On July 17, a group of unknown men descended on an unsuspecting donkey in Karachi. They punched it, ripped its nostrils, rammed a car into it and branded the word “Nawaz” onto its skin, then left it to die on the side of the road. A passerby found it lying badly hurt and near death in the early hours of the following morning. He spent the next few hours frantically trying to find help. He took photographs and posted them on Facebook, hoping to catch the attention of someone who would know what to do. The content was graphic, the plea desperate. Eventually a charity, the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation, or ACF, stepped in to help.

The women over at the ACF took in the donkey, dressed his wounds, hooked him up to intravenous drips and nursed its broken body. According to their last update, the donkey remains in critical condition. Calls for donations poured in as outrage mounted. What could this donkey have possibly done to exact such revenge?

Turns out the donkey has a very special relationship with Pakistan’s general election, scheduled for next week. Just a few days earlier, the prime minister-in-waiting Imran Khan had called supporters of his main opponent, the imprisoned Nawaz Sharif, “ghaddhay”, or donkeys. Fools. Idiots. People who do not know any better.

Suddenly, all the city’s donkeys were at risk. This animal was no longer just a vessel for labour and transport. It had become political incarnate. The men who attacked it used it to make a point.

As it brayed in pain, the perpetrators must have laughed. To them, he probably sounded just like Nawaz Sharif.

It may have been supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf who got their kicks by brutalising the donkey but the party has vehemently denied this. If you are into conspiracy theories, it may well have been workers of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. They, too, could not resist the bad press it would naturally engender for Khan’s party. In this bizarre election season, you could bet on both horses.

This is in keeping with the times. Everything is not what it appears, and nothing is as it should be. For the polls slated to take place on July 25, a lot of assigned roles are being disregarded. Overstepping is the name of the game. No one is staying in their lane.

A former cricketer is now on track to becoming prime minister. A former prime minister is on track to become the most-well known inmate at Adiala jail. The most mature campaign has come from a candidate less than half his main opponent’s age. The political career of a student is being launched by an outburst caught on camera. A condescending white journalist from the BBC has become the mascot of Twitter trolls. Activists are no longer required on the streets because the most effective ones are found in our judiciary.

Fooling the people

But elections in Pakistan have never been about catering to the many. Our democracy is not built that way. Khan is not winning the election because he is the most popular leader. He is winning because someone decided it was his turn.

Sharif has had three turns on this merry-go-round even though he has never actually managed to complete the ride. This is what happens when you are the champion of democracy only when the votes are in your favour. Otherwise, you are happy to grow up at the teat of dictatorial luxury. Sometimes it lands you in Saudi Arabia, sometimes in the Prime Minister House, but this time in a jail cell. And one that we have been told is not fit to be occupied by our former leader (but who can blame him – it is not like he had three shots at improving prison conditions in Pakistan).

This is not meant to discourage any of the 107 million registered voters from going out to cast their ballots next week. But if we want to play this game, let us do it right by educating ourselves of our options.

A cursory read of the manifestos reveals much thought has been given to the youth in Pakistan. There is an unprecedented “youth bulge” in the country that has the potential to alter its political landscape for good. So there is talk of creating jobs (10 million to be exact), education, entrepreneurship opportunities, technology – all geared to remind us that at over 65, they know how to represent the 64% of the country that remains under the age of 30.

If this election was truly democratic, then 47 candidates over the age of 70 would not be running (no less than 36 of them coming from the two main parties). Something would have been said about defusing the ticking population bomb. If the proof is in the pudding, where are the party tickets for, you know, the youth?

To exist for over 70 years is a long time but apparently not long enough to provide universal unemployment insurance or free healthcare. Economic and social mobility remains a myth. Infant mortality rates are rising as if to balance these rates dropping everywhere else in the world. Instead, Pakistan’s polity has chosen to spend time pointing fingers and oscillating between the democratic experiment and “liberators” from the army.

Given our politicians’ track record, the donkey is really the people of Pakistan. We are the real victims of their carefully crafted political games. They pulverise us, only to expect our gratitude when they bandage our wounds. They laugh at us when we ask for more. They kick us to the side of the curb, leaving us at the mercy of non-profits that step in to do what the government won’t. They ask us to trust them with our vote, only to call us idiots when we do.

In 2009, the Taliban strapped an improvised explosive device to a donkey and sent it galloping towards a military camp in Afghanistan. At least that death was quick.

Rimmel Mohydin is a human rights activist who lives in Lahore.