The outcome of Pakistan’s parliamentary and provincial elections, scheduled for July 25, can now safely be predicted. Their result will be further instability and political turmoil.
The military, the intelligence apparatus, and their allies in the superior judiciary are working overtime to ensure that the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – dominant among ethnic Punjabis – does not win. Their approach is similar to the one used to advance Sharif’s career against Benazir Bhutto in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Sharif has been disqualified by the Supreme Court for not being ‘honest and sagacious’ – a subjective criterion inserted into the constitution by General Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan with an iron hand for a decade only to bequeath a troubled legacy.
Meet the agriculture department
Zia had taken power in a military coup after the disputed election of 1977, promising to hold free and fair polls within 90 days. He went on to execute Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister he toppled, and postpone elections until he could ensure ‘positive results’.
Sharif was initially a Zia protégé and was backed by the military-intelligence complex that feared the electoral success of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
For 30 years – from 1977 to 2007, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated – Pakistani politics was manipulated by the military-led establishment in an effort to contain the younger Bhutto and her party.
Now, it seems, the obsession is with cutting Sharif and his PML to size. Military intelligence officers have intimidated a number of PML leaders into joining cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or other smaller parties. Those refusing to heed warnings have been charged with corruption or disqualified from contesting the election. The media’s freedom has been curtailed.
Journalists and candidates routinely receive threats from intelligence operatives. Military officers are shamelessly summoning returning officers and other election staff for meetings although the law gives them no authority to do so. Sharif describes the invisible men trying to influence the election as ‘the aliens’.
Some of the goings-on are laughable yet tragic. One PML candidate recorded his sentiments on a video about military intelligence personnel raiding his warehouse and manhandling him. He recorded a second video in an even more frazzled condition.
In the second video, he said those involved in attacking him came from the ‘agriculture department’, leading to jokes about how the ISI had now been renamed.
The military clearly wants the civilian façade to continue but wants a pliable ‘elected’ government that follows the military’s dictates. It does not want a genuinely popular civilian politician in power, backed by an electoral mandate, and certainly not one that wants a foreign or national security policy that is not made in General Headquarters (GHQ)
The Sher Ali formula
Armies operate on the basis of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and the SOP for democratic appearances without actual ceding of power by the military dates back to Pakistan’s first general election in 1970.
Military dictator General Yahya Khan decided to manage the public’s anger at the decade-long dictatorship of his predecessor, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, by announcing respect for universal adult franchise for the first time since Independence in 1947.
Yahya was acting on the advice of Major General Sher Ali Khan who had proposed holding elections as a means of giving people a sense of participation and retaining the army’s ‘precious charisma’ by inserting civilian intermediaries between military officers and the people.
The military wanted the populace to realise that politicians could not act unitedly, providing justification for continued military dominance without visible wielding of power.
The Sher Ali formula required behind-the-scenes manipulation of the political process to increase the number of political contenders as well as identification of ‘patriotic’ factions against ‘unpatriotic’ ones.
The Yahya regime’s political operation in 1970 was divided into three parts. First, the National Security Council headed by Major General Ghulam Umer periodically assessed the political prospects of the major parties, diverted resources to various factions of the Muslim League and the religious parties, and recommended regime policies that might favour the parties committed to the ideology of Pakistan.
Second, the intelligence services – the military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the civilian Intelligence Bureau (IB) – monitored and infiltrated left-wing and regional parties, spread disinformation against them, and mobilised attacks by religious groups against their un-Islamic and foreign-inspired beliefs.
Third, the information ministry mobilised a propaganda drive, creating the specter of Islam and Pakistan being in danger and polarising the country, with ‘Islam Pasand’ (Islam-loving) on the one hand and communists, socialists and secularists on the other.
No clear winner
As it turned out, the regime’s expectation of a truncated parliament was not fulfilled. When the votes were counted on 7 December 1970, the Awami League won more than 72 per cent of the popular vote in East Pakistan and ended up with 160 seats out of the 300 contested seats. In West Pakistan, the PPP won 81 out of the 138 seats for the National Assembly, mainly from Sind and Punjab.
The chain of events following the 1970 polls led to East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh because overturning the people’s will after it had been expressed is never easy. In subsequent years, new variations of political engineering were attempted in the remaining part of Pakistan, with varying degrees of success but little permanent stability.
This time, too, the three-part election management strategy developed in 1970 seems under implementation. A fourth part seems to be the intervention of the Supreme Court under a Chief Justice who does not seem to care about legal niceties or even his reputation.
There are other factors that are very different from 1970. Taints of corruption and bad governance have made Pakistani politicians less respected than they were at the time of elections organised by Yahya 48 years ago.
Moreover, a decade has elapsed since the last round of direct military rule, softening the public’s fears of the military’s intervention in politics. That might enable the army and judiciary to pull off their political engineering plan this time around.
But Pakistan’s powers-that-be must seriously consider the price the country pays for each round of its attempt to manipulate the political process.
Yahya failed to get the outcome he wanted and the ‘positive results’ sought by Zia never materialised. The 30-year effort to decimate the PPP only resulted in creating the need to launch a new operation against the military’s previous creature – the PML and Sharif.
Even if Imran Khan (or someone else) can be enthroned with the help of cheerleaders in the intelligence services and the judiciary, Pakistan may have to face several more years of internal conflict and the military’s ideal polity might still not emerge. Why not let democratic politics take its course and accept that it is difficult to persuade 200 million people to march in threes and turn their eyes left or right on a single command?