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A rigged system

A rigged system

AMONGST the most popular misconceptions about the structure of power in Pakistan is that elected governments — and the parties represented therein — are responsible for everything that goes on, both vis-à-vis policy at higher levels and everyday shenanigans at lower levels.

This perception is of course challenged when the occasional coup-making general takes over the formal reins of government, but even in such cases the power vested in a system is assumed to be exercised only by the man at the helm of affairs and his coterie of close confidants.

In my previous column I noted how the military remains the arbiter of power in Pakistan, and how other powerful institutions and classes generally seem content to play second fiddle to the men in khaki — the point being that the permanent state apparatus is far more powerful than any sitting government.

I want to add to this basic assertion some details about the exercise of power at the lower levels, based on my observation of the conduct of state personnel during ongoing local government elections in various parts of the country.

During elections or otherwise, state functionaries are, with very few exceptions, easily influenced by those with power and money. The PTI has gone through great pains to have us believe that the PML-N is singularly responsible for manipulating the electoral process, but the truth is that state functionaries — police constables, teachers and clerical staff — directly oversee the actually voting exercise.

Virtually all parties (and independents) standing for elections seek to win the favour of polling staff, sometimes through petty offerings such as cigarettes and tea, and in other cases by systematically offering money to fudge votes. Of course, the party in power always has more sway over state functionaries than those without a stake in government, but anyone who is willing to spend big can make their presence felt.

The polling staff employs all sorts of means to honour its commitment to whoever has won its favour. They may harass candidates and polling agents that are perceived as too weak to respond, engage in blatant manipulation in the absence of observers and media and delay the process of counting until late at night so as to be able to concoct a given outcome.

Perhaps most of all, the polling staff take advantage of the fact that many voters, particularly women, often need some form of assistance to actually cast their vote. In these cases, they can be found to be explicitly instructing voters to stamp the symbol of their preferred candidate.

I do not want to suggest that all state functionaries involved in the conduct of elections come with a clear plan to manipulate outcomes; indeed it is not uncommon that members of the polling staff are actually trying to offset one another because they are being patronised by competing candidates. The point I wish to emphasise is that manipulation of the process appears to be the rule rather than the exception. And that the sitting government is involved in manipulation from a distance and is only better equipped to do so than its opponents (who do not occupy any moral high ground).

This applies to what is called ‘pre-poll’ rigging as well. So, for instance, the location of polling stations has a major bearing on how many voters of which persuasion cast their votes. Even before this comes the delimitation exercise which is also highly politicised. There can be no doubt that the sitting government influences all of these matters significantly but all mainstream parties play the game to the extent that they can.

In short, the PTI’s unending rants about rigging miss the point. Getting rid of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister or even the four provincial election commissioners will not herald a dramatic change in the way elections play out. Ours is a political (and social) order in which power is routinely exercised through personalised links, in which individual state functionaries with no necessary commitment to any particular party or institution can nevertheless be won over the cause through money as well as other rewards.

In saying this I am not suggesting that we should sit on our hands and do nothing because everyone in an official position can be bought. This would be to submit to a culturalist explanation of what is in fact a well-developed, modern structure of power. The problem is that state personnel — both at the highest and lowest levels — still exercise an enormous amount of influence over everything from elections to the allocation of public resources. There is no question of things getting better until the permanent state apparatus is made subservient to the people it is supposed to serve.

Only a political force on the left willing and able to clearly articulate this fact and take on the powers-that-be can facilitate such a transformation.

The writer teachers at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2015

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