ISLAMABAD -- Pakistanis head to the polls Saturday to elect a new Parliament after five years of bitter disputes with the United States over bases for the Afghan Taliban, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the covert operation that killed Osama bin Laden. But those topics have been largely ignored in the election campaign.
Instead, this election season – the first time in the country’s history that elections have followed the completion of a civilian government’s term without a military coup – has been characterized by a growing sentiment among Pakistanis that casting votes is less about political preferences than it is about civic responsibility. The feeling is common that voting is the only way citizens can improve the country’s rotten system of governance.
Over the last five years, during Pakistan’s first full-term democratic government, voters have been subjected to a witch’s brew of civil wars, with Pakistani Taliban insurgents and ethnic Baluch separatists, that have cost 40,000 lives. The economy has crashed, consumer prices and unemployment have soared, and power and fuel remain in short supply.
The brunt of subsequent public anger has been borne by the coalition government of liberal political parties led by the Pakistan People’s Party of Asif Ali Zardari, the president. The administration’s reputation for corruption and its inability to get a grip on the job of governance had frequently found voice as public disenchantment with democracy.
However, there has been a marked shift in the national mood since March, when power was seamlessly transferred to a neutral caretaker administration and an election commission was tasked with overseeing the elections. McClatchy has asked dozens of Pakistanis, from all walks of life and across the country, whether they would vote or not. “Yes, certainly,” has been the overwhelming response, even from critics of democracy.
The underlying theme of responses from city residents, in particular, is that those choosing not to vote would lose the moral right to complain about the state of the country.
Indeed, there is a growing sense here that government has become accountable to public opinion, because of an apparent nexus between Pakistan’s judiciary, which became independent in 2009, and the country’s gaggle of cable news channels – Pakistanis’ favorite source of entertainment, according to audience ratings.
Together, the judiciary and the media have taken to describing the act of voting as a “national responsibility,” and that’s expected to positively affect voter turnout – traditionally less than 50 percent of those eligible, largely because of the lack of a national democratic habit, no surprise when historically the military has so frequently intervened.
Fears of another military coup had been sparked by an intense campaign of Taliban bombings against electioneering liberal party candidates in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, and the southern metropolis of Karachi, where two candidates were killed last week. The death toll rose to 95 Monday when a Taliban bomb killed 15 people attending a religious party candidate’s election rally in the Kurram tribal area.
But the coup fears were laid to rest last week by the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who in a rare public speech embraced the democratic process.