May 052008

By Dr Rubina Saigol 

THERE are many ways to read the results of the national elections of February 2008. They have been widely perceived as a rejection of the policies of Pervez Musharraf as well as the repudiation of religious militancy.

However, there is one aspect of the results that has not received much attention even though it signifies an important dimension. This is the ethnic dimension of the results — a feature that seems to have sharpened over time.

A broad overview of the results suggests that the February 2008 vote is an ethnically split vote in which interior Sindh has been won primarily by the PPP and urban Sindh by the MQM. Central and upper Punjab have voted decisively in favour of the PML-N while the Frontier Province has mainly supported the ANP.

While each of the main parties has won some seats in other provinces, this is not necessarily an indication of a vote across ethnic lines. The PPP has won in all the four provinces but its stronghold remains interior Sindh and southern Punjab. The results have also been influenced in part by other factors such as the boycott which has mainly influenced the vote in Balochistan and some of the religious vote of the Jamaat-i-Islami. Apart from the boycott, traditional factors of caste, clan, tribe, biradari and powerful candidates in certain areas have also influenced the outcome.

Nevertheless, the ethnicisation of politics seems to have increased simultaneously with the politicisation of ethnicity.

This element of politics was less visible in the earlier elections when broad-based parties were able to articulate economic and political agendas that transcended the narrow bounds of ethno-nationalist identities. In the elections of 1970, the PPP was able to win a substantial number of seats in Punjab and Sindh although not in Balochistan and the NWFP. Through an appeal to the populist and economic issues of food, clothing and shelter the party managed to capture the imagination of a large number of West Pakistanis who gave it around 80 seats at the time.

In East Pakistan, the Awami League won overwhelmingly and while this may seem like an ethnically inspired vote by the Bengalis, the appeal to the masses was made on the basis of economic exploitation and denial of provincial autonomy by the West Pakistani ruling elite. In the 1970s, issues of class, social discrimination and economic deprivation could unite diverse ethnic groups into articulating a common political agenda.

This trend became progressively weak in the 1990s at the end of a long period of martial rule. Partly in response to a highly centralised state structure and partly as a result of the manipulation by the establishment and its agencies, ethnic groups began to claim a stake in power by expressing their fears and demanding their rights through ethnically-constituted parties with whom they came to identify.

Although the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs felt threatened by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s urban/rural quota in jobs and college admissions, the political articulation of their demands through the MQM emerged in the 1980s and 1990s when the establishment encouraged an urban anti-PPP organisation to diminish the PPP’s hold in Sindh.

Similarly, the establishment helped create the PML-N in Punjab to neutralise the influence of the PPP in the province. Religiously inclined outfits, such as the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in the early 1990s and MMA with the advent of the new millennium, were also the brainchild of the establishment and its divide and rule policy in which political parties and outfits like the PML-Q were fabricated to diminish the influence of either one or another party.

Since the establishment was viewed as heavily aligned with the Punjabi ruling classes, ethnically-based and/or separatist parties began to garner support in the other three provinces. The Balochistan National Party, Awami National Party, Jeay Sindh Mahaz as well as efforts such as the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM) came to represent the voices of the suppressed, excluded and discriminated people of the smaller provinces.

The more centralised the state, the less its capacity to respect the principles of federalism. The promised provincial autonomy never materialised. Conflicts over the National Finance Commission Award, the distribution of the river waters and the long Concurrent List were never resolved democratically as the nature of the state was highly authoritarian.

The tendency of the state to use military force against any ethnic group or province that demanded its just share and fundamental rights, led to further alienation of the different ethnic groups from the centre.

The result of the anger and resentment against the centralisation of power and resources is the gradual politicisation of ethnic groups leading to the current ethnicisation of politics that is evident today. Punjab, the erstwhile favourite of the establishment, is also on a collision course with it, having voted overwhelmingly for a party that despises all vestiges of the establishment. Military operations in Balochistan and the Frontier region have already led to massive bloodshed all over the country.

The assumption underlying liberal democracy was that it would help erase the narrower, sub-national loyalties of caste, ethnicity, sect or religion and usher in the modern identity of the citizen. Pre-modern identities would slowly erode in the face of the modern identity of citizenship which offers a future of equality to all citizens irrespective of any difference. Ironically, it is democracy itself — especially its mechanism of electoral politics — that has engendered deep fissures as vote banks have come to be based on the very identities that were to be challenged.

Electoral politics can stimulate fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines thereby provoking conflict. With broad-based parties premised on economic and political concerns having ceded space to regional parties arising out of ethno-nationalist sentiments, one wonders whether bourgeois democracy will create space for diversity to be expressed, or mask all social difference under the guise of equal citizenship.

It is in this context that the principle of federalism can help accommodate the tensions between equality and difference, between universal and particular interests.
Daily Dawn, 5/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:32 pm

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