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.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.