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Elections 2013 & Ethnicity

The historic 2013 General Elections in Pakistan, with an excellent 55% turnout, bode well for the fate of democracy in a country where military dictatorships have been the norm rather than an exception. The peaceful transition of power, where one government, after losing elections, makes way for another, is a celebratory political trend which one hopes is not halted.

After the 2013 general elections, there was a multitude of analyses regarding the trends witnessed therein. However, one analysis that exclaimed that the elections entrenched the phenomenon of ethnicity and ethnic politics was the loudest one. With the PML (N) in Punjab, the Sindhis in Sindh, Mohajirs in Karachi, Pushtoons in Northern Balochistan and KPK and Baloch in Balochistan, people had voted for their preferred ethnic groups. I will argue in the present piece that this is an oversimplification and that the analysis is steeped in an alarmist mindset devoid of sombre analysis.

Let’s start with the election results in the first instance. The PML (N) emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly followed by the PPPP, PTI and the MQM. The PML (N) also outshined its rivals in the provincial assembly elections in Punjab. And as is a trend in our political system, political parties in Balochistan also endorsed the centrist PML (N); the party who won 8 seats in Balochistan provincial assembly. In Punjab, a major surprise came from Southern Punjab, where Pakistan Peoples Party was routed in its traditional stronghold, though it endorsed the demand of the Saraikis for a separate province.

Keeping into perspective the internal political rifts which plague Saraiki nationalism, the Saraikis voted on the basis of rational choice thus, they rejected the PPPP (their ethnopolitical ‘read not ethnic-supporter) and voted for PML (N) instead which had caused great consternation by supporting the revival of Bahawalpur State. The fact that the Saraikis voted against the PPPP demonstrates their ill-feelings toward the party for not supporting their cause with sincerity. They decided pragmatically to go with the PML (N). That’s why it got most seats in Saraiki belt especially in Multan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Rahim Yar Khan. It is fair enough to conclude that Saraikis are keener to bank their horses on a centrist party to make their demands felt rather than working against it as one would normally assume an ethnonationalist party to behave in elections. What this indicates in terms of ethnicity is the fact that ethnicity did not influence voting considerations in Southern Punjab especially when the Saraikis put their weight behind Nawaz Sharif.


As far as Hazara nationalism is concerned, Hazarawals once again voted predominantly for the centrist parties in the elections including PML (N), PTI, JUI (F) and some independent candidates but no nationalist party could win seats in Abbottabad, Battagram, Kohistan, Haripur, Mansehra and Tor Ghar, the administrative districts with dominating Hazara populace. Baba Haider Zaman, the central leader of Hazara nationalism, failed in his bid for a National Assembly seat from Abbottabad against a PML (N) candidate. It can be said with some certainty that nationalism in Hazara, and also in Southern Punjab, is still in its embryonic stage. People voting on the basis of rational choice voted for centrist rather than nationalist parties.
 Achakzai also is supportive and sensitive of the Baloch apprehension that Gwadar Port development will reduce the Baloch to a minority in Balochistan with the influx of Punjabi and Pashtun labour.
 In Balochistan, the Pushtoon and Baloch nationalist parties again did well but before anything could be deduced from their respective victories, it must be asserted that their nationalism is more co-opting rather than exclusionary (and so is the case with Hazara and Saraiki nationalism). Mahmood Khan Achakzai-led Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) advocates that each ethnic group be accorded territorial autonomy. According to Achakzai,

‘Pakistan is composed of Pashtoon, Baloch, Sindhi, Seraiki and Punjabi nationalities: each should have their ownmotherland’ Pushtoonkhwa/Afghania, Balochistan, Sindh, Seraikistan and the Punjab, respectively. Pushtoonkhwa/Afghania should be composed of the NWFP (Pushtoonkhwa) and the chief commissioner’s province (southern Pushtoonkhwa) excluding the Baloch areas; and the Pushtoon territory of Attock and Mianwali. Provisionally, the political, economic, financial and administrative powers of Balochistan should be shared by the Pushtoon and Baloch.’

What consequence does Achakzai’s scheme has for Baloch-Pashtun relations in Balochistan keeping in view that he wants to make Pashtun areas of Balochistan a part of a larger Pushtoonkhwa province? It is interesting to note that the Baloch are not irked by such Pashtoo nationalist insinuations and claim that the Pashtoon areas in Balochistan should be amalgamated with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and that it does not form part of a future Balochistan. The Baloch, simply stated, are willing to give up the Pashtoon-dominated northern part of their province in the interests of Pashtoon nationalism. Baloch-Pashtoon relations, in this sense, may be regulated amicably and may not involve a Gordian knot of irreconcilable differences. Achakzai also is supportive and sensitive of the Baloch apprehension that Gwadar Port development will reduce the Baloch to a minority in Balochistan with the influx of Punjabi and Pashtoon labour.

Finally, let’s have a brief analysis on Karachi and ethnic politics. Ethnic politics in Karachi has manifested itself in a violent fashion in the last few years with criminal gangs of Mohajirs, Pathans, Baloch and Sindhis all tied up in a network of extortion and land-grabbing which has made life more than miserable for the common Karachiites. As the criminal gangs proliferate and fight their ugly battle, a sense of ethnic hatred and discrimination is generated, however, the political cadre of the ethnic groups are multi-ethnic. Take, for example, Nabil Ahmad Gabol and Mohammad Salman Khan Baloch as winning MQM legislators for the National Assembly. The MQM, after it was rechristened as Muttahida, is a centrist party politically rather than a party solely comprising Mohajirs. Furthermore, although one might say that the MQM won the majority of seats from Karachi, it did not win entirely convincingly with a sizeable portion of Karachiites, including Urdu speakers, voting for the PTI and Imran Khan.

The following conclusions may be, hence, drawn from the analysis whether ethnicity went hand in hand with the elections:
First, the PPP, PML (N), PTI and the MQM are centrist parties and people voted overwhelmingly for such parties.

 one might say that the MQM won the majority of seats from Karachi, it did not win entirely convincingly with a sizeable portion of Karachiites, including Urdu speakers, voting for the PTI and Imran Khan.
 Second, the ethnic parties by contesting elections in actual terms endorsed their desire to be co-opted in Pakistan’s political system rather than standing in opposition to it.

Third, the extremist ethnonationalist parties did not contest elections and their aversion to the electoral process meant that they remained marginalised. This does not mean, however, that they should be left at the margins. The democratic process should ensure the legitimate aggregating of socio-political interests and in those terms, it is imperative that the ultra-nationalist parties are co-opted.

Finally, KPK is now firmly entrenched as Pakistan’s ‘swing’ state voting in 2002 on the basis of religiosity, in 2008 on the basis of ethnicity and in 2013 on the basis of ‘performance’. Electoral trends in KPK over the last eleven years vividly manifest the fact that ethnicity and ethnic considerations are a variable rather than a constant. The ANP, the mouthpiece of ethnic politics of the Pashtoons, was routed in the elections by the Pashtoons themselves signalling that their voting behaviour has a propensity to manifest itself in a myriad manner irrespective of ethnic considerations. Hence, the KPK, more than any other province, discredits the hypothesis of the elections endorsing ethnic politics.

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