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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.