A manipulated outcome

Pakistan may be headed towards an election that is compromised

By Mehmal Sarfraz
  • Published 13.06.18

The general elections in Pakistan are all set to take place next month. With the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government completing its tenure and a caretaker set-up in place, we are seeing our second democratic transition. The electoral process has started. Political parties have almost finalized party tickets to candidates, nomination papers are being filed, the election campaign has started and will be in full swing post-Eid. On July 25, Pakistanis will vote in another government. The second democratic transition will be complete once a new democratic government comes to power. Who will form the government - the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or the Pakistan Peoples Party? This is the question that is on everyone's mind.

In 2013, it was quite apparent that the PML-N would bag the majority of seats, but this time around nothing is clear. Or there seems to be no clear winner. There are a lot of conspiracy theories doing the rounds and this is understandable given that we are living in interesting times. There are rumours that the PTI and the PPP will form a coalition government after the elections as no party will get a clear majority. That is, if the elections take place.

As with everything else, there are rumours about the elections too... that they can be delayed. In fact, one of the main reasons being cited for delaying the elections is that despite all the 'engineering' by the powers-that-be, the PTI has not made much of a dent in the PML-N vote bank in Punjab. It seems that the PML-N's popularity is quite high and its vote bank still quite strong as is being witnessed in the huge rallies being held all over the Punjab province. It appears that the Sharifs' anti-Establishment narrative is resonating with the masses, and this has clearly scared the Establishment. Some pawns of the military establishment did try to create hurdles in the form of resolutions and letters asking for a delay in the elections. Nothing came of them. Petitions to this effect were also filed. So far, the Election Commission of Pakistan, the Supreme Court and the caretaker set-up have given assurances that the elections will not be delayed under any circumstances.

The military establishment is not happy with the Sharif family; therefore, neither is the judiciary, which the Sharifs accuse of being a proxy of the military establishment. The trial of the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, will most likely conclude by next month. Whether he goes to jail or not is another question on everyone's mind. There is some talk of a 'deal' being struck between the Establishment and Sharif. Only time will tell if there is any truth in such rumours but, so far, it seems as if it is just that - a rumour.

If the elections are held on time, there are chances of some sort of manipulation. We have already seen pre-poll rigging in order to defeat the PML-N.

PILDAT, a think tank focused on political and public policy research and legislative strengthening, has termed the perception of the pre-electoral process leading up to the elections to be unfair. It says: "This conclusion was reached after carrying out a pre-election assessment using an 11-point Pre-poll Fairness Framework... The 2 parameters that have fallen in the Highly Unfair scale based on the score received are Perception of Neutrality of Military towards competing political parties and candidates receiving the lowest score of 33.4%, followed by the parameter of Perception of Freedom of Private Media from the influence of State institutions and vested interests receiving a score of 37.8%."

Some usual suspects have defected from the PML-N to the PTI at the behest of powerful players. While we don't know if more such defections are on the cards or not so close to the elections, we do see how the media are being pressurized. From blackouts of some 'sensitive' subjects to articles being taken down to channels going off-air, we see what is going on. After the Jang/Geo group (it had to bow down into submission), now the Dawn group is under fire for publishing Sharif's remarks about the Mumbai attack in an interview to the paper.

As if muzzling the mainstream media is not enough, social media is being targeted as well. The military's spokesman held a press briefing recently. He showed a slide of Twitter accounts which, as per the DG ISPR, tweeted or re-tweeted anti-Pakistan tweets because they were being manipulated by our 'enemies'. The said slide had pictures of some journalists as well as social media activists. Many called it another tool of censorship as it was clearly aimed at intimidating journalists and social media activists. Then we saw how Gul Bukhari was picked up in the middle of the night and later released. These are clearly tactics for intimidation. And they do work. Now a lot of people will think twice before tweeting something that is critical of the military and its policies. Not everyone is willing to take a risk.

The judiciary is already being criticized for being soft on the military establishment and/or playing to its tunes. As Najam Sethi noted in The Friday Times: "The Supreme Court, too, is much sound and fury signifying nothing as far as military matters are concerned. It thunderously ordered the Asghar Khan case to be reopened. Now it has quietly nudged the civilian government to refer the treasonable generals to a court martial under the Army Act. This is passing the buck big time on an important matter of constitutional subversion."

Under these circumstances, even if the elections take place on time, they will be unfair and detrimental to the ethos of democracy. With a compromised judiciary, muzzled media, dummy politicians, we can only expect a manipulated outcome of democratic exercise. While a weak democracy is always better than even the best military dictatorship, a weak coalition government put together by the military establishment will do us no good, given that the economy is in tatters and Pakistan is facing international isolation. Instead of learning it the hard way, it is hoped that those who are pulling the strings are intelligent enough to let the people decide our country's fate. A strong democratic government would go a long way in helping Pakistan out of the mess it is in but, unfortunately, the powers-that-be are not listening.

The author is a journalist based in Lahore mehmal.s@gmail.com