Can 2018 Elections Shift Balance of Power in Pakistan?

Veteran Indian politician Lal Krishna Advani who has his roots in Sindh, now in Pakistan, once narrated his conversation with late Benazir Bhutto many years ago. Both engaged in Sindhi, the language common to them, when Advani asked her why democracy prospered in India, but not in Pakistan, although both had begun their march post-independence together.

Benazir’s response was that India has independent judiciary and election commission. Pakistan had not nurtured these key institutions well.

This partially explains why democracy has floundered in Pakistan.  The military has ruled directly or through proxies for long years. Elected prime ministers have survived an average of two years and only two governments, each with more than one prime minister, have completed their five-year terms.

Comparisons apart, coming from an Indian scribe, any assessment on Pakistan’s forthcoming elections is liable to be dubbed “Paki-bashing.” Hence this writer quotes as much as possible from Pakistani media reports, writers and analysts to make the point that the outcome of the polls due July 25 is not likely to set the Indus or the Ravi on fire.

The all-powerful Pakistan Army that calls the shots in national affairs is being accused of being engaged in unprecedented “political engineering” this time. It was the turn of late Benazir Bhutto to be co-opted by the army, twice, then came Mian Nawaz Sharif, who became the prime minister thrice. Now the widespread perception is that it is the turn of Imran Khan. Pakistani media reports say he is behaving as if he has already won.

Uncertainty lies in whom the mandate that over ten million electors, a half of them below 35 years of age, will give. It remains to be seen whether any one of the players will muster a clear majority or if it will be post-polls arrangements at federal and provincial levels.

The Pakistan movement in the British era was dominated by the feudal classes. That tradition has continued into its polity. The new generation of candidates, with few exceptions, come from landed gentry, some with labels of religious sects they lead.

As much as for the people of Pakistan, the elections offer both an opportunity and a challenge to the army and the civilian bureaucracy with a compliant judiciary in toe that form, what celebrated editor Najam Sethi of The Friday Times calls the ‘miltablishment’. It rules the roost in this country of two billion. Other institutions matter, but marginally, when it comes to electing a government.

The elections are being called “a theatre with twists and turns” by Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc. a definitive study of Pakistan Army and a political commentator.

Scholar Hussain Haqqani compares the elections to a television sitcom. “Its key ‘actors’ are the chief justice, Imran Khan, and Pakistani military’s official and unofficial spokespersons.” He elaborates the role of each of them to underscore the point that thanks to such ‘actors’ democracy has not evolved in Pakistan.

There is a consensus on Imran Khan’s being the army’s proxy, but not on his winning a majority.  Haqqani says: “One of the most laughter-inducing characters in the Pakistan sitcom is the cricketer-turned-politician, who has been waiting to become a prime minister for two decades, and is confident that ‘the institution’ is about to anoint him to run the country very soon. He flip-flops at the drop of a hat, almost never has his act together, but is vociferously defended by a lot of people on grounds of his supposed honesty.”

“I want the silly season of conspiracy theories and comical television debates to end. Pakistan has serious problems, and is seen as a problem by many in the world. Its affairs should not resemble a television situational comedy,” says Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. and Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11.

Granting that Siddiqa and Haqqani currently live abroad and may be taking pot-shots from a safe distance, see what Lahore-based Sethi and Irfan Husain have to say of ‘rigging’ and “political engineering” of the election process. Sethi  lends a Shakespearean touch to his lament, quoting from Macbeth: Fair is foul and foul is fair…..”

Ignoring Nawaz Sharif’s persistent popularity, the discourse is changing in favour of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), mainly on the assumption that Imran is the chosen one by the army that does not want Nawaz Sharif to return to power, come what may. The judiciary that has targeted Nawaz has spared Imran.

One thing is clear: Military establishment does not want self-exiled former president Pervez Musharraf back. He resigned as chief of his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), but declared that he has not yet quit politics. In the unlikely event of his returning, he is most likely to be detained.

Some ground realities: Nearly a year after the Supreme Court verdict that could not prove any corruption charge, but convicted Nawaz for concealing from the court that he was entitled to receive a salary abroad – which he never received — and ousted him from the prime ministership and later, from chairmanship of the Pakistan Muslim league (Nawaz), the party organization remains largely intact. Its leaders are under constant attacks by the judiciary and face the probe agencies.  Yet, the exodus of those who either despise Nawaz or want to flee his stable has not seriously damaged the party. Nawaz is doing the only thing he can and perhaps, should – talk to the people directly.

The once-mighty Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) is in dire stress. It is confined mainly to Sindh and has imploded outside, losing its base in Punjab. Young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari does not inspire confidence yet and his father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, never did. His efforts to cash in on Nawaz’s political woes have sharpened his image as an operator, not a political leader. What a sad state of a party that the fiery father-daughter duo, Z A and Benazir, once led.

The PPP shares Sindh’s political base with the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) of the mohajirs, the migrants from India, based in and around Karachi. Like the PPP, the MQM, divided with its founder chief Altaf Husain ousted, is in bad shape. Whether the MQM will retain its base or concede to the PPP or anybody else remains to be seen.

How does India look at these elections?

India’s liberal democrats who keenly watched the 2013 polls wishing consolidation of Pakistan’s democracy are on the defensive, not about Pakistan, but about their own ground, in the face of the current rightwing cacophony at home.

They could easily be branded ‘traitors’ the way the few among them have been for seeking dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir. Peace and normalcy in the state – in relative terms, though — whether one accepts it or not, is heavily dependent upon the state of India-Pakistan relations.

Despite that, any effort by New Delhi to talk with Kashmiri leaders seems unlikely in the wake of the collapse of the PDP-BJP alliance, the fall of the state government and imposition of the President’s rule.

Any look at Pakistan from New Delhi would have to await outcome of the July 25 polls. The immediate concern is the role of the militants led by Hafiz Saeed, Mumbai terror attack mastermind and the top favouritge of the ‘miltablishment’. These groups have used loopholes in Pakitan’s election law to muscle or slide their way into the elections. They feed on anti-India diatribe that invariably has reactions in India.

Discrediting of major parties and lower profile of the established Islamist parties leave greater space for the militants and their proxies winning by default more votes than ever before and perhaps, a few seats. Their political strength, ability to influence the future government’s India policy and New Delhi’s response will determine India-Pakistan relations.

Nobody in New Delhi seems to have much hope from who rules in Islamabad when it is crystal clear that the power lies in the General Headquarters.

Siddiqa avers: “What is for sure is that the coming elections are more ideological than ever before. Pakistan will have to choose between being a democracy and a hybrid democracy — that is, a system in which the military makes decisions for which the civilian government takes responsibility.”

Will the elections afford that opportunity to the people of Pakistan? It is doubtful.

()The author can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)


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