Pressing Electoral Issues
By Shireen M Mazari

With the return of the Sharifs, the political tools all seem to be in place for a post-electoral change in Pakistan but will we be moving back to the old or forward to a more dynamic and truly new political landscape? Of course, the terrorist attacks targeting the military in Rawalpindi last Saturday have shown clearly that in many ways our operative environment has altered qualitatively and security considerations will have to be part of the new political culture. Equally threatening is the new intrusiveness of external actors in Pakistan's affairs… Meanwhile, it is good to see the playing field beginning to level out with the arrival of the Sharifs. With everyone filing nomination papers, it would appear that those choosing to boycott the elections may well find themselves pushed to the margins till the next elections. Unless the major parties had resolutely chosen to go the boycott route, this tool becomes only marginally relevant at a time when the nation may well be looking in wistful hope to new faces of leadership coming to the fore. In any case, it seems things will remain fluid for some time and a new dynamic will really begin to emerge after the swearing in of Mr. Musharraf as President. However, with the commencement of the electoral process, some questions are already becoming crucial. For instance, will the lawyers' and civil societies' movements for restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary and the free media be pushed into the background in the face of the electioneering process? Or will the political parties take up these issues as central part of their campaigning? Traditionally, in Pakistan elections have tended to focus on personalities rather than programs and issues, so can civil society alter the political culture this time round? Given the crude manner in which powers like the US have intervened in our domestic issues, will foreign policy find any space in our electoral campaigns this time round? Have the political parties given serious thought to the war on terror and its dynamics? Given vested interests, will any political party commit itself to the destruction of food mafias like the wheat and sugar mafias that are destroying our agricultural sector? So many issues come to mind, but which escape the radar screens of the campaigning political parties -- especially issues relating to our external environment. That is why our foreign policy tends to be left to jaded bureaucrats, both civilian and military, and often times it tends to follow paths totally out of synch with the nation. And there are important developments taking place in and around us today, which will impact us substantively in the years to come. There is the Middle East Conference that has now begun in Annapolis with the Arab World participating alongside Israel, the Palestinians and, according to last reports from Islamabad, Pakistan. This is the Bush Administration's effort to try and convince the world that it is seeking a lasting peace in the Middle East despite having wrecked the region with its invasion of Iraq and its deliberate policy of denying the democratic representatives of the Palestinian people, Hamas, their right to represent their people. So at a very basic level this Annapolis conference is a way to once again circumvent the democratic expression of the Palestinian people. Interestingly, Syria has also sent a delegate and reflects its efforts to deflect US targeting of the country. Saudi Arabia is also participating and this is being seen as a major success for the US. Of course, participation by the rich Arab states is crucial for any such conference given that they will be expected to financially underwrite any agreements that may come about. Of course the political script will be the prerogative of the US and Israel unless the Arabs can, for once, use their financial power to affect the political script. For the sake of bringing the suffering of the Palestinians to an end, especially in Gaza, one hopes that this conference can produce something substantive in terms of movement towards a just solution to the Palestinian conflict but there are some key issues on which it is unlikely Israel will show any flexibility. These include the question of Jerusalem, the issue of Palestinian refugees, the Israeli settlements and the illegal Wall, and then the ultimate question of what the boundaries of the Palestinian state will be. Then of course there is the issue of Israel's military presence around and over this Palestinian state? While none of these questions may find a just and acceptable answer, the one thing the conference has achieved is de facto recognition of Israel from states like Saudi Arabia since Israel is a central participant in this conference. That in itself will have been a substantive achievement for the US at a time when it knows that peace cannot come to the Middle East as long as its devastation of Iraq continues. Finally, the Conference also seeks to leave Iran out of the Middle East equation at a time when its influence there has grown. For all these reasons, what happens in Annapolis will impact Pakistan also ... An even more pressing issue for Pakistan is going to be the security, especially of its nuclear assets. Ms Bhutto has already shown how, in her passion for the US, she is prepared to give unprecedented access to that country in terms of allowing US forces access into Pakistan and in terms of handing over Dr Khan to the IAEA -- even though the latter has never made such a demand. Only the US continues to make this demand even as it creates an environment of fear around our nukes! Therefore, most important, will the new democratic dispensation review the whole gamut of US-Pakistan relations in the wake of the ground realities of an Indo-US strategic partnership and the substantive differences that exist between our national strategic interests and those of the US in this region? Now that we have a revitalized civil society that has shown its dynamism in standing up for its rights, will that same civil society sustain its dynamism and confront the political parties and individual political aspirants into taking positions on issues? Whether it is domestic issues like the independence of the judiciary and media, or foreign policy issues. If our march to democracy is to be worthy of the sacrifice of so many ordinary people then civil society must raise issues for the political leaders. It is not enough that these leaders use emotions and charisma to get elected. For once we must know their stand on issues central to the polity. This is where the independent media is so crucial and why it must be restored with no preconditions if the electoral process is to become meaningful. Let us not accept simply the façade of democracy but struggle for the essence of democracy, which can now be within our grasp. Perhaps never before has civil society been so crucial in deciding its own fate. (The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)
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