Friday, December 14, 2007

The Fallacious Logic Of Boycotting Elections

So my first discussion on politics took place about a minute and a half after I sat in the car on the way home from the airport a couple of days ago. My dad and I were talking about the forthcoming elections and the purpose served in boycotting them. My dad was adamant that no party should take part in the January elections, and that the proud lawyers movement had been sold down the drain by the power-hungry and unprincipled political parties.

This view is completely wrong-headed. First of all, it is not the political parties' job to represent the legal community's interests. If a political party feels it to be a wise and sound electoral strategy to support protesting lawyers, then it's all well and good. But political parties do not owe the lawyers' movement anything - anything at all - and if it is the case that certain parties are participating in elections, it does not mean those parties are somehow less "moral" or "principled" than those boycotting elections. It is merely the case that the former have calculated their interests differently than the latter. I am always very suspicious when people use words like "morals" and "principles" in the study of politics. I am especially suspicious of the employment of any framework which results in Imran Khan and Qazi Hussain Ahmed being cast as "moral" and "principled".

Moreover, participating in elections in and of itself does not confer legitimacy on them. To the contrary, it is only when one participates in elections that one has the right to shine light on their inherent flaws and illegitimacy. For instance, if the PML-N did not choose to participate in the elections, and the PML-Q cruised to victory in Punjab, then Nawaz Sharif could not have said a word about the rigging of elections (this idea brackets pre-poll irregularities such as differences in ability to organize rallies/advertising space on television/etc). Anything Sharif said could have been countered by the Chaudhries with, "Well, how do you know they were rigged? You didn't even fight the elections. Maybe we won a landslide victory because our main competitor (i.e. you) were not contesting them."

On the other hand, let's say the PML-Q wins 60 percent of the districts and seats in Punjab with Nawaz Sharif's PML participating. In that case, everyone will know something fishy happened. Actually, everyone knows something fishy is going to happen in these elections anyway, but at least the opposition parties will have a leg to stand on when the fishiness does finally ensue. Nawaz Sharif could say: "Look, the whole world knows your party is unpopular. The whole world also knows I am held in great esteem by many Punjabi voters. How the hell, then, did this come to pass?"

Don't underestimate the power of the crankiness of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif post-elections. Having been pushed on to Musharraf by two of Pakistan's three most important foreign allies (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia respectively; by the way, who's China's candidate?), their satisfaction with the status quo post-elections will be important to power brokers abroad and, consequently, at home. Is this a perfect deterrent to unfair elections? No, of course not - it is more than likely that these elections will be grossly unfair. The question to ask, however, is not "Is participating in elections going to make them fair?" [no] but "Is participating in elections better than boycotting elections in terms of our ability to cry foul and declare them invalid and unfair after the fact?" [yes].

I am really open to the idea that contesting elections somehow grants them legitimacy. I don't believe it for a second but honestly, I'd love to hear a convincing explanation of the logic behind it. The prevailing conventional wisdom seems to be that once you agree to contest elections under a particular facade, you signal to the world that you find that facade acceptable. But that's a ridiculous notion, at least to me. The world will only believe your protestations against a facade once you've lived under it. This is why it is a good thing that Pakistan's two biggest parties, the PPP and the PML-N, have agreed to contest the forthcoming elections. Even under the most mangled of political circumstances, Pakistan is infinitely better off with the PPP and the PML-N fighting the system from within than without.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between one's strength of condemnation of Sharif's and Bhutto's moves to fight these elections and one's importance in Pakistan politics. In other words, it is incredibly easy, even beneficial, to cast BB and NS as villainous heathens bent on power and power alone if you're a small and insignificant party. It gets your name in the paper and gives you a visibility that you lacked before. Think Imran Khan and his one-seat party. Think Mahmood Khan Achakzai and the fact that you'd never even heard of his name until this blog post. Think Qazi Hussain and the JI, likely to be squeezed between the PPP, MQM and PML-Q like never before in Karachi and between the JUI (contesting elections, remember) and other smaller parties in NWFP (where it has never traditionally been a strong vote-getter). The only exceptions to this rule are the Aitzaz Ahsans of the world, but even in that case it is the exception that proves the rule. First, Aitzaz Ahsan is inexorably tied to the lawyers movement. His threshold for participating in elections will obviously be higher given his association with a movement that is unidirectional in nature: all the lawyers want is the exit of Musharraf and the return to the pre-November 3 judiciary. Second, even given these constraints, Aitzaz Ahsan was still willing to contest the elections provided BB budged a little on her post-election plans. Only when she told him to bugger off (itself a bit of a mystery to me - why doesn't BB see the favorable effects of AA's presence and think only in terms of her ego?) did AA decide that he wants no part of these elections.

Before I'm accused of betraying the revolution, please allow me to say what I'm not saying. I'm not saying any of Musharraf's and the Q League's shenanigans before these elections are acceptable. Furthermore, I'm not saying that contesting these elections guarantees, or even makes more likely, their fairness. What I am saying is that one's word against these elections is made significantly stronger and more reliable if one actually contested them. Now, if only my dad would believe me.

Update: A Poli Sci grad student at Columbia writes about a couple of themes touched upon in my post.

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