Friday Jun 17 2022

Only way forward: A free and fair election

Woman casting her vote during 2018 General Elections — AFP
Woman casting her vote during 2018 General Elections — AFP

The ballot box is the surest arbiter of disputes among free men. The inherent loathing of this idea by the real power-wielders in the country has brought us to our knees. The economy is in tatters, the common man’s prosperity is at risk and polarisation is peaking not only amongst the people but also within those who by the very nature of their constitutional obligations are supposed to be apolitical.

By the time we held our first-ever direct elections (23 years after Independence), India had already had four and was firmly set on a democratic path. The dividends that India is reaping today of being an emerging economic powerhouse are owed to this continuity. The path that we chose on the other side of the fence, however, was of denial and manipulation of this tradition. The election results in 1970 had churned a perfect solution to the simmering discontent and disputes within our society then, only if they were respected and accepted. The denial of the people’s mandate carried a clear message for the men and women of Bangladesh: that they were not free — and nothing stirs a man or a woman more than the cry for freedom!

One would think that this tragic experience in our history would settle the question of interference in matters political; instead it resulted in the opposite and sadly increased loathing for the political and democratic process. We are well aware of the strong imprint undemocratic interventions have had on our political and electoral process. Bhutto’s elected government was dismissed in a coup, political parties were banned from participation in the elections held in 1985, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto was denied her fair right in the 1988 elections, the IJI was created as a check on her popularity and to win the elections in 1990, Nawaz Sharif after his rebellious speech “mein dictation nahin loon ga” was chucked out in 1993 and with other examples between then and now the whole political process has been nothing but a story of misfortune wrought upon us by none but our own hands. Imagine how different our journey would have been if you and I were allowed to express our choices freely from day one without any manipulation, fear or hindrance.

What happened in 2018 is no secret either. The process of manipulating results had begun much before the PML-N's term came to an end. Still, when desired victory was nowhere in sight, the RTS mysteriously failed only to reboot and start flashing results after midnight. Who on earth would ignore and let this pass as an innocent malfunction? The opposition parties were right to cry foul then and the events that unfolded right up till the no-confidence motion shook the system to the core. If it wasn’t for the Supreme Court, constitutional collapse was imminent as was the crossing of the Rubicon!

So what now and where do we head from here? In my view, the infighting between the political, military and judicial elite of this country and our inability to solve our disputes – the most fundamental being: who is going to run this country — has brought us to the point where the possibility of descent into economic collapse sooner or later is actually real. Events in the region only delayed this inevitability and with the Afghan shop closed, we are like a deer caught in the headlights. Lenders are running out of patience and dictating tough terms – as are our all-weather friends – and even if a few billion dollars are scraped together from here or there, how long would they last? A few months of temporary fiscal space and then back to square one.

If there is one reform that is needed to arrest the present situation and save this sinking ship with 220 million souls on it, then it has to be the mother of all reforms: free and fair elections. A government with a fresh mandate should then negotiate with the IMF for a five-year haul as opposed to a government that is barely left with fifteen months in office. We cannot promise any fiscal measures beyond our term and rather than secure money just to stay afloat for a few months, a long-term fiscal plan should be worked out with the IMF to take the economy out of the ICU and put it back on track in a meaningful manner.

The bottom line is that Pakistan’s viability as a security state has run its course, unless Ghana one fine day wakes up from its imperial slumber and decides to invade Afghanistan! The reason we are finding it difficult to convince lenders (financial institutions or friendly countries) to dole out money is the hardening of American attitudes after the fall of Kabul last year. Perhaps there’s no realization to begin with – or even if there is, we fail to fathom the real impact those horrifying images of people falling from the sky have had on the American public and their establishment.

To put it in context, Nick Ut’s one picture taken on the 8th of June, 1972 in Vietnam changed the whole mood in the US. Young, naked, and burnt children running away from the heat of napalm bombs shook the American public and caused outrage against the Vietnam war. Images from Kabul on that fateful day last year did just that!

The writer is a lawyer with a keen interest in history and politics.

Originally published in The News