Pakistan Braces for yet another Controversial Election?

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Pakistan Elections 2024, Picture Courtesy: Duniya TV News

Pakistan awaits another general election after ousting Mr. Imran Khan’s government in April 2022, followed by the coalition government of almost all the opposition parties, which completed its term in August 2023. However, the upcoming elections have already become controversial with the allegations of extensive pre-poll political uncertainty, unprecedented political and judicial favoritism, suppression of the most popular political party and its leadership, election delaying tactics, and a clampdown on free media. Under the muddled prevailing environment, no matter who “wins” and “forms” the next government after the upcoming elections scheduled to take place on February 08, 2024, Pakistan seems to be far from achieving democratic stability badly needed to get the troubled nation on a steady path of peace and progress and to preserve its international image.

The forthcoming general elections in Pakistan have been marred by the ongoing political fiasco precipitated by the ousting of Mr. Imran Khan’s government through a controversial no-confidence vote in April 2022. After 10 years of “uninterrupted” democratic rule (2013-2018) in Pakistan, when two consecutive democratically elected governments completed their tenures for the first time in the country’s troubled democratic history, Pakistan continues to await a democratically elected leader who would have completed his five years as the prime minister since the birth of the country in 1947. Imran Khan is the latest addition to this living list of early departing prime ministers. A major reason for the democratic discontinuity and political instability has been the military’s frequent meddling in the political arena, a fact that was admitted by General Bajwa in a televised address in November 2022. He attributed the rising criticism of the military to the “constant meddling by the army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional” and reiterated the military’s resolve not to interfere in any political matter. However, political ground realities have yet to prove this resolve.

An article published in “the diplomat” on August 03, 2018, had predicted that major challenge for Imran Khan as the prime minister shall not come from the opposition political parties but from his so-called benefactors- the army. It further elaborated that “there would be smooth sailing as long as Khan toes the line drawn by the military establishment, but the rug may likely be pulled from under his feet the moment he tries to cross the limit”. The prediction made in this article could not have been mor accurate as the current political mess started brewing since the reported refusal of Mr. Khan to approve the appointment of new ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum as recommended by the Army Chief back in October 2021. Imran wanted to retain Lt Gen Faiz Hameed who supposedly played a pivotal role in bringing Mr. Khan to power and was blamed by various quarters for allegedly rigging 2018 elections. Mr. Khan’s critics also considered Gen Faiz Hameed as an assurance to his rule. Some analysts did term the standoff as a critical juncture for the country’s democratic journey which potentially could have been a watershed moment and harbinger of civilian authority over the military, but it was not to be. In the absence of a standard procedure in the constitution or Army act regarding appointment of the ISI chief, traditionally, prime minister is vested with the authority to make the final selection from a list of three names recommended by the army chief.  However, these three recommendations are generally a formality to get the consent of the prime minister as per the desire of the powerful army chief. Nonetheless, this time around, for whatever reason Mr. Khan decided to test his authority, which eventually cost him his government. Although, after a three-week impasse, Mr. Khan, reluctantly approved the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum as the country’s new spymaster, he had already stirred up the “Hornet’s Nest”. 

          The incident lifted most of the curtains off the publicly acclaimed smooth civilian-military relations. This short but eventful civil-military standoff further antagonized the establishment already weary of the controversial performance of Mr. Khan’s government where GDP growth had slowed down, inflation had reached around 8 to 11 percent, Rupee lost 36% of its value against dollar and rising food energy prices were affecting the common public. Though many analysts regarded Mr. Khan’s government much better than the previous democratic rules; given the circumstances he had to operate in; Covid-19, strained Pk-US relations, and dependence on weak political coalitions to sustain the government, but his fiddling with “The Hornet’s Nest” had sown the seed of his removal. Mr. Khan’s was sent home on Apil 10, 2022 through a controversial but successful vote of no-confidence motion. It was however quite a spectacle for the political observers and analysists to see all the opposition political parties including the two mainstream conventional opponents PPP and PML(N) coming on one platform in a blink of an eye ignoring their diverging ideologies and leanings and setting aside their traditional differences to send Mr. Khan home.

Mr. Khan publicly blamed establishment for engineering the toppling of his government under pressure from the USA quoting a secret diplomatic cable from Pakistani ambassador in the USA. Later, “The Intercept” also published the said secret government cable (“the Cipher”) that spoke of the meeting between Pakistani ambassador in the USA and a State Department official Mr. Lu who expressed growing US dissatisfaction with Imran’s neutral stance on the Ukraine issue and mentioned a vote of no-confidence against Mr. Khan which if successful, “all will be forgiven in Washington”.  A month after this reported meeting as mentioned in the leaked document, a successful no-confidence vote was held in the parliament for removal of Mr. Khan. Was Mr. Khan’s removal the result of US pressure or had he gone a little too far in challenging the military’s traditional authority? Well, there is enough evidence out there to draw an independent opinion for any political analyst who wants to study the issue academically. But the sudden removal of yet another democratically elected and satisfactorily working government through a crafty no-confidence motion has had a devastating effect on the political, economic, and democratic landscape of Pakistan.

