Dawn Editorial 27th December 2023

Reaching out

TO help heal communal wounds caused by extremists, it is important that public office-holders empathise with minority communities, and reassure them that they are equal citizens of Pakistan. In this respect the army chief’s participation in Christmas Day celebrations at a Rawalpindi church sends the right message, especially in a year where minorities, including Christians, faced the onslaught of obscurantists. While visiting the Christ Church in the garrison city, Gen Asim Munir criticised those “creating fissures using religious, ethnic and political vulnerabilities”, while hailing the contributions the Christian community has made for the welfare and stability of Pakistan.

While the founding fathers, particularly the Quaid, were firm about the fact that minorities would be equal citizens of Pakistan, over the decades these commendable ideals have been ignored, with the result that a radicalised society today tolerates little religious and communal difference. An ugly manifestation of this was witnessed in the outgoing year in Punjab’s Jaranwala town, when rampaging mobs ransacked Christian houses and churches in August over spurious blasphemy allegations. Places of worship belonging to the Ahmadi community were also vandalised in Karachi and Punjab in 2023. Because extremism has struck deep roots in society, it will take time to promote tolerance. In this regard, visits to minority communities and expressions of solidarity by high officials as well as civil society are important. Yet more practical steps are needed to create a more inclusive society. Topping the list should be punishing those involved in acts of violence and in intimidating minorities, while those hurling false blasphemy allegations should also be taken to task. Moreover, those spreading hate speech cannot be allowed to publicly air their toxic views. Dismantling the structure of hate that has been propped up for the last four decades or so will not be easy. But a combination of ‘soft’ and hard’ steps can aid the goal of de-radicalisation, and make Pakistan safe for all communities.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2023

PPP’s path

ON this day in 2007, Benazir Bhutto was killed at a time when her party needed her most. For the PPP, as it gears up for general elections next February, the trajectory it has taken since Ms Bhutto’s untimely death should be of particular concern. Arguably, even in 2008, its popularity was not at its zenith — the kind witnessed under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and during the Zia era when the party, then led by Ms Bhutto, was directly targeted. There were reasons for this, not least among them the corruption alleged during the 1990s when the party was in and out of power and the rise of political rivals. However, it remained a national party. Today, while its ethos still draws supporters from across the country, this has not translated into the numbers needed for a government at the centre. The memory of Ms Bhutto’s populist appeal has not been enough to cancel out the unpopularity of the present leadership: without her charisma and knack for populist politics, the party’s top tier under Asif Ali Zardari has grown disconnected from both party workers and ordinary people. The PPP was nearly wiped out in Punjab after the 2013 elections, and has since found itself limited to its stronghold of Sindh.

Yet, the PPP did pull off some major achievements after Ms Bhutto. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the renaming of NWFP, the creation of a legislative assembly in Gilgit-Baltistan, and the introduction of the Balochistan Package were all laudatory moves — though implementation was scant. In provincial politics too, the PPP government in Sindh garnered plaudits for progressive pro-women, children and minority policies and legislation, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and the Sindh Protection of Communal Properties of Minorities Act amongst others — but again, poorly enforced. Moreover, as the ruling party in Sindh, the PPP has been shying away from empowering local bodies, resulting in strengthening the provincial government’s hold on civic bodies. It is no surprise then that Sindh has become unlivable. There is rampant street crime, a corrupt police force, unemployment, illegal contracts, unscrupulous land dealings, poor sanitation and healthcare, broken roads, abysmal schooling, shoddy building control, encroachments and the like. Today, the party faces a moment of truth: it must either rectify its mistakes or resign itself to a diminishing role in national politics.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2023

Inclusive politics

IT is encouraging to see that in the upcoming elections, the number of women candidates filing nomination papers has surpassed the figures of 2018 and 2013.

While this is a positive indicator of the evolving role of women in politics, the fact that they constitute only 11pc of the total candidates underscores a persistent gender disparity in political representation.

This year, 3,139 women candidates have stepped forward, a significant rise from the 1,687 in 2018 and 1,171 in 2013. Such an increase should be celebrated, yet when viewed in the context of over 28,000 candidates overall — in itself a record — the figure is starkly disproportionate.

This discrepancy highlights a missed opportunity by political parties to promote a more balanced representation. The expectation was for parties to this time around actively encourage and support a greater number of women candidates, yet this has not materialised to a satisfactory degree.

The situation within the PML-N offers a microcosm of the broader issue. The discord among women candidates in the party, who feel sidelined in favour of a select few — primarily from influential backgrounds — raises questions about the criteria for selecting candidates for reserved seats.

This practice not only discourages dedicated party workers but also undermines the essence of reserved seats, which should ideally serve as a platform for diverse and representative female participation.

So, what could have been done differently? First and foremost, political parties need to establish and adhere to transparent and equitable criteria for selecting candidates, especially for reserved seats.

This process should prioritise merit and dedication to public service over familial or socioeconomic connections. Additionally, there should be a concerted effort to scout and mentor potential women leaders from various walks of life, ensuring more inclusive and representative choices.

Moreover, political parties and the ECP must work together to remove barriers that deter women from political participation. This includes addressing societal prejudices, ensuring the safety of women candidates, and providing the necessary resources and training to potential women politicians.

The current state of women’s participation in national politics underscores the need for urgent action. Political parties, civil society, and government institutions must shoulder the responsibility to foster an environment where women’s political engagement transcends tokenism and becomes a cornerstone of our democratic fabric.

This is not just about meeting quotas or surpassing previous statistics; it is about fundamentally redefining the political landscape to be truly inclusive, equitable, and representative of diverse voices.

The journey towards this goal is arduous but essential for the health and maturity of our democracy. It is time to embrace a vision where women’s voices are not just heard but are instrumental in steering the course of our nation’s destiny.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2023

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