Pakistan goes to polls in less than a week. But the country is stunned by a set of terror attacks that killed more than 160 people in a span of two days. Last Friday, a suicide bomb ripped through an election rally killing at least 149 people including the candidate in Mastung, a district in Balochistan.
The attacks dampened election fever—affecting campaigns across the country—but more than anything, the upcoming elections are marred by allegations of massive pre-poll rigging by two of the leading political parties, bringing into question the overall transparency and fairness of the electoral process.
The elections are an important milestone in Pakistan's history. This will be only the second time in 70 years that the country, which has been ruled by military dictators for more than half its age, has the potential to witness a smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another. But observers say that this time too the sinister influence of the establishment—a euphemism used for the military in Pakistan—is impossible to shrug off.
The previously ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People party (PPP) accused the Pakistan military of brazenly supporting Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the political party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Allegations of manipulation
The accusations are not mere electoral rhetoric, as an independent right's group, recently voiced its “grave concern” over the issue. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a statement released last Monday said that it sees “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections.”
It also noted that “there are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy—with alarming implications for Pakistan's transition to an effective democracy.”
The same pressure is also felt by the mainstream media as journalists are being forced to toe the line of the military. The media had been warned against covering speeches of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (before he went to prison) and censoring anything that portrays the army and judiciary in bad light.
In fact, many local journalists say that the clampdown on media reminds them of years spent under dictatorial regimes in the past. In a column published in the Washington Post, Hameed Haroon, the CEO of Dawn, the most prestigious English daily in Pakistan, observes that “recently, the military has embarked on a campaign to remake the political landscape by depicting the leaders of certain political parties as corrupt or hostile to national security.”
Haroon says that the powers-that-be have devised new ways to pressurise the media. “Eager to maintain the facade of caretaker civilian rule,” he writes, “the authorities have refrained from direct censorship. Yet military officials have found other ways to assault constitutionally guaranteed media freedoms. Moves to disrupt newspaper distribution have been accompanied by a series of attacks on dissenting journalists (including sporadic abductions).”
Sharif and the army
Political analysts say that the Pakistani military along with the judiciary is now in total control of the caretaker government. Although, even if it is difficult to establish that those presently at the helm are rooting for Imran Khan in the upcoming elections, the dissension between the military and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is hardly a secret.
Since Nawaz Sharif won the elections in 2013, his tenure has been dotted by ups and downs in his government's relationship with the military. In fact, in many ways, the trajectory of Sharif's political career has been his tussle with the military since he was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and sent into exile after spending 14 months in jail.
Although, one should not forget that Sharif began his political career under the tutelage of General Zia ul Haq, a dictator, who Islamised Pakistan and led the country into Afghan Jihad. But today he is in prison.
Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have been convicted of graft charges and jailed for 10 and eight years respectively. The unprecedented focus on the case coupled with the speedy trial at the accountability court forces led many to believe that the whole exercise was politically motivated. And the punishment was quite harsh too. While, say, cases against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf never really left the back burner.
When the judgement was read, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were in UK, attending to Sharif's wife, who is battling cancer at a hospital in London. It was expected that the father-daughter duo would remain in exile after the conviction. But on July 13, they returned to the country, and went directly to prison—in an act of defiance, which observers say, touched a chord among PML-N's core voter base in Punjab province just weeks before the election.
The establishment has also been accused of taking sides in the politics of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party comprised of the Urdu-speaking Indian migrants who settled in the city, was systematically splintered into current faction, making way for Imran Khan's PTI and another pro-establishment breakaway faction called Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP).
But the most dangerous indication that the establishment is in the game can be gauged by the freedom accorded to several banned religious outfits that have been shockingly cleared by the election commission to contest in the polls.
One of the dreaded leaders of Sipah-e-Sahabah Ahmed Ludhianvi, who, in the past, advocated the killings of Shias and has even been accused of murder, was cleared by the election commission to contest. So was Hafiz Saeed, the internationally designated terrorist and a principle accused in the Mumbai attacks. His Milli Muslim League fielded more than 200 nominations from across the country.
Such elements are not meant to win elections. They act as small-time disruptors who compete to distract some swing votes from important constituencies to hurt the chances of the opponent.
In Pakistan, these groups have been officially banned. But they resurface with new names. The military has in the past suggested that the government should allow extremist groups to blend into the mainstream and begin anew.
The Chosen One
The graph of Imran Khan's popularity is on the rise. He is also confident that this time around it's his chance to sit on the prime minister's chair and change the fate of the country. His campaign narrative is based on the idea of change. With the power to change the system of governance he says that he will change lives. Or maybe he is a catalyst to a new kind of change that not many have understood. There are chances that Khan might pave the way for the military to call the shots, for as long as they want to.
Ammar Shahbazi is a freelance journalist based in Ankara, Turkey