Nothing preoccupies Pakistanis as political transitions. Whether it’s the political pendulum swinging more familiarly from military rule to a democratic dispensation or the passing of the baton between two democratic tenures, the country is decidedly less acquainted with the latter. But it is coming slowly to terms with this welcome phenomenon grounded in more procedural normative.
The latest transition is discernibly shifting into high gear with elections due next year. It is now clear that the coming denouement of the Panamagate scandal will serve as the nucleus around which the latest transitions in the national political evolution will take shape.
The stakes are high. This is not going to be merely a transition between two democratic mandates. There are transitions within transitions shaping up that are expected to firm up a new playbook that will determine a newer national political course. In all, there are at least five kinds of transitions shaping up. While these will be separate milestones, they’re all interconnected.
The primary transition will be the incumbent federal parliament and provincial legislatures completing their five-year tenures. Because Pakistani provinces are ruled by different parties, it’s hard to imagine them dissolving their government even if Panamagate somehow devours the prime minister.
Therefore, it will be only the second time that tenures will be completed in Pakistan’s 70 years. The federal and provincial legislatures completed their full tenures for the first time in 2013. This key political accomplishment was the bedrock on which the upcoming primary transition is built. In that sense, this is a consolidation of the political process that helped Pakistan transition from the last bout of military rule in 2008 to a popular democracy.
The second type of political transition shaping up is a value addition on the first — multi-party accountability. In 2013 Pakistani electorates disdainfully shrugged off the constant propaganda against politics and politicians nurtured by anti-democratic forces through a willing partner, the media, and gave the most pluralistic political mandate in the country’s history. The people voted Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N in Punjab and at the Centre, Asif Zardari’s PPP in Sindh, Imran Khan’s PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a combination of parties in Balochistan led by National Party. This was unique in the sense that the principal political players were given simultaneous dual roles of ruling party and opposition party at differing levels.
Now with the parties in their fifth year of governance, each will no longer be judged by the electorate based on their opposition to another party but rather on the basis of their own governance in their political domain. This will be the closest Pakistan could be to a performance-based pluralistic judgment rather than a traditional black-and-white ‘us’ versus ‘them’ evaluation. This means a consolidation of local-interest politics, which should have been a natural template for Pakistan’s plural polity but wasn’t because of the overt centralisation preferred by the country’s establishment.
The third type of transition profiling up is the procedural quality of electoral politics. In a departure from the past, this is manifested in two ways. The first is a now unanimous set of comprehensive electoral reforms underwritten by parliament that seeks to bring a sea change in the mechanics of holding elections to deal with both real and perceived manipulation of the election process that has contributed to a trust deficit in the election results.
Yes, parties, including the PTI, have hummed and hawed in cobbling up the monstrous electoral reforms package — arguably equal in significance to the landmark 18th Amendment that on a policy and practice level sizably decentralised governance in Pakistan — but the package is all but ready for passage over the next few months. This will vastly improve election management, injecting greater transparency and trust in the system underwritten by all parties.
The second is a seeming abandonment of violent street politics and blatant thuggery — as epitomised in the PTI dharna of 2014 — in undermining political mandates of others and, instead, resort (even if reluctantly) to procedural settlement of disputes: legal recourse. While a failure to settle political disputes through dialogue and legislatures is still reflective of the shortcomings of the political culture in the country, at least this is a small step forward, and also has the side-result of unmasking the role of judiciary by putting it under the spotlight.
The fourth type of transition coming about is the changing political demography. With the first census expected to complete in about two decades and preliminary results expected in a few weeks, the political landscape will finally make Pakistan a mostly urban state. This translates into a more vociferous citizenry and a greater focus on service delivery. The age bracket of the bulk of the country’s voters will also go down dramatically and put in their hands the fates of the country’s mostly ageing political parties that are struggling to make their mission and message relevant to the rapidly changing times. These urban voters will force far-reaching changes in the structures and representation of the political parties and push them into a reform phase that has been long overdue.
Finally, the fifth category of transition is one shaping up within the political parties themselves, the engine of the political system. The old guard seems to be overwhelmed, fatigued and increasingly losing touch with a new, youthful, urban, wired Pakistani electorate who are not interested in ideologies but upward mobility and service delivery. The leaders of the three largest players of the next elections, Nawaz Sharif will be 68 years in the election year next year, Shahbaz Sharif 66, Asif Zardari 63 and Imran Khan 66. Theoretically if they become prime minister and get to rule a full tenure they will be 73 years (Nawaz), 71 (Shahbaz), 68 (Zardari) and 71 (Imran) by the time they are done.
The national leadership is becoming septuagenarian and the rigours of politics in a rapidly changing Pakistan is making them irrelevant by the day. The 2018 elections are their last chance at glory. Even if they continue to hold court in popular imagination, it’s hard to see them on the political horizon for more than a few years more. Change is inevitable, and the old have to give way to the quinquagenarian, or younger!
The intra-party leadership agenda is already on the table. While it’s probably too much to expect a de-dynasticisation of Pakistan’s political parties in the immediate future — witness Bilawal on the up in PPP and Maryam in PML-N — even if the parties go into elections with their current ageing leadership, the change of guard will happen sooner rather than later for sure.
The elections in 2018 will, thus, not be an ordinary milestone. The accumulative effect of these five types of transitions will, in all probability, take Pakistan into a newer, better direction. Naya Pakistan, finally!