Playing the anti-Nawaz Sharif game

The Pakistani military with its new friend, the superior judiciary, is ensuring that the election goes its way

Next week, Pakistanis are expected to vote in the country’s eleventh general election, the first having been conducted in 1970. Of the previous 10, apart from the first one in 1970, and the last one in 2013, the general consensus among social scientists and political analysts has been that all the elections, in some small or significant manner, have been unfree, unfair, nontransparent, and manipulated in some form or the other.

Rigging elections

Not surprisingly, given Pakistan’s political economy and the hegemonic power and often control of the military and its many clandestine agencies over civilian arenas, it has been the military which has been responsible for manipulating and rigging elections. Three of the last 10 elections were held when a military dictator was in power. Of them, two were held when the army chief was also President of Pakistan and determining who could or could not contest the elections and setting his own rules for participation. The four elections between 1988 and 1997 were all controlled and manipulated by the establishment, constituting the military, bureaucracy, and a pliant judiciary which sat in silence as such acts were committed. Political actors and parties were also to blame in the late 1980s and the lost decade of the 1990s, when both the Prime Ministers who were elected twice were complicit in bringing down the other’s government while in opposition.

All signs suggest that the elections next week are going to be thoroughly rigged, to whatever extent possible, through the connivance of the military and the judiciary in order to ensure a result which works in the best interests of the military and institutions which support its dominance. We can expect a hung parliament, with numerous candidates eager to fall in line with whoever is permitted to form the government. While the military and its institutions may not be able to stuff ballot boxes, which still happens in some countries, enough prepoll rigging has already taken place to ensure that the military gets its preferred prime ministerial candidate elected. This has ensured that primarily one individual and his party do not gain enough seats to form the government on their own. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan is the military’s favoured potential candidate. He is eager and willing, if not just desperate, to be subservient to whatever interests and guarantees the military will demand.

Much of the political engineering and prepoll rigging started early, in June last year, when the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was disbarred from holding any public office and was removed from the office to which he was elected in 2013. While it was the judiciary which disqualified him, most lawyers bemoaned the fact that the case against Mr. Sharif was extremely weak and may have had the blessings of the military. After being removed from office, quite unexpectedly, the government of Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), managed the transition to a new Prime Minister very smoothly, and was able to govern effectively. Despite Mr. Sharif’s dismissal, there was wide agreement then that his party would be re-elected in 2018. Just disqualifying him was not enough. So in April this year, the Supreme Court gave its judgment that Mr. Sharif was now barred for life from holding any public office. This was done in the hope that he would be made completely irrelevant to the electoral equation.

As elections approached and potential candidates announced that they would contest, numerous candidates were pressured to change political parties or dump Mr. Sharif and his party. Again, there was some evidence that the pressure was coming from the military, which wanted to cut down the PML(N) to a size which it could manage and manipulate. Along with such measures, the Pakistani press has been gagged, with the two most popular media houses, the Jang Group and Dawn, censored and censured. This has been done to an extent where editors have said that such censorship in Pakistan today is “worse than it was under martial law”. Editors and journalists have made it public that they were told, in no uncertain terms, that they should cut down their coverage of Mr. Sharif and his jalsas, and promote Mr. Khan and his campaign.

Courting arrest

Despite these manoeuvres often packaged with threats, the PML(N) and Mr. Sharif continued to be popular. The former Prime Minister would have certainly lost possible allies, but all independent reports continued to give a majority to the PML(N), albeit much smaller than a year ago. The latest twist in this anti-PML(N) and anti-Nawaz Sharif game played by the military and judiciary came around last week when Mr. Sharif was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in a case against him. Again, many prominent lawyers have questioned the basis of such a whimsical judgment, saying that it shows a clear bias against Mr. Sharif. The assumption was that since Mr. Sharif was in London visiting his ill wife, he would prefer asylum or exile and become an absconder from the courts, much like former President of Pakistan, General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf. Being a political man, Mr. Sharif made the bold decision to return to Lahore along with his daughter, Maryam, who has also been sentenced to seven years, and court arrest a mere 12 days before the elections. Just this one move by the former Prime Minister outwitted the military and judiciary at their own game.

Today, Mr. Sharif and his daughter are in jail, commencing possibly long prison terms. Yet, by returning in the face of a future foretold, Mr. Sharif has gained much sympathy, support and respect among the general public. He is being considered brave and principled, despite the fact that he was found by the courts to have been ‘corrupt’. This is no longer about a sense of martyrdom, which played out well before the jail sentence after he was removed from office, but high politics, about being made an example of, demanding greater democratisation. Most importantly, Mr. Sharif has been brave enough to name high-ranking generals in the Inter-Services Intelligence for their active role in rigging the current electoral process. For the first time, a political leader from the heartland of the Punjab is challenging the dominant and most powerful institution from there.

Given an overtly dominant military, Pakistan’s democratic evolution has been slow. All signs that a mature democratic transition would have taken place from 2008 have been proven to be overly optimistic, and the military with its new-found friend and ally, the superior judiciary, has hit back hard. Yet, one must also emphasise that history is not repeating itself with every politician playing into the hands of the military as they did in the past. Even if its candidate is crowned Prime Minister in the coming weeks, the military has unintentionally strengthened the process of democratisation in Pakistan.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi

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