Boycotting in Pakistan: an act and pantomine

December 22, 2007 at 1:00 am (Pakistan)

An interesting element in Pakistani elections is boycotting or the threat thereof. Various parties or coalitions thereof threaten to boycott if certain measures are not met.

Some time ago, a political party threatened to boycott and went through with its threat. As might be expected, they lost all power and positions and clout in the political infrastructure of Pakistan (whereas before they enjoyed quite a bit of clout). It took them five years to return to some amount of clout and effective political involvement.

After Musharraf declared a state of emergency, when he scheduled national elections, many parties and political coalitions proclaimed that they will boycott the elections if Musharraf did not meet certain demands. (The exact demands varied by party but almost all included a point that he must revoke emergency rule.) What was interesting is that when the date came for parties to file their papers for running in the elections, many parties that were officially boycotting the elections filed their papers anyway. This was met with some opposition from more diehard political activists and members and from more insistent political parties.

But then practically every party and political coalition began holding high-level party leadership meetings to determine whether they will or will not boycott the elections. Most decided they will not boycott the elections, justifying their reversal of policy on the need of the party or coalition’s voice or perspective or involvement for the good of Pakistan.

But, really, no party in its right mind would boycott the elections because doing so only locks them out of the structure of power. And whereas foreign observers or states may care about the inclusion of various political factions, Pakistani politicians and authorities really don’t care. The fewer competitors, anyway, the better.

This whole boycotting campaign was waged to garner more international pressure on Musharraf. It was all a pantomine to get foreigners to do what Pakistani entities could not. This was also their attempt to threaten or pressure Musharraf. This is all based on the understanding of how important free, fair, and competitive elections are for international legitimacy. The hope was that by boycotting, the international community would find the elections to be illegitimate, thereby seriously weakening Musharraf’s standing with the international community. The hope was that Musharraf would do anything to prevent the elections from being seen as illegitimate (which would mean he and the entire government would be seen as illegitimate). The hope was that the international community would sternly warn Musharraf that he must rectify this situation in order for him and/or the Pakistani government to be supported by the international community.

Whether it worked or not is difficult to say. Musharraf made promises soon after declaring emergency rule, which he fulfilled. (This fact is quite remarkable, considering the tendencies of Pakistan’s political players.) It all depends on what Musharraf intended when he declared emergency rule and how international or domestic pressure may have influenced him.

However, consider this: Musharraf had promised on many occasions to pass on the baton of Chief of Army Staff, but he never did until recently. What changed?

I submit that because of emergency rule, Musharraf and his people were more in control of Pakistan’s political infrastructure, preventing any major detrimental or rebellious reaction from Pakistan’s civilian or military circles. Also, because his position as president had been solidified (albeit through a puppet Supreme Court, but I suppose this was the only way), it was safe for him to execute the transition from military and civilian chief to solely civilian chief. Once the major issues were taken care of, he rescinded emergency rule.

But the situation is not over yet. Some political factions in Pakistan want the former Chief Justice, who opposed Musharraf, back in the Supreme Court. Plus, Nawaz Sharif could still make a comeback. There are also eligibility questions regarding Sharif and Benazir Bhutto (both have ruled for two terms: can either rule for a third?). There is still ample room for instability and challenges. Let us see what transpires.

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