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Countdown to the 'dirtiest, costliest election' in Pakistan's history

Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif prior to their arrest. Photo: ANI/Twitter
The general elections in Pakistan are going to be held one week from now on July 25. Besides the two largest political parties -– the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) -– most experts and commentators have already called these one of the worst elections in Pakistan’s history. I A Rehman from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has called these the “dirtiest, costliest election in Pakistan’s history”. Both the PML-N and the PPP have already alleged pre-poll rigging and arm-twisting by the military establishment. While the army spokesman clarified in a recent press conference that the army is not siding with any political party, Mian Nawaz Sharif named a senior ISI official of arm-twisting PML-N candidates while the PPP’s Farhatullah Babar named two Colonels and one Major of pressurising party loyalists to change their loyalties.

It is no secret that Pakistan’s powerful military establishment wields a lot of power and has been accused of manipulating elections and forming new electoral alliances in the past; the Asghar Khan case is one such example. For those who are not familiar with this case, in 1996, (late) Air Marshal Asghar Khan filed a human rights petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan accusing the ISI of giving money to a group of politicians in order to defeat (late) Benazir Bhutto in the 1990 elections. Former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif is one of the politicians accused of taking money from the spooks.

Pakistan’s main problem is how civilians are always at the receiving end of criticism while the establishment is always portrayed as our saviours. In an interview with the Herald, when asked what the basic problem was with civil-military relations, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto said: “The inability of the military to bow before the people’s will.” This one line sums up everything that is wrong with Pakistan’s political structure. In the same interview, (late) Ms Bhutto said that the reason the establishment is able to present a discredited image of political figures is because “the army does give power to some politicians, it has divided the civilian popular base by holding out to those who cannot win — the promise of power without legitimacy”. When one reads and re-reads this particular interview published back in 2000, one is surprised at how, after almost two decades, each and every word spoken by Benazir Bhutto is still relevant and holds true.

“The promise of power without legitimacy” is something the next likely government will face.

The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case on grounds not related to the original case of corruption and his subsequent arrest a few days ago on another weak judicial judgment speaks volumes about the judiciary’s role in this political drama. As renowned lawyer Babar Sattar noted in his recent column, “You may or may not wish NS and Maryam to rot in jail. But what Judge Bashir has produced is an embarrassment for all of us associated with the justice system. Will the sloppy use of law as a power tool entrench rule of law?” (‘Bad man theory of law’, The News).

Ever since the Panama verdict, the PML-N has consistently questioned the judiciary’s impartiality. It must be pointed out here that when PPP’s former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the judiciary a few years ago, the same PML-N had hailed that verdict. Now that the tables have turned, their mealy-mouthed response is that PM Gilani should not have been disqualified. The same PML-N cancelled a meeting with the PPP’s Asif Zardari over his ‘anti-military outburst’ back in 2015. Some say Mr Sharif couldn’t afford this meeting because the PML-N had barely come out unscathed from the 2014 dharna (sit-in) led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). The dharna may have been staged by PTI and PAT leadership and supporters but the military establishment is said to have orchestrated it in order to put pressure on Mr Sharif and his government in the aftermath of the Musharraf trial and his pro-India stance, among other things. Mr Sharif’s government was ‘cut to size’ following the dharna. Finally, they got him through the Panama case.

The PPP also tried to play ball with the establishment during the Senate elections a few months ago by voting for Sadiq Sanjrani as Chairman Senate. So did the PTI. But the PPP lost the support of the establishment during their election campaign. Some say it is because the party did not agree to an election delay while others say it is because if the PPP wins a significant number of seats, a coalition government cannot be formed without its support and this is something the establishment is not ready for. Chairman PPP Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has been a voice of sanity throughout the election campaign. Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s straight talk regarding media censorship and election engineering has not gone down well with the powers-that-be.

As for Imran Khan and his PTI, Susie Dent’s tweet sums up their political strategy: “My word of the day is ‘quockerwodger’: a 19th century wooden toy puppet whose limbs jerk about at the whim of the puppet master. It soon became used for a politician whose strings are pulled entirely by someone else.” No wonder PTI has been termed ‘Ladla’ (favourite) Party and Imran Khan is being referred to as ‘PM Select’ by Bilawal Bhutto.

This is not to say that PTI is not a popular party. In fact, PTI is extremely popular and has a lot of support on the ground but this genuine support is still not enough for the party to form a government without the help of the ‘angels’. With the PML-N and PPP facing the worst form of election engineering, the road is clear for the PTI and a coalition of independents and some other ‘favourites’ to form the next government. Will this plan work? So far, it seems so. But come Election Day and voter turnout, even the best-laid plans of mice and men may go awry. />
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. She can be reached at mehmal.s@gmail.com and tweets at @Mehmal

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.