Set a date
IT’S time for the government to announce an election date, and not just to silence political opponents calling for change and a population dissatisfied with the current administration’s chronically poor governance. Even more important is the need to fend off forces that seem eager not to let the last elections lead seamlessly to the next. The political rumour mills are churning once again, this time about whether or not polls will be allowed to proceed on time. As much as this may be dismissed as unreliable gossip, recent developments make it hard to escape the conclusion that an environment is being created in which the usual complaints against civilian governments — corruption, incompetence, economic mismanagement — could be used to postpone a democratic transition.
The theory that those currently at the helm of Pakistan’s key institutions aren’t in favour of an outright military takeover doesn’t rule out more subtle moves. An interruption could well be more restrained this time around: delay polls while still keeping civilians at the helm by installing a caretaker government of technocrats, for example, and getting the judiciary to bless the move as being within the bounds of even the updated and more democracy-friendly constitution. What will not be new are the arguments that will be made to defend such a move: the need to stabilise the country, particularly on the economic and law and order fronts, by taking a break from ineffective and dishonest politicians.
None of this is to say that our politicians are not, in fact, ineffective and dishonest. But the alternatives have been tried before, multiple times, and they have failed. More importantly, the answer to Pakistan’s problems is not to deprive its citizens of the right to build up a democratic system, however slowly and painfully, that will eventually hold those politicians accountable. The answer is to get out of the way so that this country can truly embark on the long-term project of creating a sustainable democracy that responds to the people’s needs. From leaks and revelations about corruption and tax evasion to calls for delimitation in the tinderbox that is Karachi and businessmen calling for military interventions, several potential disruptions seem to have sprung up at the same time. In a moment like this, politicians, particularly in Karachi, need to avoid playing into the hands of those who may be out to delay elections. And whether or not it decides to complete its full tenure, the government needs to consult immediately with its coalition partners and the opposition on a date for elections, and announce it as soon as possible.