Dr. Faisal BariMs. Bhutto and Maulana Fazlur Rahman have hinted that they are not convinced that elections should be boycotted as that would leave the field open for Muslim League-Q, and Musharraf will again have a Q-League government and without any effective opposition in the assemblies even. They have also hinted at the fact that they learnt their lessons about boycotts from the 1985 non-party election.
But this seems like a very strange argument to make. The two of them seem to be saying that even though we know that there is a martial law in the country, there is no independent judiciary or an independent election commission, there are no basic rights, there is no constitution, the whimsies of one person, backed by the military might of a standing army, is the law, and there is no hope even of things changing before elections, we should still go for elections. The hope that Ms. Bhutto is expressing, is of course, that though she knows she will not get a fair deal, but she would rather fight this election and then come into power and change the system from within.
This seems like a really bad and far fetched argument. If Musharraf is not willing to give all parties a fair shot at the polls now, why will he allow anyone to change anything if he is able to get quite a few Q-Leaguers in the assemblies? And if the hope is that Musharraf will become toothless once he gives up his uniform and then, only as a President, he can be dealt with, the hope is unfounded. What is going to stop the next General from playing the same game?
Even regarding the 1985 elections, it is not clear what lesson has Benazir learnt from it and if this was even the right lesson to learn. The boycott of the 1985 election did reduce the credibility of the election and it was only in 3 years that we were at polls again. And not only that, it was partially the 1985 boycott that allowed Benazir to make a significant comeback in the 1988 elections. But even more to the point, Benazir won in 1988, but came into power after making quite a few compromises, was she able to change the system then? Fighting elections under the present situation, when the system is totally stacked against politicians, even if she wins, will she be able to do anything at all?
Right now the world has seen and knows very clearly that this entire issue of imposition of martial law was wrong and misguided. And even though the US needs Musharraf to do its dirty work and kill more Pakistanis, it still cannot justify what Musharraf did 3 weeks ago. They, even if for form sake only, have to continuously say that martial law should be removed, and the constitution and basic rights restored. For the rest of the world, as expressed by the Commonwealth and even some individual countries, what Musharraf did was completely wrong. Surveys show that the majority of Pakistanis also think that the imposition of the martial law was unwarranted and unjustified. Under the circumstances if the bigger parties of Pakistan, PPP, PML-N, the Jamaat, JUI and so on, boycott the elections, and if elections go ahead under these circumstances, there will be no credibility for these elections anywhere in the world. Musharraf might succeed in bringing his selected group back in power, but it is very unlikely that that arrangement will work beyond a few days or a few months.
On a matter of principle too, if the aim is to get democratic rule established and entrenched in Pakistan, a boycott of the elections, under the present conditions, is the only choice open for political parties. If political parties agree to contest the elections under martial law, and with the judiciary as it is, they will only legitimize what Musharraf has done. As it is, just the fact that most parties have chosen to file nomination papers before deciding about the boycott, has led many people in the administration and the Q-League to say that this act of filing nomination papers implies that these parties have accepted the legality of what was done by Musharaf on November 3rd. If the parties go ahead and fight the elections, they will definitely legitimize the martial law. In fact, one of the first acts the incoming parliament will have to do, even before it can start functioning properly, will be to indemnify all actions taken by Musharraf. And they will have to do it because their own elections will also only be valid if they indemnify all other actions as well. This has been done by dictators before too, and it will be tried by other dictators in the future too. And as long as they can find enough collaborators, they will be able to get away with this. Do the current political parties want to give Musharraf this way out of the crisis?
A lot of people think that politics is 'the art of the possible' and it is all about expediency. But it is not clear what is meant by expediency here. If expediency just means that the sole aim of the game is to be a minister or a prime minister or to have some such title, then clearly, expediency dictates that all parties collaborate with Musharraf and not just contest elections but actually do so in coalition with Musharraf. If people know that a certain party has the backing of the agencies, the chances of that party winning seem to increase significantly. And what Q-League, Patriots and others did in 2002 was then the height of expediency and a pretty smart move. What MMA did to help pass the 17th Amendment also then makes sense: MMA had two governments in the provinces as well as the position of the leader of the opposition. But if this is the game, why do we need elections even? Why not have a Shoora of selected people?
If expediency is anything other than the very narrow objective of being in power tomorrow then certain principles will have to make their way into the calculus as well. If the objective of the politicians is to establish a system that creates a reasonably well functioning representative system that allows people some power to articulate their demands and some ability to elect people on that basis, then the foundational principles of such a system will have to be established for all and will have to be grounded beyond question. Rule based on a constitution and a judiciary that can effectively check to ensure that the constitution is being followed are the bare minimum for such a system. If these two are compromised, how do you know when some ground rules have been altered unfairly, and who would you appeal to for arbitration? This is the situation right now. There is no constitution, there is no rule of law, there are no judges one can appeal to and there is not even a free media around that can make the voices of the weak heard. How can going for elections under these conditions be taken as a way of strengthening democracy? Forgetting principles, even expediency, which is not just based on the aim of being in power, would dictate that boycotting the elections is the only way out of the current crisis.
If all political parties do not boycott the elections, and it is clear that Q-League and MQM are not going to boycott, those who do might have to pay a price for it for some time. Maybe this is not too high a price to pay for principles. If the larger parties, especially PML-N and PPP boycott the elections, the credibility of the process will suffer and the cost might not be very large for all. Even this cost seems to be high for some parties (Ms. Bhutto and the Maulana). But if the larger parties do not boycott the elections and accept the current conditions and then go to polls in January, the country will definitely lose big-time and for years and years to come. The choice for the politicians seems clear. Let us see how the game unfolds.