This is a critical week for Pakistanis. On Thursday, we will vote in nationwide federal and provincial elections with the future of our democracy in question. We are not the only country facing such a moment this year. National elections will be held in more than 60 countries, which account for nearly half the global population.
But I suspect that millions of voters around the world are, like me, wondering whether they even believe in the promise of democracy anymore. Pakistan has never been able to get it right; next door in India, the world’s biggest democracy, elections a couple of months from now are likely to extend the grip of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-supremacist government; and Donald Trump is on the upswing again in America, which votes in November. The world is in a state of turmoil and instability — with harrowing conflicts raging in Gaza and Ukraine — partly because of the chaos of the modern political process and the shortsighted leaders who take advantage of it.
Pakistanis have been haunted by feelings like this for decades. In 1977, when I was a girl, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed in a military coup that plunged the country into dictatorship and martial law. Mr. Bhutto was hanged two years later, and the darkness of that day has never left me — the eerily empty streets, the newspapers declaring it a “black day” in block letters on the front pages. Military rule finally ended in 1988, followed by a welcome — though often politically chaotic — decade of democratic rule, but then yet another period of military dictatorship. Experiments with democracy resumed in 2008, but the repeated blatant thefts of power have left us shellshocked.
And here we are again.
The elections on Thursday will proceed without Imran Khan, the popular former prime minister who was sentenced last week on questionable charges of leaking state secrets and corruption (he was given prison terms of 10 years and 14 years, respectively). When he was elected in 2018, Mr. Khan promised to free Pakistan from corrupt dynastic politics. But his term ended four years later in much the same way as those previous periods of democratic rule. The United States looked the other way while his elected government was removed from power.
Mr. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., faces severe electoral challenges in this week’s elections, including an authoritarian crackdown on its members. Former P.T.I. figures must now run as independents. The Supreme Court has even barred the party from using its popular election symbol, a cricket bat. (Mr. Khan was a national cricket hero before turning to politics.)
So we will go to the polls this week with a sense of frustration and futility. Pakistanis, especially young adults eligible to vote for the first time, are asking themselves: Why vote for politicians who seem to have no goal other than to take power and use it against their opponents?
The somber mood is everywhere on the streets. Canvassing and campaigning are muted, and there is far less of the political song-singing, the flags, banners and other trappings of past elections. These had at least brought some excitement and a festival-like atmosphere to break up what can often be a chaotic, stressful life for so many of Pakistan’s 245 million people.
The election gloom matches the existential difficulties that Pakistan faces. An economic crisis, marked by spiraling inflation and unemployment, compound the challenges for a country already struggling to house, educate and provide proper health care for the world’s fifth most populated country.
The caretaker government installed after Mr. Khan’s ouster issues announcements almost daily of its resolve to uphold a peaceful electoral process: The army will be deployed, schools will be closed for eight days and officials have denied rumors that social media and internet access will be shut down. But there is still palpable tension, demoralization and the unavoidable question: What is this election even for?
I’ve been discussing the idea of democracy with concerned former classmates from my college days in the United States. Some are from countries like mine, where the cycle of democracy and dictatorship is familiar. Others are Americans who are wary of what the U.S. elections might portend. Western countries have been selling Pakistanis on democracy’s superiority over all other political systems for as long as we can remember. But in the United States, the Trump presidency and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, made us scratch our heads and wonder: Are Pakistanis trying to become more democratic like the United States, or are Americans inadvertently, carelessly, becoming less democratic, like us?
In past Pakistani elections — including when Mr. Khan was elected in 2018 — excitement was always sky-high, even though we knew we would probably never have Western-style democracy. Today, it’s sinking in that we may not achieve anything more than the strange hybrid of civilian and military leadership that we have now, and which will always be at risk of some force coming along and snuffing democracy out.
Democracy is infinitely better than out-and-out fascism or authoritarianism. Still, perhaps we are reaching a point where countries are evaluating how effective American-style democracy can realistically be for them, and whether it is a panacea for all cultures and national conditions. We’ve seen democracy’s flaws and how they can be used to undermine the democratic system itself.
Pakistani elections are marked by vote-rigging, political horse-trading and corruption. No matter who wins, they inevitably disappoint because they are always focused more on staying in power than serving the people. Healthy democracy seems more like an El Dorado that is further out of reach with each election.
Yet despite all of this, it’s difficult to fully let go of the democratic idea. So the train keeps running in Pakistan, picking up hopeful new passengers along the way. There has been a surge in registered voters for this election, 44 percent of which are below the age of 35, and more female candidates.
So we will vote this week, our deep sense of pessimism accompanied by faint hope that someday something might change. Voters around the world this year will be told that their voice matters. But in Pakistan, we’re still waiting for proof that anyone is listening.