discourse posing an alternative to what normally decides Pakistani elections: loyalty bonds to ethnic, feudal, tribal or family identity and patrimony. It would be refreshing for Pakistani democratic discourse if slogans of identity and the strong structure of patron-client relations defining previous elections were challenged by a competition in policies and visions for addressing Pakistan’s many political and societal traumas. One might well ask who has the most credible plan for driving the country out of crisis when it comes to unemployment, illiteracy, energy shortages and escalating violence.
The wildcard of the elections, the PTI, who have been happy to show that they actually have a bunch of policy papers behind their agenda, gives hope in the idea of a sprouting change in political culture. Still it is too early to say whether their supporters are actually drawn to them by their political strategies, or attracted by the charisma and blunt anti-corruption rhetoric of the former sports-star Imran Khan. Though he never managed to gain the same momentum earlier in his political carrier, Khan now occupies a rare but attractive political position from where he is both criticizing the fundamentalist forces of the country together with a too US-friendly establishment that according to his view, has compromised Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by condoning the use of US drones.
Whether we will witness a change in the normative political culture of Pakistan depends to a large degree on whether the new group of voters will vote on criteria other than the typical ones decided by kin or clientelism. Compared to the last elections in 2008, approximately 40 million new voters are registered on the voters’ list, the majority of them representing a very young generational cohort. Out of a total of 85.5 million voters on the voters’ list, this can potentially change the power balances of Pakistani party politics. But this is only if we assume that they will actually use their vote and are motivated by the need for change.
Observers say that we should also expect a rise in women voters, and that we are seeing a greater mobilization among women than earlier, probably due to the agenda-setting role of new legislation on issues concerning women and reforms in family law. This is interesting to note, since women voters have previously played a decisive role in Pakistan’s political history in paving the way for new political forces.
No doubt that change in political culture will take time, but small openings encourage optimism and hope. And again, sometimes optimism and hope are the exact ingredients needed to set off a self-fulfilling prophecy that actually leads to change. With more than a decade of wild headlines pointing to Pakistan’s manifold challenges, the more positive stories have remained hidden in the shadow of bullets and bombs. Nevertheless most Pakistani opinion makers seem to agree on the need for a ‘clean-up’ agenda. The judicial activism that intensified in 2007 with an agenda of putting limits on the military involvement in politics and ousting corrupt civil leaders from power, has given segments of Pakistani voters the idea that politics should be played by the rules. Not only has an independent election commission been appointed, but Pakistan’s constitution is repeatedly tested, evaluated and discussed. At the same time an institutional reform agenda has seen the light of day thanks to a consistent bottom-up pressure for change.
As a minor illustration of these small auguries, political parties are no longer frightened to be allocated the most despised symbol, the lota. A lota is a vessel that can be quite aesthetic, but this does not matter due to the task it is designed to fulfill: to cleanse the butt after a toilet visit. The image of the lota has finally been removed from the list of electoral symbols after some years of nobody wanting it as their symbol. Still it remains to be seen whether the elections will also bring about a change in what Pakistani political vocabulary describes as a lota, i.e. one who switches political party to ensure personal gain. In Pakistani politics lota’s are not rare, because politicians are not punished by voters if they change party for career purposes. On the contrary voters will typically stay loyal and follow the politician.
If the upcoming election can change this pattern, there will be reason to celebrate a democracy that is not just limited to those with wealth and social standing, but characterized by a competition between different policies and political visions for organizing society.