Will polls on Feb 8 free prisoner 77?

Between hope and despair, the country heads to elections

ISLAMABAD  -  In the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, Imran Khan was the frontrunner, and the electoral field was winnowed in the fa­vor of his political party by the then powers that be. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from hold­ing public office after a controversial judicial process. Now, in one of the most extraordinary turn-arounds of political fortunes, the picture is inverted. Khan is behind bars, with questions hanging over his speedy convictions. Sharif is the frontrunner, aiming to be the prime minister for a record fourth time in the country’s check­ered political history.

The similarities in the two scenarios are uncan­ny, but a lot has changed as well.

There is a popular wave of discontent among a large section of society. The political process has lost its shine. The estab­lishment has further en­trenched itself. Polariza­tion in society has become acute and poisonous. The room for political dialogue and reconciliation has shrunk. Hope for a better tomorrow is eclipsed by the despair of today.

Will the results of the February 8 polls change these grim realities?

Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, seems to be the favorite to form the gov­ernment in Islamabad and Lahore. Although Sharif made a slow start on the campaign trail, he hit an optimistic and energized note as he concluded the canvass­ing earlier this week. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his political heiress, even offered an olive branch to the rivals, a welcome move in the current po­litical environment of heightened and charged emotions. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has led a sus­tained and organized campaign, yet many ana­lysts believe it may not be enough to win over Punjab’s voters, which is essential for forming a central government. A victory for Sharif can only be prevented by a surge of pro-Khan vot­ers, leading to unprec­edented voter turnout and upending all politi­cal forecasts. 

A wild card is the po­tential for a large num­ber of wins by indepen­dent candidates, which Asif Ali Zardari could later capitalize on. By Thursday afternoon, it will become clear wheth­er the widely discussed tidal wave was a reality or merely wishful pro­paganda by the adept and sharp social media campaign managers of PTI. If a high pro-Khan voter turnout remains a pipe dream, his passion­ate followers will quickly move to an even more potent campaign, com­plaining of rigging and electoral fraud. 

The powerful quar­ters in Islamabad and its neighboring city feel that such clamoring, no matter how loud, will soon ring out. They feel that Khan and his sup­porters now lack the power and strength to disrupt the system; the biggest challenge came on May 9 last year, when a large number of mili­tary installations were targeted by Khan’s sup­porters, incensed over his arrest. Now, most of them are paying a heavy price, either in the form of military trials or re­moval from the electoral field. Khan remains pop­ular but can only extri­cate himself after a deal, which seems distant.

For the winner of the February 8 polls, the taste of vic­tory will be short-lived, though. The incoming government faces an uphill—some would say im­possible—task.

The next government will be constantly hounded by ques­tions about legitimacy and credibility, and the perenni­al challenges of the economy and security will loom large. The risk of economic default was precariously sidestepped in recent months, but the de­pendence on foreign aid means a rocky path ahead. There are no solutions available to fix the economy without further in­flicting pain on an already ema­ciated public. The public is still reeling from the pain of auster­ity measures. Inflation and sky­rocketing utility bills remain a key concern. At the same time, there is an uptick in terrorist attacks, with 2023 marking the deadliest year in six years. The aftermath of the catastrophic 2022 floods, a reminder of cli­mate change that affected mil­lions, poses another urgent concern for effective gover­nance. And there is no respite available on the foreign poli­cy front. The western flank is now riddled with tensions; the Afghan Taliban are disgrun­tled, and the brief cross-border skirmish with Iran has added a new layer to security challeng­es. The eastern front has been quiet for some time, but yet an­other Modi win in the upcoming Indian elections can also lead to a more jingoistic approach from the archival. While many will remain fixated on the troubles of prisoner number 804 in Adi­ala, it is really prisoner number 77, the common man stuck in a vicious political and economic cycle for the past 77 years, who needs to be freed of his con­stant misery.

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