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Next week, Pakistan will hold a general election. Political parties are creating a tense environment. Blaming each other is a routine matter, and convincing voters is very much a normal phenomenon.

However, this time, the election may prove a bit different from those of the past. To put this in perspective, let’s review Pakistan’s democratic journey, which has been a very bumpy road. For almost half of Pakistan’s 70 years as an independent nation, it has been ruled by the military.

The first period of martial law was imposed in 1958 by Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, who ruled Pakistan until 1969. He was one of the strongest presidents in the country’s history. His priority was economic development, and the country witnessed major achievements on this front. He initiated mega-projects such as dams, and industrialization under his rule fueled economic growth at levels not only high for Pakistan, but for Asia as a whole.

The second military regime was led by General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. He ruled from 1969 to 1971, one of the darkest periods in the history of Pakistan. It was during his tenure that East Pakistan was lost and the separate nation of Bangladesh created.

The third period of martial law was imposed by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. He ruled the country for almost 11 years until he died in a plane crash in 1988. His era was rather controversial and a mixture of various aspects. Economic prosperity was witnessed, but because of his close alliance with the US during the Afghan war, a drug and gun culture was promoted in Pakistan, which became the basis of today’s terrorism.

The fourth period of martial law was imposed by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, and he remained in power until 2008. Many international events happened during his tenure – the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, the subsequent “war on terror,” the Iraq war, the war in Libya, and more. His rule also witnessed economic prosperity. But his close friendship with Washington and his policy of giving a free hand to the Americans was heavily criticized. His policies have been blamed for the poor state of Pakistani-US relations.

It can be said that the recent history of democracy in the country started in 2002 when the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) won general elections and formed a democratically elected government. But its rule was criticized for being subservient to martial law and pro-Musharraf policies. As a result, the PML-Q lost badly in the general election held in 2008. The Pakistan Peoples Party came to power, ruling until 2013.

Public opinion regarding the PPP government was very poor, because of corruption, misgovernance and poor economic performance. As a result, in general elections held in 2013, the PPP was completely eliminated in many constituencies. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) won the poll and formed the country’s third consecutive democratic government.

The public had high expectations of the PML-N, and the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provided excellent opportunities for the party. Unfortunately, the public perception of the PML-N became even more negative. Corruption, money-laundering, nepotism, and damaging tussles among state institutions were witnessed.

The current political scenario in Pakistan is very tense, as some political parties are threatening to boycott the upcoming elections

The current political scenario in Pakistan is very tense, as some political parties are threatening to boycott the upcoming elections, despite the experience in Bangladesh, where those who boycotted the last elections were the only ones to suffer. Sheikh Hasina Wazed has ruled that country for five years without any competition or any opposition. If some political parties boycott next week’s general election in Pakistan, they too will suffer for the next five years.

Next week will witness the fourth consecutive general election in the last 16 years. It will be an opportunity for the people of Pakistan to elect the right person. This is the beauty of democracy, that each election eliminates the wrong persons, and if this process is repeated many times, all the bad guys may be filtered out and only the right people may come to the power and change the fate of a nation. The media are a very important pillar of Pakistani society and are proactively highlighting the right and wrongs of all the candidates.

Today’s voter is more educated than in the past, and very well aware of the power of the vote. Pakistanis understand very well what the impact will be if they choose the right candidates. That is why voters ask contestants about their previous performance as well as plans for future. Voters want solid guarantees from the contestants instead of just fake promises.

Candidates are facing very strong questions from the voters and sometimes face embarrassing situations. In the past, there was family politics, where fathers, sons and grandsons got elected irrespective of their capabilities. But now the trend seems to be changing rapidly, as many big names were defeated in the past few elections.

The other way of winning past elections was party politics – if the candidates personally were of a low caliber, but were attached to a big-name political party, they might still have been elected. But this time, party politics seem not to be playing a major role.

The upcoming elections seem quite different, and the Pakistani people may vote above party politics or family politics, so only the capable may be elected. This election may be prove to be a goodbye to many traditional politicians. In fact, voting for the right man may change the future for coming generations.

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Zamir Awan

Professor Zamir Ahmed Awan is a sinologist at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Chinese Studies Center of Excellence, Islamabad, Pakistan. Posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing as science counselor (technical affairs) from 2010-16, he was responsible for promoting cooperation between Pakistan and China in science, technology, and higher education.

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