Despite losing power in the center, Mr. Khan’s party, PTI, still ruled two of the important provinces i.e. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Centre saw a new government with the coalition of two major political rivals PPP and PML(N) with Mr. Shehbaz Sharif as the new prime minister and Mr. Bilawal Bhutto of PPP as the foreign minister. The new government had another one and a half years before national and provincial assemblies completed their constitutional tenure in July 2023 with elections to be held in October 2023 as per the constitution.

Since his ouster, Mr. Khan has been trying to convince the public that his removal was the result of a conspiracy, an allegation that the military and the opposition parties have denied. His removal from the office and his conspiracy narrative, however, did stir the public sentiment among his huge following across the country and unprecedented rallies were seen in his support. He demanded an early election across the country to let the people of Pakistan decide their future leadership. In the same context, Mr. Khan undertook two famous Azadi marches in May 2022 and October 2022 to force the government to go into early elections since he considered his ousting against the will of the people. The first march was discontinued at the outskirts of Islamabad due to imminent danger of violence and confrontation with the security forces. The second march started in October 2022 from Lahore towards the capital, however, it was stalled after the assassination attempt on Mr. Khan near Wazirabad on November 03, 2022 where six bullets were fired on him. He was lucky to survive and accused openly the prime minister Shahbaz Sharif, interior minister Rana Sana Ullah and ISI major general Faisal Naseer of being behind the plot, however the allegations were refuted by all the quarters. He addressed a huge rally in Rawalpindi on November 26, 2022, and announced dissolution of the two major provincial assemblies of Punjab and KPK hoping to force the government into early elections. Subsequently, after waiting for a few months he did dissolve the two provincial assemblies in Punjab and KPK in January 2023, but the government refused to budge to his demand despite Supreme Court’s ruling to hold the provincial elections within 90 days of dissolution as per the constitution.

Meanwhile scores of police cases (mostly politically motivated) were being registered against Khan and his close aides to pressurize and specially silence him from criticizing intelligence agencies, army and its senior brass and stop asking for early elections. It was on the fateful day of May 09, 2023 that things started getting worse for Mr. Khan. He was arrested on allegations of corruption in Al-Qadir trust case, from within the premises of Islamabad high court by paramilitary forces in a dramatic fashion and dragged into the armored vehicle. The arrest came a day after he had accused a senior ISI official of being behind the assassination attempt on his life the previous year. His “illegal arrest” as deemed by many, agitated his supporters across the country resulting in nationwide violent protests. In a rare occurrence, few groups of protestors were able to storm the highly guarded corps commander house in Lahore, GHQ Rawalpindi, and few other civilian/military installations/monuments across the country.  The violent protests and vandalization of civilian/military installations triggered a stern response from ISPR who termed May 09, as a “black day” in country’s history, termed Khan’s arrest as legal and vowed to bring the perpetrators and planners of the riots to justice. Mr. Khan asked for an independent inquiry to find out the realities behind the incidents and how the agitated crowds even got close to the most secure military sites while police stood and watched. He termed it as a conspiracy to legitimize the crackdown and dismantling of his party.

However, on May 11, Supreme Court of Pakistan declared Khan’s arrest as illegal and explained that the arrest using paramilitary forces from the premises of the court was in violation of the law. Though Mr. Khan was released on two weeks’ bail, an unprecedented crackdown against his party leadership and supporters had already begun. Most of the party’s top leadership was detained, houses of male/female supporters were raided, generalists and around 10000 of PTI workers were arrested within a few days of the incident. Khan blamed the army chief for the ruthless crackdown aimed at dismantling his party and refuted all the allegations of any planning or instructing any vandalization by him or his party.

Since May 09, incidents, and subsequent crackdown on PTI, more than 80 senior PTI members have quit the party as a result of the political engineering/pressurization. Those detained were released only after making a public statement to condemn May 09, and announce quitting PTI. Some of Khan’s old aides like Jehangir Tareen and Pervez Khattak have been persuaded to launch their own political parties where defectors of PTI are welcomed. Khan and his party are even struggling to retain their traditional poll symbol, the cricket bat. Till date more than 150 cases have been registered against Mr. Khan, some of which are of very serious nature with potential death penalty or life imprisonment. Mr. Khan has consistently denied all the accusations, saying the charges are a politically motivated attempt to keep him from running in elections.  According to him, his opponents are afraid of PTI sweeping the next elections if allowed to contest freely on level playing field.

