As today’s nationwide general election approached, it was impossible for me to avoid the question that had become more common small talk than the humid monsoon weather.
Who are you voting for?
The political atmosphere of Pakistan, while always strained, is more tense than ever after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. He also led the winning political party of the last elections in 2013, the Pakistan Muslim League.
Today, Pakistan stands on the verge of its next elected government. And even though I voted in a small re-election in 2015, this will be my first time voting with about 10 million other registered voters in hope of a better future for our country.
There’s just one catch. I don’t know who to vote for.
A quick recap of history will show why none of the options seems good.
Out of the three major political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and the Pakistan People’s Party – Pakistan has elected and tested two of them as federal governments.
In the 71 years since Pakistan was separated from India and became independent, no single prime minister has completed their 5-year term, and only the last two federal governments have completed their constitutional terms.
So only in the last decade, has Pakistan seen success as a democracy. Before that, martial law or a dissolution of the national assembly, had derailed the government.
The first of these successful governments, which was in power from 2008 to 2013 under Asif Ali Zardari, was formed by Pakistan People’s Party. The founder of this party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was very popular among people for his socialist policies, but he was executed in 1979 for the alleged murder of a political rival.
Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, inherited the leadership and became the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim nation in 1988. She served two terms but then spent years in self-imposed exile. After her return to Pakistan in 2007, she was assassinated during a procession and then Zardari, who was her husband, became leader of the party and eventually president of Pakistan.
Now, Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto – grandson of the party founder – is running for office. He has spent most of his life abroad, and many people worry that they cannot trust him to find solutions for Pakistan as he can’t relate to them. He is widely ridiculed, especially in Punjab, the most populous province.
Although the ideology of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party is very clear, and its policies are liberal, it failed to perform when Zardari was elected. In its 5-year term, the populace grew weary and annoyed of empty promises and the government’s failure to deliver. Moreover, the party has clearly lost vision of what true democracy is, and it has become a kingdom that can only be inherited by the current leader’s child or family member.
The Pakistan Muslim League’s turn came in 2013, during which the province of Punjab, and its capital Lahore was transformed into what one party leader called the “Paris of Pakistan.”
Although accused of heavy corruption and of using low-quality construction material, that government’s efforts to find solutions to transportation and traffic problems can’t be denied. A metro bus system was put in place, a new train line was planned and many underpasses and flyovers were constructed. Other than that, some positive women’s empowerment programs were also put in place and the city became much cleaner, though the new garbage trucks were Turkish imports and did not help local employment.
However, despite denying any allegations of corruption again and again, a few of the party leaders and the prime minister himself were tried in courts, convicted, and put in jail for it. The government focused all its energies only on Punjab and dismissed other provinces.
While the government supported progress in technology, an environmental policy was non-existent. Unemployment rates never decreased. Lastly, knowing that monsoon rains bring excess amounts of water every year, the government failed to provide a solution to the irrigation and flooding problems the country faced.
After five years, the ex-prime minister is in jail, but hundreds of banners still support him, his brother and his son. Millions of people are chanting slogans to save him and his convicted daughter from jail.
Pakistan now stands at a crossroads where the only sensible choice seems to be the one we haven’t tried. That’s where Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, comes in.
Anyone who considered themselves even relatively liberal, was going to vote for Khan’s party. It promised a corruption-free system beneficial to all citizens as compared to other parties that favored the feudal system, provincialism or radical religious beliefs.
Almost all demographics of the population of Pakistan were once thrilled by the slogans of “Tabdeeli” (revolution) by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. The party, which gained popularity among youth, is now becoming less popular due to their own actions.
In 2013, Khan’s party formed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the government in the northern province of Pakistan. During their tenure, this government accomplished the task of creating mobile courts and passed proper legislation to reform the police force as they promised. But this year the party’s campaign seemed to focus more on bringing down its opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League, and celebrating the conviction of the prime minister rather than bringing about change and working to improve the country. Their attitudes were petty and their language turned foul, and supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League were abused.
The other objection people have is that Khan – the face of all this talk about a brighter future – attended only 40 sittings of the Parliament of Pakistan out of a total 468 sittings. That shows a clear disrespect for the democratic processes and lawmaking.
In addition, when a Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill was presented, Khan’s party sent it to the Council of Islamic Ideology to make sure that there would be no controversy later, and that the bill was compliant with the Islamic principles.
But the Council of Islamic Ideology opposed a similar bill passed in the Punjab Assembly, claiming it was against our cultural and religious family values. They drew up their own bill, according to so-called Islamic traditions of family and respect, that allowed men to “lightly beat” their wives. If this is the bright future Khan promises me by voting for him, I’d like to politely decline.
My only other choices are independent candidates or religious parties that claim I will go to heaven by voting for them. It confuses me greatly that instead of being excited for Election Day, the first vote I cast will be heavy with nerves and a lack of trust in the political leaders who will pretty much control my future for the next five years.
Arooj Khalid is a Senior Correspondent for Youth Journalism International.