Frustrated constituents

Rude (political) awakening

After militant threats in 2013 electioneering, politicians now face hostile voters

Violence has been an unfortunate feature of Pakistani politics over the past few decades. In the past few months, as the country shifted into election mode, political violence has once again reared its ugly head, with a series of verbal and physical attacks on politicians.

Electoral violence in Pakistan has historically been driven by separatists in volatile regions, where assassination attempts were carried out on politicians, political rallies were bombed, riots were staged, and the offices of political parties were vandalised.

Religious extremists also targeted, intimidated, threatened, and harassed politicians, most notably during the 2013 elections, when candidates of the two major left-leaning parties, the PPP and ANP, were not allowed by religious extremists to conduct any real electioneering.

While militants have been reined in to a great extent since 2013 thanks to a series of military operations, a new threat of election violence has come to the fore.

The past five years, which saw a substantial decrease in terrorist violence across the country, have been characterised by riots, protests, shifting political loyalties, and religious sloganeering. Towards the end of the PML-N government's term, these tendencies appeared to have gathered even more steam.

In March 2018, former foreign minister Khawaja Asif was addressing a PML-N workers' convention in Sialkot when a man threw black ink on his face. The same month, two men were arrested for attempting to hurl shoes at former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at a madrassah in Lahore. In the most heinous pre-election incident in May, then-interior minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot and injured by a religious zealot in Narowal.

Sunday's attack on the convoy of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was the latest election-related incident of violence. Protesters — mostly youngsters — stopped Bilawal's motorcade in Bihar Colony in Lyari and began pelting stones, damaging multiple vehicles and leaving several PPP workers injured in the chaos.

More recently, PML-N leader Jamal Khan Leghari was confronted by angry voters as he visited his constituency. They blocked his route and angrily questioned him over "his dismal performance" in the constituency. On June 24, former minister Sikander Bosan was also left red-faced when his constituents barred him from even entering his constituency on a campaign visit. Locals claimed Bosan had failed to visit his constituency while he was serving as their representative.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Khurram Sher Zaman was surrounded by furious voters in late June as he campaigned for re-election from Karachi, as small businessmen asked him to put more effort into serving his constituents. PTI leader Arif Alvi went through a similar experience, as he tried to brush aside voter questions while visiting his constituency.

Some analysts referred to it as a "political awakening" on the part of voters, but mainstream political parties said it is a dangerous trend which may have serious consequences in the future.

Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at the LUMS Humanities and Social Sciences Department, is of the opinion that the rise in the number of incidents where people stood up and questioned their leaders is a refreshing new trend in Pakistan.

"This actually represents an awakening of the youth, which has started to question the traditional loyalties based on tribal, cast, and feudal hierarchies," he said.

Dr Rais adds that people want freedom, respect and equality, which could only be guaranteed by a responsible and responsive government.

"The questioning shows the remarkable capacity of the lower sections of the population to question leaders," he noted.

The professor praised the media for empowering people to stand up to the ruling class, explaining that the recent incidents indicate the frustration of the lower classes of the rural and urban masses in Pakistan which often goes unreported.

Columnist and political analyst Zahid Hussain also believes that these incidents are actually motivated by the frustration by voters, but he condemned the method. "One can clearly see that people are frustrated and angry, but violence in any shape or form must be vehemently condemned," he said of the attack on Bilawal's convoy.

"The PPP has been in power in Sindh for the last decade, and during that time, conditions in Lyari, which has been beset by poverty, gang wars, and water woes, is well-documented," he told The Express Tribune.

Hussain noted that the PPP needed to learn from the incident, and take some time to introspect whether the promises they made to the people of Lyari had been fulfilled.

Some politicians said accountability of politicians is a right of voters, but it should be done in a respectable manner. Raja Zafarul Haq, the leader of the house in the Senate and the PML-N chairman, says everyone has a right to question political leaders over their performance.

"Leaders and voters can actually engage in a meaningful manner through question-and-answer sessions, provided these are held in a respectable manner," he told The Express Tribune. Incidents of verbal abuse and violence against politicians do not bode well for democracy, he added.

"Imran Khan is responsible for these dangerous new trends in politics," Haq said, accusing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief of instigating his supporters with inflammatory speeches. "People have a right to question their leaders, but violence is simply unacceptable," Haq remarked.

Sherry Rehman, leader of the opposition in the Senate and a senior PPP leader, said protesting is a legitimate political right, but resorting to violence as a form of political expression is unacceptable.

She reminded that the 2008 PPP government had allowed people to stage protests as it is their democratic right. "There were rallies and sit-ins in the capital during our tenure. But we dealt with the situation in a peaceful manner, and provided security, food and water to protesters," she said, in a veiled reference to the poor management of the 2014 PTI sit-in by the PML-N government.

Rehman reiterated that her party does not support the new trend by which violence is being used as a political weapon.

PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry said it is wrong to blame one party or person for these events. "It's a sort of a mixed bag, and it is hard to fix responsibility on any one party or person for the recent events," he told The Express Tribune.

"People are turning against politicians for a number of reasons. There are some genuine concerns that should be addressed, but there are also organised protests," says Chaudhry.

"Think about people living in this 40-degree heat, with no electricity and no water, and you will understand their frustration," he said before adding that anyone who resorts to violence should be condemned.

The PTI leader noted that new political developments could also be understood in terms of the demographic changes in Pakistan.

He noted that 64 per cent of Pakistanis are under 30. "Couple this fact with the rise of social media, and you begin to understand why people are so angry. Society is changing, but democracy is all about peaceful solutions," Chaudhry added.

Story: Usman Kabir