0n August 05, 2023, police arrested Mr. Imran Khan again after a court “controversially” sentenced him to three years in prison for illegally selling state gifts. Although, the Islamabad High Court suspended Imran Khan’s three-year sentence and ordered his release from jail on August 29, he was arrested again on the same day in the cipher case, under the Official Secrets Act for misusing a confidential diplomatic cable (cipher) for political purposes when he was in power in Pakistan. Top Pakistani Lawyers like Mr Aitezaz Ahsen and independent political/legal experts have questioned the legality of charges and in-jail trial. Mr. Khan is jailed since then along with former foreign minister of Pakistan Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi who refused to leave PTI. Their court trial is being conducted in the jail with efforts to try them in military courts.

On the other hand, his main opponent Mr. Nawaz Sharif who was convicted and sentenced for 10 years in jail and disqualified for life on money laundering and corruption charges by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in July 2018, and was later able to sneak out to London in November 2019 for medical treatment with a promise to return within weeks of getting better, has now returned to Pakistan like a hero. He stayed in the UK for four years, felt better in October 2023, when Imran Khan had been imprisoned, and is being treated like an innocent by the courts and the establishment. Legal grounds are being prepared for his possible contesting of the elections, in the same context, he has been acquitted of all the corruption/money laundering charges by a federal court within a couple of months since his return. Mr. Sharif who once blamed country’s powerful military for his ouster and conviction, is now considered a favorite of the current military leadership. Nonetheless, he has a record of falling out with the military once in power; a prediction supported by many analysts if he comes to power the fourth time. He and his party are yet to garner the required public support to win the upcoming elections. So far, the few political rallies that the PML(N) has held fell far below Mr. Sharif’s expectations as per the independent analysts. No wonder PML(N) has not planned any big political rallies since after his return back home. Mr. Sharif and his party are seen getting exemplary support and favoritism from the judiciary, the government, the election commission, and the establishment. Analysts predict Mr. Sharif getting into the PM office a fourth time with the ongoing support from all the centers of power in Pakistan. The only hurdle remaining in the way is his life-time disqualification to hold any public office and given the speed at which he is being acquitted of all the charges, one could expect his return optimistically.

Another major political rival of PTI is PPP led by Mr. Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto who seem to be struggling to retain their power in Sindh, especially in the key city of Karachi. They have lost considerable popularity across rest of the Pakistan and are not likely to secure any worthwhile representation out of Sindh barring few seats based on rural/traditional vote bank. PML(Q) led by Mr. Pervez Elahi is already supporting PTI with its leader behind bars for not leaving Imran Khan.  MQM, Jamat e Islami, JUI (F) and TLP with their traditional vote-bank regions are expected to play a key role in case of
hung-parliament; traditionally smaller parties remain under the influence of the establishment behind the scenes and are used when and where required. 

Almost all the independent opinion polls so far in Pakistan indicate PTI to be the most popular political force in the country and Imran Khan as the most popular leader. For the same reason, all his opponents seem to be playing all the dirty political/legal tricks to not only dismantle his party but also to not to let Mr. Khan contest the next election. Mr. Khan has recently nominated his Lawyer Mr. Gohar Ali Khan as the new party chairman through an intra-party election as demanded by the election commission of Pakistan. However, this step has also not caused any major dent in his popularity and a vast majority of the public still supports him. 

Election commission of Pakistan has issued the much-awaited election schedule for the upcoming elections. Here is the summary of a chaotic political situation in Pakistan; Khan along with Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi remain in jail where they are being tried in the cipher case, many of his senior leadership has been made to quit, others are behind bars, crackdown against his party continues, Mr. Sharif and his party are being facilitated by all means possible, PPP and other parties are watching the political situation carefully and getting ready for the elections, there is a strict check on independent reporting, many of the independent generalists have been detained or have left the country, PTI and their supporters are not allowed to undertake large political rallies, PTI lawyer Sher Afzal Marwat, who tried to mobilize the public has been arrested in Lahore, there is an atmosphere of fear for PTI supporters, elections commission of Pakistan has requested the government for around 591,000 security personnel (including regular army troops) to be deployed for February 08, 2023 elections, and all efforts (as per the independent analysts) seem to be in place to bring Mr. Sharif back into power. It would be up to the independent international observers and the world community to closely monitor the forthcoming elections in Pakistan, which if not conducted fairly, could deteriorate country’s already fragile political and economic stability.

It must also be source of serious concern for the international community and specially the United States of America to ensure that true democracy in Pakistan is supported in every possible way and matters of national, regional, and international security are discussed with the political leadership instead of relying on military establishment. More than 230 million people of Pakistan (64% below the age of 30), understand and are ready to embrace true democracy in the country to reap its true benefits and to unleash their true potential.

However, unfortunately, all the ground realities marred by massive political engineering, coercive tactics, old pre-poll tactics and judicial favoritism, indicate that people of Pakistan should brace for, yet another so called “democratic period” shadowed by a weak government, economic instability, corruption, internal strife, and a much stronger role of the military; a situation which does not bode well for the country, its democratic future, and the region.



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