In the run-up to Wednesday’s elections in Pakistan, hard-pressed attempts at democracy seem to have given way to a fully-fledged circus. We have powerful, all-knowing ringmasters, caged lions, knife-throwers, trapeze artists flying from perch to perch, even cruelty to animals is included. Ours is a circus which looks to be performing its last show before it shuts down – evidenced most clearly by its last act, the clown. The political record of the former cricket star Imran Khan, who is thought to be near to victory due to the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, has long been one of opportunism and obeisance.
In 2006, he voted against the women’s protection bill, an amendment to the grotesque Hudood Ordinances, which jail a woman for the crime of pre-marital sex or adultery. As a consequence, allegations of rape are nearly impossible to prove unless the victim can call upon four upstanding men who witnessed the exact moment of rape. Without those witnesses, it was often the victim, not the rapist, who found herself behind bars. The 2006 amendment only did away with the requirement of witnesses; which would have allowed a woman who said she had been raped to be taken at her word and given the right to file a police case and have a rape test administered in a hospital. Khan voted no. He has defended Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, has called for the military’s gargantuan share of the national budget to remain untouched, declared that feminism degrades motherhood, attracted an army of online trolls who send death threats to his critics, and most recently welcomed the support of Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who reportedly founded the militant organisation Harkatul Mujahideen, was reportedly an associate of Osama bin Laden and remains on a US terror watchlist.
Khan’s morally flexible manifesto is sadly not unique. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is billed as an anticorruption party, yet it has welcomed droves of allegedly corrupt people from the Pakistan People’s Party, an Olympic-level bunch of looters and thieves, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), who have long flatlined the aspirations of their people. The Ahle Sunnat Wa Jammat is a sectarian hate group that calls for the murder of Shia Muslims. Not only have they been openly participating in the elections, they have also endorsed candidates belonging to all the major parties –no one has refused their support.
The few young independents or dynamic voices that exist in this overwhelming arena of the bad and the ugly are continually hounded and menaced for their lonely acts of bravery. It is Pakistan’s supreme tragedy that such a young, hopeful, promising people are offered this glut of shoddy candidates.
While none of Khan’s misogyny, cuddling up to the military and his militant affection is new to anyone who has watched his career, this election campaign has certainly been disturbing for its displays of cruelty. On 17 July, PTI supporters in Karachi tied a donkey to a pole. They punched its face till its jaw broke, ripped open its nostrils, and drove a car into its body, leaving the animal to collapse, having been beaten to within an inch of his life. Before they left, they wrote ‘Nawaz’ (the name of the former prime minister) into its flesh, seemingly inspired by their leader, Imran Khan, who has taunted PML-N workers as ghaddhay or donkeys. The donkey was rescued by the ACF Animal Rescue team, a private organisation, who noted that, even days later, it could not stand up on its own because of the ferocity of its torture. It soon succumbed to its injuries, an innocent creature beaten to death for entertainment.
A day later, another donkey in Karachi was mercilessly attacked, this time the skin on its face was ripped off, the flesh on its forehead torn apart till all that remained between its eyes was a pulpy, bloody hole. The ACF did not say whether the animal was a victim of the same party but, in a landscape of venomous online trolling, people are afraid to say very much these days. In Sarghoda on 20 July, the PTI brought two sloth bears to an election rally and forced them to dance to their turgid campaign songs. The bears were dressed in PTI colours and their handlers stood nearby, controlling them with lathis and rope threaded through their snouts.
Pakistan is a country afflicted by unremitting violence – the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz called us a “congregation of pain” –and this election alone has seen three devastating suicide blasts targeting candidates. But the PTI supporters’ particular brand of savagery, seemingly incited by thoughtless, debasing rhetoric, strikes many as yet one more troubling sign of what is to come. This political culture of vulgar triumphalism will always require victims to publicly humiliate, the more helpless the better.
Khan would be wise to learn from history and note that his nemesis Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and head of the PML-N party, jailed in the weeks before the election on corruption charges, was once an army man himself. Sharif began his political career as a protege of the same military dictator who cheered Khan’s cricket victories, General Zia ul Haq. The same institution that once carried Sharif upon its shoulders has hunted him down and locked him up.
Or else Khan might spare a thought for Boris Yeltsin, who played a similarly teetering role. Yeltsin was never the president of Russia, the FSB was, they simply remained tucked away in the shadows. If he wins, one suspects that Pakistan will not be subjected to Khan’s inarticulate cricket euphemisms for long. The military establishment’s backing is notoriously fickle, and it will be them who pull the levers of power. Khan doesn’t have control of the military machine that now carries him on their shoulders, as always, it will be the machine who controls him.
If beating animals to death is how a party behaves when they are feeling celebratory, how will the PTI conduct itself if it wins? The basic measure of a people is how they treat those more vulnerable than themselves. In this light, it is clear that Khan only bows before the powerful.
Fatima Bhutto is a