By Afrasiab Khattak
Despite several bad omens, hiccups and uncertainties election season has finally arrived. Electoral machine has started rolling. Election Commission has announced schedule for the general elections of 2018 and count down for July 25, the polling day, has started. National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies have completed their constitutional term for the second time in the 71 years history of Pakistan, although the elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed by the Supreme Court (like Yosuf Raza Gilani of the PPP in 2012) through a judgement that did not impress the legal experts. Federal government, that was almost moribund at the hands of a creeping coup, finished its innings in a quiet grace under Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.Abbasi’s patience, humility and composure in the face of constant affronts and pin pricking by the putschists was remarkable and was appreciated even by his opponents.
There are a few factors that set the forthcoming general elections apart from the previous ones. Although Pakistan has experienced a controlled democracy after Zia-ul- Haq’s martial law in 1980s but the civilian leaderships relentlessly struggled to maintain a semblance of democratic system. However, after the success of the creeping coup that has been unfolding since 2014, the shadow of authoritarianism has deepened to an extent where even the facade of democracy is vanishing. Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental ingredient of a democratic system. But Pakistani media has come under severe constraints during the last few months. Media groups that weren’t ready to dance to the tunes of the deep state experienced excruciating squeezes. Unlike the civilian governments that put pressure on media by using black laws and rules the deep state doesn’t even care about the pretence of recourse to any legal procedure. It goes for strangulating dissent by resorting to crude fascist like methods. Prime Minister of Pakistan, the chief executive of the country and the Information Minister were helpless. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court took the matter up but to no avail. One of the media groups that was targeted some time ago was ultimately forced to have “compromise” with the forces that be. Another well known group has been targeted recently and is currently at the receiving end of relentless attack.
The other serous issue of the human rights is that of the enforced disappearances. There are thousands of reported cases of the missing persons and the civil executive and judiciary have totally failed to make any headway in resolving the issue. Court orders for production of the abducted persons remain ineffective as the concerned security agencies deny their involvement in enforced disappearances. New cases are being reported from different parts of the country while the old ones aren’t resolved. This situation creates fear and helplessness that can be extremely unsettling for ordinary citizens even for living a normal life let alone taking part in free and fair election.
The significance of a level playing field for all political parties contesting elections cannot be ignored for holding free and fair elections. In Pakistan there have been complaints in the past about the attitude of the state institutions towards different political players. During the last elections, the electoral campaign of the relatively progressive political parties was brazenly attacked by terrorists. ANP bore the brunt of these attacks. The election campaign of PPP and MQM was also disrupted by terrorist onslaught. The state had clearly failed in providing security to the aforementioned political parties during the elections. But this time round not so very subtle political engineering seems to be the name of the game. Defeating Muslim League (N) in the forthcoming election appears to be at the top of agenda. Every trick in the book is being used to malign and demonise it. Lots of efforts have gone into encouraging desertions from the so called ruling party over the last few months. Herding electable candidates to PTI, that has emerged as the new king’s party, and controlling media in its favour, seem to be the main strategies for achieving desired results in elections. The main focus of the political engineering by the deep state is on the Punjab because it is not only the main political base of Nawaz Sharif but winning Punjab also means winning Islamabad. Be that as it may, this bleak situation is not without its silver lining. There are at least four new factors in the political situation that can turn the tables on the political engineering of the deep state. One, Nawaz Sharif, the three time elected Prime Minister, with a large scale following in the country, particularly in the key province of Punjab, has decided to challenge the political role of the deep state. Spending long years in politics, both in the government and in the opposition, he is the most experienced politician in the country. Now when his party is not any more part of the system, he can speak more openly about and give details of the creeping coup against his elected government.
Moreover, the deep state can’t cross certain limits against its opponents in the Punjab because most of the army also comes from the same province. Two, contradiction between the deep state and the elected representatives in the government is an open secret by now and the common people know as to who calls the shots in making important decisions. As we know the popular movement recently launched by PTM didn’t raise a single slogan against the PML (N) because they knew that the state policy which hurt the Pashtuns wasn’t shaped by the ruling party. Nawaz Sharif has successfully projected his victimhood at the hands of the forces of dictatorship among the masses. Business classes in general and Punjabi bourgeoisie in particular has come to believe that the deep state has thrown Nawaz Sharif out because he was taking the country from the geo strategic of the Cold War to the geo economic of the 21st century. Hence their sympathies for him. Broad sections of society are prepared to forget Nawaz Sharif’s past mistakes and judge him on what he stands for today. Three, the growing international isolation of the country on the question of extremist violence is a source of concern for most of Pakistanis and they know that Nawaz Sharif, like most of other political leaders is opposed to appeasement of extremism and terrorism. Four, last but not the least the growing role of social media has changed the rules of engagement when it comes to control over media and public opinion. Welcome to election 2018 (that’s if they are held!).
(The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)