Dawn Editorial 4th February 2024

Call for change

IN recent times, Pakistan has witnessed some encouraging signs of women’s political participation. For instance, Tharparkar district recorded an unprecedented 71pc female voter turnout in 2018, and women in Swabi are this time actively campaigning in traditionally male-dominated spaces. However, these positive strides contrast sharply with the still persistent gender disparity in election candidacies: out of 65,916 total candidates, only 3,235 (4.91pc) are women. This disproportionate representation is consistent across provinces, with Sindh leading marginally at 5.39pc and Balochistan trailing at a mere 3.14pc. Such disparity reflects deeper societal issues that limit women’s participation in politics. The PTI, despite losing its poll symbol, fielded 20 women for general seats out of 234 candidates, a small but significant step towards gender inclusivity. However, its candidates are now contesting independently, which may impact their visibility and support. Tribal customs hinder the campaign efforts of women candidates in several areas, such as KP’s Khyber district, restricting their outreach primarily to female voters.

This scenario underlines the urgent need for systemic change. Political parties must not only increase the number of women candidates but also create an environment conducive to their active participation. This includes challenging deep-rooted patriarchal norms and providing women with the resources and support necessary to run effective campaigns. Furthermore, women’s representation on general seats is crucial for genuine empowerment. While reserved seats are essential, they often do not provide the same level of influence and resources as general seats. Women elected on general seats have access to development funds and a more substantial say in legislative matters, directly impacting their constituencies. While there are glimmers of progress, much remains to be done. Our political landscape needs a transformative shift towards gender inclusivity. This is not just a matter of equitable representation but a fundamental requirement for a democratic and progressive society.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2024

‘Gates of hell’

SOON after Israel unleashed its brutal response on the people of Gaza following the Hamas attacks of Oct 7, there were widespread fears that the conflict would spread across the region. These fears have proved correct as the US has attacked Iraq, Syria and Yemen, targeting Iran-backed armed groups claiming to act in the name of the Palestinians. While the US and UK had last month bombed Yemen’s de facto Houthi rulers for the latter’s blockade of the Red Sea in solidarity with Gaza, between Friday and Saturday, Washington hit some 85 targets in Iraq and Syria. The Americans say they are striking groups that are part of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ after a drone attack from Iraq killed three US military personnel at a base in Jordan on Jan 28. The Biden administration was facing pressure to respond, particularly from Republican hawks keen to project the US leader as ‘weak’ in an election year. Hence, the White House has resorted to another imperial military mission in the Middle East, with Mr Biden ominously warning that “our response … will continue”.

The White House is spinning the current conflict as one between mischievous armed groups sponsored by Iran working to undermine the US-led ‘rules-based order’ in the Middle East. That description is barely convincing. After all, at the root of these hostilities lies the West’s unflinching support for Israel as it butchers Palestinian civilians. Soon after the Oct 7 events, the West rushed military support as a sign of solidarity with Israel. The ugly reality is that Western states have shown scant regard for Palestinian lives. While the US and UK have been quick to act to ‘protect’ international shipping in the Red Sea, they remain unmoved as thousands of Palestinian children are murdered by Israel. Moreover, most Muslim states have maintained a silence over the Gaza massacre, angering many people who say that the armed groups in the region are only reacting to the bloodshed as ‘responsible’ states have failed to act. If the US and its allies genuinely want the attacks on their forces to stop, they must rein in Israel and immediately end its genocidal war in Gaza. Otherwise the ‘gates of hell’ will open in the Middle East — some argue they already have — and the Western states will have only themselves to blame.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2024

Last leg

WE are now in the home stretch. This past week saw a flurry of political activity as parties started to dig in and brace for their final showdown, scheduled for next Thursday.

Though we had not seen the same level of feverish campaigning that usually precedes general elections in Pakistan, there was some welcome improvement over the last few weeks, even if it has seemed at times that it is just two parties swapping the limelight between them.

The PTI, the third main contender, remains absent from TV screens. There has been very little it has been allowed to do, and jalsas would have been out of the question with the state trying to suppress it. The smaller parties, too, seem to have largely avoided expending much time or effort on elections 2024. This lack of enthusiasm has left the polls looking like a three-way fight — albeit one in which one of the main contenders has been handicapped.

How will the results shape up? It is anyone’s guess. A number of factors are in play, going for and against each party. The PML-N and PPP look strong on paper. Their traditional networks within the zaat-biradari system and the state apparatus are active. The state is keeping the PTI in check. The two can also campaign freely: they may put up banners, organise corner meetings, hold jalsas, get TV airtime and, most importantly, seek votes with the help of recognised poll symbols.

The PML-N enjoys the further advantage of being perceived as the ‘favoured’ party, which is expected to boost its prospects in areas where thana-katcheri politics rule the day. The PTI, meanwhile, is banking mainly on public sympathy to turn the tide. It is tapping into public discontent against the status quo and hoping the youth vote can swing the election in its favour.

A lot will also depend on voter turnout: a high turnout is expected to favour the PTI. Will it be able to get its voters out? How each party manages election day activities will also matter. Can they mobilise and ferry enough voters to the booths? Can polling agents protect their candidates’ votes during the counting process? Given how vitiated the pre-poll process has been, should we expect a changed atmosphere on polling day? There is a lot riding on these elections, and the path to power, as ever, lies through Punjab.

Will we see a new victor emerge? The PML-N is looking to break out of central Punjab and make inroads in the north and south. The PPP is hoping to regain the ground it lost a decade ago. And the PTI is refusing to back out of the fight. It promises to be a contest that will be remembered for a long time.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2024


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