Historic moment as Pakistan's elected civilian government completes full five year term

There are still challenges to be overcome, but merely surviving is something of an achievement.

 

This weekend saw a historic moment for Pakistan, as a democratically elected civilian government completed its full five year term for the first time ever. In the past, governments have been ousted by the military or by rivals. The moment passed relatively quietly, with a televised farewell address from the prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Sunday. In an understated address, he conceded that his government had not done enough during the last five years, but maintained that it had lessened the problems it had inherited. He also said that the historic completion of a full term marked the end of a “sinister chapter” of attacks on democracy. "We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm it in future," he said.

Many judge the government’s main achievement to be surviving at all. This was no small feat. At the beginning of the five year term, few observers thought that the leading coalition would last more than a year. Asif Ali Zardari was seen as an accidental president, who ended up in this position of power only because of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. While Zardari remains unpopular, he has gained a reputation as a canny politician and dealmaker, who kept an unruly coalition together against the odds, despite junior partners frequently breaking away or demanding greater concessions.

There has been a lot of focus on the negative legacy that this government has left behind. Pakistan is in the throes of an energy crisis, with power cuts plaguing large swathes of the country. (As I write this, from the capital city Islamabad, the power has gone off for the fourth time today). Terrorist violence has increased, not reduced, a trend which has not been helped by the lack of a coherent government anti-terrorism strategy. Attacks against religious minorities continue with impunity – from mob attacks against Christian communities to targeted militant violence against Shias. Economic growth is sluggish, while corruption is rife and tax bills low.

Yet on the flipside, the positives should not be overlooked. The level of media freedom enjoyed in the last five years has been unprecedented. Although there were some exceptions, in general, the political opposition and media organisations have been able to say what they want. This has resulted in a lot of mockery and criticism of the present government, to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the past. There have also been significant steps forward in the area of constitutional reform, with greater devolution of power to provincial governments and changes to improve electoral practice.

For months, rumours have circulated that the election will be delayed or cancelled altogether. While I was living in Karachi last year, practically every social gathering featured someone declaring that they knew the election wouldn’t be happening for some reason or another. This demonstrates deep-seated public disbelief that this moment would ever come to pass; a psyche borne of decades of last minute interceptions and power grabs.

The challenge is far from over. Now that the National Assembly has dissolved, the ruling parties are in the process of establishing a caretaker government which will run the country while the Election Commission gets things in order. Shoring up the security situation to reduce bloodshed from terrorist attacks during the polls will be a priority. The election schedule has not yet been announced and rumours still proliferate that the caretaker set up will be extended and elections held off for a year or even two.

The crucial point is that for all the misgivings about the present government, the Pakistani public will, for the first time ever, have the chance to express these feelings through the ballot box. The significance of that cannot be underestimated.

President Asif Ali Zardari. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.