More than 100 million Pakistanis will have the chance to cast their ballots in general elections on July 25, but the vote is already tainted by the blatant meddling of the country’s all-powerful military, with a series of assists by a partisan judiciary. This interference—by what is known locally as the establishment—ensures that whatever the results on election day, the outcome will not rid Pakistan of its chronic instability and poor civil-military relations.
The establishment wants to root out the two parties that have dominated the political scene for the last three decades: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is popular among ethnic Punjabis, who constitute about half of Pakistan’s population. The PPP—of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and now run by her widower, former President Asif Ali Zardari—draws on its traditional support in the southern Sindh province. From the establishment’s perspective, the two parties represent entrenched dynasties that will never see eye to eye with the military on foreign policy and national security. Army generals deem both Sharif and Zardari corrupt and are instead advancing the fortunes of the star former cricketer Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Although Khan has been in politics since 1997, he has fared poorly at the ballot box in the three parliamentary elections he and his party have so far contested. He has never held any government position, and most accounts suggest he is ill-prepared for the responsibility of running a nuclear-armed country of more than 200 million people. Moreover, most of his party’s candidates this time are former PML and PPP parliamentarians persuaded—or coerced—by the military to defect and join the PTI. And so, while Khan would be a first-time prime minister, his government would comprise some of the same people whose corruption he has decried throughout his political career.
The establishment has orchestrated an elaborate set of legal and political moves to pave the way for Khan’s victory. The most important of these moves was the removal of Sharif as prime minister one year ago. After a corruption investigation sparked by the leaked Panama Papers, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar disqualified Sharif for failing to fulfil an arcane constitutional criteria for “honesty and sagacity.” Sharif was then put on trial and convicted, along with his daughter Maryam, for failing to explain their ownership of property in London. Pakistan’s politicians are notorious for corruption, but even Sharif’s detractors acknowledge the court overreached. In effect, Nisar forced an elected prime minister to resign before facing a proper trial in a criminal court. (Disclosure: Among other politically motivated cases, Nisar also revived the hearing of charges against me—the case claims I sought American assistance to stop a possible coup in the aftermath of the 2011 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden. After a couple of hearings, a warrant request was rejected by Interpol, and the case was shelved. I have no doubt it will be revived once more when the establishment feels the need to try to bully me again.)
The fact is that many Pakistanis recognize that running afoul of the military, and not just corruption, is at the heart of the proceedings against Sharif, who has now been elected prime minister three times but failed to complete a single term. The Pakistani military obviously wants a civilian facade in the form of an elected government that follows the military’s dictates on policy toward India, Afghanistan, jihadi terrorism, and relations with China and the United States. It does not want a genuinely popular civilian politician in power, backed by an electoral mandate, and certainly not one that might alter the country’s trajectory.
The strategy for control this time has centered on giving Khan’s PTI, a few smaller political parties, and a large number of independent candidates a free hand while making it difficult for the PML, and even the PPP, to campaign. In addition to Sharif, the courts have disqualified a large number of PML candidates. Military intelligence officers have intimidated several influential local leaders into joining Khan’s PTI, other pro-establishment parties, or running as independents. The media’s freedom has been curtailed, with many journalists receiving direct threats from army officers; the military’s public relations chief announced a list of “anti-state” journalists and bloggers at a press conference in an effort to intimidate them. Several religious extremists, including some who have been designated as terrorists, have been allowed to run and campaign for office freely. Anti-establishment and anti-Taliban candidates have faced attacks by terrorists while Khan’s party and others backed by the military have so far been spared. And although there has been less violence this year than in the 2008 and 2013 elections, the Pakistan Army plans to deploy 371,388 troops and reservists on polling day, raising fears that soldiers might be used for a final push to influence the election results. The election commission has banned candidates’ representatives from bringing cell phones to polling stations—a move clearly designed to prevent the recording of sounds or images that expose interference with voting.
The irony is that such political engineering has backfired in the past. In Pakistan’s first election in 1970, the army similarly hoped to contain Bengali leader Sheikh Mujib, but instead his Awami League swept the polls; the subsequent chain of events led to East Pakistan breaking away and becoming Bangladesh. Then, from 1988 onward, the military’s political engineering focused on reducing the influence of Bhutto’s PPP. In those days, Sharif was the military’s hand-picked alternative to Bhutto. That move, of course, has backfired as well. The fact that three decades later, the military’s victory in decimating one thorn in its side—the PPP—is accompanied by the need to launch a new operation against its previous creature—Sharif and his PML-N—should serve as a warning that politics does not always play out as envisaged by the planners in Pakistan’s army headquarters.
Opinion polls indicate that the PML retains its base. Sharif’s supporters in Punjab are proving difficult to contain. Hundreds of PML-N activists had to be arrested to prevent a large turnout when Sharif announced he would return from London to go to prison after his conviction. The party seems to be preparing to fight the results of the elections in the streets if it feels it has been cheated of victory.
If Sharif’s PML-N overcomes all odds and still manages to win, the corruption cases and the ensuing legal battles will continue to impair its ability to govern. In that case, civil-military relations will also remain tense, with the potential for another showdown. On the other hand, if someone like Khan is put into office after an election that is notably manipulated, he will lack the credibility needed for effective governance. This may seem like a paradox: Why would Khan even need credibility if the military is really in charge? But that very credibility is critical to the military’s goal of keeping up the pretense that Pakistan is a constitutional democracy, not a dictatorship. If the puppet strings are too visible, then the puppeteer holds all responsibility for all outcomes. The establishment wants it both ways: power but no responsibility.
The Pakistani military has become a prisoner of its own system. The generals want the facade of democracy, but they do not let any politician grow into the job; when problems inevitably emerge, they believe those deficiencies are exclusively attributable to the incompetence and corruption of politicians. And so: out with the old, in with the new, all blessed by the military. The cycle is never-ending. But there is a complete unwillingness to recognize that the military’s obsession with India, its support of jihadi terrorism for the last several decades, and the international isolation that has resulted from policies championed by the military might also have something to do with the country’s reputation as a state perpetually stricken by crisis. It is a damning indictment of the military’s priorities that even though it boasts the world’s sixth-largest army—and also the world’s sixth-largest nuclear arsenal—Pakistan still has the world’s highest newborn mortality rate.
No matter who wins on July 25, Pakistan’s military-led establishment will continue to wield effective power. Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to flourish. Pakistan’s international isolation and economic problems are also likely to endure. Only the military can change any of this, if it really wants to break the cycle of instability that Pakistani politics seems destined to endure.