By Manzoor Ahmed
AS the election date (28th July) is coming near, they are being criticized and discredited by its own media and analysts who call it an unprecedented effort at ‘rigging’ and “political engineering.” The country is going to the polls under a caretaker government headed by a supreme court retired chief justice. But there are widespread perceptions that the all-powerful army is working through its proxies in the civilian government and in collusion with a compliant judiciary that has a long record of such compliance.
The principal target of this “political engineering” is Nawaz Sharif who was ousted from the prime minister last year after a Supreme Court verdict that critics at home experts on jurisprudence abroad have termed flawed and lacking in natural justice.
Sharif and his family have been embroiled in numerous court cases, inquiries and investigations. But Sharif, who has taken to the streets with his “save democracy” campaign, remains popular and his party, the PML (N) remains the country’s largest political party.
The other aspect of these efforts is to promote cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan who, like Sharif once was, is the new ‘favourite’ of the military. The judiciary on its part has ignored allegations against Imran, including money-laundering, owning property abroad and even having fathered a child out of wedlock in Europe. The last allegation is serious in a traditional Muslim society.
Renowned analyst Ayesha Siddiqa calls Pakistan’s elections “a thriller, full of twists and turns” in which “patronage and power play” may impact the outcome. She talks of a crackdown on media and dissenting voices. “On 6 June 2018, Gul Bukhari, a journalist known for her sympathy with the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) party, was picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies for a few hours before being
released. Such incidents not only increase fear, but make people sceptical about the fairness of the electoral process.”
On June 20, Dawn, respected and known for its moderate views, went public with an announcement of move to forcibly deny readers access to any newspaper is violation of Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution “The distribution of Dawn newspaper, for the past month, is witnessing daily disruptions in targeted cities and towns across Pakistan.
Hawkers and sales agents are being subjected to continued harassment, threats and physical coercion, while attempting to deliver copies of Dawn to our regular subscribers,” a statement issued by the management of Dawn, said.
“There is a tangible sense that the army is angling for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to win the election. The army would like tointroduce Khan as a symbol of change who will herald in a new era of politics in the country. Notwithstanding doubts about how much the former cricketer represents change (since his politics appear to be based on compromise and partnering with questionable candidates), it
is clear that the military is prepared to push back on parties it favoured in the past like the Pakistan People’s Party and the PML-N to get its way,” Siddiqa, a Research Associate at the SOAS South Asia Institute, University of London, writes on East Asia Forum web site.
She notes that the election commission’s decision not to invite foreign observers into the country to monitor the elections has cast suspicion on the integrity of the elections.
“Foreigners may try to come independently but receiving visas will be an issue because Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency will be screening the immigration process,” she writes, indicating the role of the army. The army (which is stated to has been a political actor in Pakistan since the country’s first coup in 1958) might not set about overtly rigging the vote itself. But sceptics of both the military and the PTI believe that these groups have engaged in a sort of pre-poll rigging by shifting the country’s political narrative to focus excessively on the issue of corruption.
All efforts of Pakistan’s extra-parliamentary forces like the military and the judiciary are focussed on pinning all of the country’s political and economic issues on the misconduct of the ruling PML-N party. Nawaz Sharif is coming under tremendous fire due to his name appearing in the Panama Papers scandal.
would be in addition to those that will vote for Khan because they are aware that the military establishment is leaning towards him. It is this establishment that Sharif recently labelled an ‘extraterrestrial force’ that influences political events and developments in Pakistan without formally being part of the political system.
Pakistan’s politically powerful military, famous for being ‘an army with a country’, has a history of dictating Pakistan’s political circumstances. From the first popularly and democratically elected leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Sharif and Khan, none could come to power only with the help of the army.
After every military takeover and subsequent transition from an army- to a civilian-led government, the military would introduce a new set of politicians. The older ones, especially those who were perceived as deviating from the military’s political path, would get punished or pushed out.
Siddiqa and other analysts say that Pakistan’s politicians are themselves invested in this patronage-based political system and they are open to manipulation by the army. Imran Khan had laid a siege of Parliament some years ago and it was talked of the town that the then ISI chief had instigated him to spite Nawaz Sharif. The siege was lifted after this officer’s telephonic message.
Pakistani electorate is also conscious of the role the army plays and many proudly orchestrate this. What matters to them is ultimately the favoured politicians /parties ability to deliver favours and benefits. A lot of voting choices are influenced by ‘which way the wind blows’ in the final days prior to the elections.
Critics like Cyril Almeida who writes for Dawn have said that in the long run-up to the elections, in orders to depose a democratically-elected Sharif, the army created “an artificial crisis” that went ‘real’ and went out of control. It has caused numerous twists and turns that have robbed the forthcoming elections of any sanctity.
Despite reports of the intelligence agencies contacting federal and provincial parliamentarians to switch sides, mass desertions from the PML-N have not taken place. This provides some early indication of the ongoing public support for PML-N amid these pressures, especially in Punjab that will determine the outcome of how a government at the federal level is formed.
Siddiqa avers: “What is for sure is that the coming elections are more ideological than ever before. Pakistan will have to choose between being a democracy and a hybrid democracy — that is, a system in which the military makes decisions for which the civilian government takes responsibility.
Giving the elections a tragic Shakespearean twist, The Friday Times editor Najam Sethi quotes the line from Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” In his editorial in the issue of June 15, 2018, he says: “There is a political consensus among the various state institutions that comprise the Miltablishment that Nawaz Sharif cannot be allowed under any circumstances to return to power and Imran Khan must be elevated to the prime ministership, come hell or high water. Critics say that towards these ends, the Miltablishment has engineered the Senate elections to its satisfaction and is now primed to achieve “suitable” results in the general elections. Meanwhile, the popular will is tilting against this brazen exercise of fascist power.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. This electoral exercise will go down in Pakistan’s constitutional history as the greatest robbery of all times, with dire consequences for state and society.” A reader of Sethi’s editorial has called the forthcoming exercise as “the greatest robbery of all times.”
By Manzoor Ahmed