The enduring violence of elections in Pakistan
Political violence motivated by power politics, ethnic considerations, religious differences, and confrontation between the governments and opposition parties is a regional trend with some variations, as caste, communal, and tribal factors also contribute. In recent decades, incidents of violence all over South Asia have remained pervasive, but the frequent surges of all forms of violence have taken a very heavy toll on common citizens and security forces in Pakistan. If we include the insurgency in Balochistan and terrorism, Pakistan has suffered the most after Afghanistan. The estimates run into 75,000 dead-- more than the total casualties of all the wars the country has fought with arch-rival India. At the root of the violence is a quest for power, staking claims over local resources, sectarian hatred, and the push for one ideology to shape society or influence state policies.
No other country within the proximate region has seen so much political violence for so long, and with as many entangled dimensions as Pakistan has. The main reasons are the lingering question of political legitimacy of the ruling classes, the ruthless contestation for power among ethnic and mainstream political parties, and the manipulation of political and other actors by state institutions. Interventions into democratic politics, the disruption of constitutional continuity and the creation of King’s parties, alongside participation in the ‘war on terror’ have fatigued state capacities to maintain political order. Unfortunately, even elected governments, in recent decades, have pursued a confrontational path with opposition parties, more than working out compromises and political settlements. Political attitudes, such as these, have generated an atmosphere of hostility among political leaders that go far beyond the normal boundaries of peaceful political contestation.
We see the root causes of political conflicts in Pakistan and beyond, not in democracy and elections by themselves, but in the permissive political culture of violence generated by hot-headed leaders. Much like terrorism, conflicts in the political arena have also explicit political purposes, from intimidating adversaries, establishing dominance to engaging in endless cycles of revenge. The motives behind political violence vary from one political theatre, city, and region to another. There also appear to be a few common factors among all South Asian societies: Rule-less politics driven by a flawed understanding of freedoms of expression and association that many groups and leaders use to push forward their political agendas. Societies have become overly politicized and polarized, which further weakens democratic norms of compromise, negotiated settlement and autonomy of constitutional institutions.
In spirit, elections in Pakistan are more in tune with feudal rivalry than a democratic contest. Such a political orientation sanctions the use of violent, criminal means to pursue political ends.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
All over South Asia, but more so in Pakistan, endless political confrontation between government and opposition parties has created space for violent actors of all types, besides giving rise to organized groups that routinely challenge the writ of the state and institutions by engaging in violent acts. Lawyers, doctors, students of colleges and universities, and more often, the political workers of parties have been engaged in violent acts with regular immunity that breeds more violence in the streets of the country.
The current phase of political confrontation is the continuation of a long cycle in which rivals have accused one another of stealing elections, pointing fingers at the establishment for ‘managing’ elections, and perpetually creating a legitimacy crisis. The fundamental means of settling political disputes in a democracy has become controversial.
But there is another side to it. In this power-oriented feudal society, winning elections is about claiming honor for individuals, extending circles of influence, and relishing the defeat of political rivals. In spirit, elections in Pakistan are more in tune with feudal rivalry than a democratic contest. Such a political orientation sanctions the use of violent, criminal means to pursue political ends.
In this climate of simmering conflict where the stakes are so high and divisions so deep, violence in the forthcoming elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) cannot be ruled out.
During the past several rounds of elections, we have seen individuals and parties using coercion, intimidation, targeted assassinations, physical assaults and engaging in mob violence.
While states in South Asia have succeeded in crushing, destroying, or constraining violent groups like Maoists, Tamil Tigers and the TTP, they continue to fail in preventing electoral violence, mainly due to multiple polarities and the shallow roots of their democratic values and culture.
— Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).