Politics of boycott in elections


Muhammad Usman
In a democracy, general election is a litmus test of political parties to judge their past performance in office or opposition and future plans by the public. Rarely main contending parties leave the electoral field uncontested or resort to boycott of elections until sure of widespread public support and persistence to undo electoral outcome emerged in a void so created. In absence of this leverage, boycott is a flawed strategy. It amounts to miss the bus and allow their rivals to plant their feet more firmly while in power. It could also lend opportunity to new forces to emerge and challenge their place. Possibly correct strategy is to slug it out even unsure of a win in face of indomitable odds in hope of better times. In our political history, notably, three times, various political parties have indulged themselves in politics of boycott in elections with mixed bag of consequences.
The 1977 general election was fiercely fought between PPP in government led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan National Alliance (PNA); a collection of nine opposition parties. The result was at stark contrast to what was widely predicted that Bhutto may win but not with so much thumbing majority. Bhutto got 155 seats out of total number of 200 NA seats. PNA was reduced to 26 seats only. Majority of its leaders were wiped out electorally even in urban centres where it held large processions/public gatherings prior to polling. Their outright reaction was outrage and boycott of provincial assemblies’ elections, scheduled three days later against alleged act of large scale organized rigging in the election. Their supporters fully responded to the call and polling stations bore relatively a dull look. Emboldened by the response, PNA went on rampage and remained unrelenting in their movement to throw Bhutto out at all costs for alleged rigging coupled with their other inhibitions until in words of a PPP stalwart, Maulana Kausar Niazi “aur line kat gai” by military intervention on 5th Jul 1977 under General Zia ul Haq. The Opposition won parochially but lost democratically.
After a long interval, General Zia decided to hold general election in Feb 1885 on a non-party basis. The alliance of political parties ‘Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD)’ including the PPP construed the move an attempt to deny political parties the opportunity to participate in the election as mandated by 1973 Constitution particularly, PPP which was being tipped by all and sundry a sure winner in party-based election. Eventually, they decided to boycott the election optimistically when their demands of holding election on a party basis and restoration of 1973 Constitution were not met. To their chagrin, opposite happened when people turned up on polling booths in large number to cast their votes. The turnout for election of NA was 53.69%. It even went up to 57.73% for election of provincial assemblies, held two days later. By existing standards, turnout was more than good enough to give legitimacy to electoral exercise. Resultantly, MRD suffered huge loss of face and ultimately caused its political demise. Instrumentally the election also gave birth to a set of new leadership; a plus point. In 1993 election, mercurial MQM maestro, Altaf Hussian, announced boycott of NA election because of alleged organized military intimidation however, declared to contest Sindh assembly election. Consequently, voter turnout at Karachi reduced to 20% whereas, nationwide, it was 40.3%. At provincial level, MQM swept the election in their strongholds. Probably he wanted to show his political mastery over urban areas in Sindh. On this yardstick, he was quite successful.
In 2018 general election, main electoral dual is between PML (N) and PTI in Punjab which is essentially a basin of power nationally. Without meaning to prejudice existing perception, supposedly, PTI is on the rise. Its ticket is a hot cake. With each passing day, its narrative is gaining new currency despite it has tainted its ideology by giving preference to electable over its ideological cadre in allocation of party tickets. To the contrary, PML (N) is increasingly finding itself encumbered by ever cropping up serious challenges; infighting from within, defections, declining perception about its formidability and refusal of its nominees to contest election, impending court’s verdict against Nawaz Sharif and uncertainty about his return to Pakistan and spearhead the election campaign, his conflicting narrative and ever increasing NAB cases especially against Shahbaz Sharif who is also its newly appointed President and finding the seat too hot to handle because of lack real authority as virtually it lies with Nawaz Sharif. All this leaves PML (N) in a quandary with narrow margin of decision and difficult dilemmas. Latest statements of Sharif brothers are reflective of their existing/impending woes especially of elder Sharif who said words to this effect “a new chapter is being written in history of rigging. If it is not stopped, it will entail dangerous repercussions. Only PML (N) is being targeted. Play of 1971 is being repeated which dismembered the country. What would descend on polling day, is well written on wall”. His last sentence leaves much to ponder. Is a talk of despair/allegation or prelude to boycott of what could be allegedly thrust upon them on polling day or an escape to avoid loss of face in face of a certain electoral defeat?
The writer, retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
— The writer, retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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