Opinion: Will Pakistan Vote for a New Direction?

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan waves a cricket bat, his party’s election symbol, at a May 6 rally in the eastern Pakistan city of Sialkot. (Photo via Insaf.pk)

Pakistan’s bloody journey to the May 11 elections will end in a few hours. Taliban-instigated violence has so far claimed over 110 lives amid fears of more bloodshed. The world is anxiously watching this virtual war between left- and right-leaning democrats on the one side and violent extremists, separatists and foreign proxies on the other. At stake is not just the control of parliamentary institutions, which will give birth to a new government, but the direction the country is headed into.

A public opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center on May 7 best reflects the public mood. The poll found that 91 percent of Pakistanis are dissatisfied with the current direction of the country. The 1,201 people polled identified crime, terrorism and economic hardships as the top three challenges in their lives. Pew said for the first since it began polling on these issues, Pakistanis have started considering the Taliban as big a threat as India.

The poll results clearly show the proclivity of Pakistani voters towards a break of the status quo. They are not happy with the current policy, if any, to tackle the menace of terrorism and economic degradation. The popular mood is in sharp contrast to the focus of much of the electioneering leading up to May 11, during which political parties promised voters greener pastures. In theory, their emphasis on ending crippling power outages and corruption, reviving the tattering economy and reforming the broken education system made perfect sense. But in practice, militancy and terrorism may not allow the winner to deliver on any of these promises.

Despite being historic, the 2013 elections may not have opened public debate on Pakistan’s much-desired national security strategy or settle the question of ownership of Pakistan’s war against terrorism – “Is it ours or America’s war?” goes the popular confusion over the fight against the Taliban. This disorientation about the ownership of the war is one of the reasons for Pakistan’s failure to cripple the ugly face of terrorism. This indecisiveness has given a virtual pass to the bad guys to hijack an entire nation to the extent of political maneuvering through violence, which may dictate results in some constituencies.

Peace may remain a far cry, if Pakistani voters give their mandate only to the blurry roadmaps for ending corruption and the energy crisis and reviving the economy. Without addressing national security, solid progress on the economic front is impossible. But major political players have failed to address it. This failure has left voters distracted and confused.

Consider the voting pattern if all parties had been grilled on the question of war or peace with the Taliban. It would have generated more healthy national debate on how to deal with extremists and given a sense of new direction in dealing with the monster. It would have forced the political parties to come up and defend their competing plans for restoring peace in restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the southwestern Balochistan province and the port city of Karachi.

The assumed front-runners in the elections never felt the pressure of coming up with something tangible for dealing with militancy. No wonder, they are offering vague anti-terrorism policies. For example, in its 110-page manifesto, the PML-N party of two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has dedicated just two pages to “militancy and terrorism.” Interestingly the subject appears in 13th place in what appears to be the manifesto’s list of policy priorities.

On the contrary, the manifesto of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan is pretty clear on reaching out to militants in FATA and Balochistan for dialogue, with the precondition that they lay down their arms. But the biggest flaw in its vision is the promise of “pulling Pakistan out of America’s war on terror.” It offers little details as to how PTI will complete this extrication, especially after Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani’s recent declaration that it’s Pakistan’s war. It will be a challenge for Khan to sell his plan for dialogue with the Taliban to the military.

Pakistani voters have to understand that only peace can ensure prosperity. Their vote should go to the parties whose priority is restoration of peace and offer a realistic economic agenda. Violent extremists may not stop defying and mocking the state by continuing their bloody campaign on Election Day. But it should not deter the Pakistani voters in their response. No matter which party wins them, high voter turnout would be the most lethal weapon to defeat the murderous ideology of those who want to push the country into the Stone Age. This surely will be Pakistan’s first step in a new direction towards better democracy and defeating terrorism.

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