WATERSHED ELECTIONS: PAKISTAN 2018

by Wasio Khan Abbasi

Pakistan will hold a general election on 25th of July in what could be only the second democratic transfer of power in the nuclear-armed country’s history.

The election is expected to pit the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party against former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

It’s been 70 years since Pakistan attained independence and in its 71st year the country will experience another round of elections.  These elections, however, are unlike any of the past.  Previously, elections always had an air of competition around them with various ideologies clashing with each other for votes. Political parties had (comparatively) clear agendas and could be identified as a left or right wing party, at least.

In recent years, that distinction has eroded. The parties no longer present any clear agenda. The promises made today are the same that were made two decades ago. The sheer amount of money spent in elections has made it a selection of the rich, rather than election by the people. Today, each party has prominent members who are referred to as ‘ATMs,’ the main financial pillar of the party. These members are often new, even getting party nominations for Senate seats as compensation. Every news segment highlights a new financial scandal, often worth billions, with various government organisations utterly helpless to counter it.

Some would say this is nothing new, Pakistan has had corruption problems in the past and institutional failure too. So what is different this time? The difference is a judiciary-led coup that looks set to overhaul the system. Unlike a military coup, which topples the government at the point of a gun, the judicial coup has taken the whole machinery to task. Some say the seeds were sown by former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who clashed with the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, while others believe it is the Supreme Court of Pakistan that has decided to tilt the balance of power.

Historically, the judiciary received the short end of the stick in matters of power. Every successive military government forced dozens of judges to retire, severely affecting the quality and       experience of judicial members. Various governments needlessly influenced the judiciary one way or the other, be it the Zia dictated trial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or the attack on the Supreme Court by Nawaz Sharif, there always have been cases that tarnished judiciary’s name and disrupted its functions. Raymond Davis’ case is another highlight, he accepted in his memoir that both Pakistan and US Governments influenced the judiciary, the court suddenly transforming into a Shariah court mid-trial and forcing families involved to forgive him with blood money. He was then immediately whisked away from Pakistan on a chartered flight, before any further complications could surface.

What does the judiciary have to do with the 2018 elections? First and foremost, the judiciary has taken various scandals to task. The most prominent of these was the Panama Scandal that saw the premier Nawaz Sharif losing not only his position as Prime Minister and member of National Assembly, but also being barred for life from holding public office. As a result of this, he can no longer even hold party leadership. The results came in so late that his party nominations for Senate Elections became null and void, forcing the Election Commission to find a loophole and declare the participants as independent candidates. Throughout the whole process, from forcing the government to solve the matter itself, to a completely transparent trial of the ruling family, the Supreme Court of Pakistan placed itself in a position of unquestionable dominance in the hierarchy of power that continues to resonate.

State institutions, be it the National Accountabilty Bureau (NAB) or Pakistan Television (PTV) or the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), that have been affected due to incompetent leadership installed by the present government, have found  support in the face of the Supreme Court. At many times during the Panama Trial, these political employees interfered in the trial process and in no time they were dealt with, their shenanigans plastered all over the newspapers for everyone to see. Not only did the judiciary use its legal and constitutional position, but it also took a leaf out of the political parties’ book of public relations when conducting the most transparent trial of a ruling family in the history of this nation. While a lot remains to be desired as far as performance of state institutions is concerned, little doubt remains as to capabilities of the officers and bureaucrats that serve the nation.

Although another term of democratically elected government is coming to an end, we once again face the harsh truth that no Prime Minister has been able to complete their tenure in office.

Unsurprisingly, it was the judiciary that had punished Yousuf Raza Gillani for repeatedly refusing the Supreme Court’s order and disqualified him for 5 years. This time, it was the very public trial of Sharif family that disqualified Nawaz Sharif for life. One could say it was karma, as Nawaz Sharif was at the forefront of getting Gillani disqualified and this time he faced the same fate, with Imran Khan leading the charge against him. As it is often remarked, it’s not that democracy is unfit for Pakistan. It has more to do with politicians who are their own enemies, accusing others of derailing democracy while setting fire to the whole train themselves.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have continued with more or less same politics as in the past, the real change has been an active Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) that counterbalanced the madness brought about under democratic rule. Imran Khan’s sudden popularity threatened mainstream parties in 2013 election … a strange election where even the winning party accepted that widespread rigging had plagued the process, yet rigging complaints were more or less left unaddressed. Some complaints are still pending, nearly at the end of the present government. It raises a large red flag on the performance of the Election Commission that has failed to tackle the ballot rigging menace in any meaningful way. The charge led by PTI repeatedly highlighted the acts of gross misconduct carried out during the 2013 elections, and the party appears to be preparing well for the 2018 elections. Some ground realities are worth noting.

It’s not just PML-N that lost its leadership. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the king of Karachi for three decades, appears to be by far the most affected. Starting with a raid at 90 headquarters by the Rangers in 2014, the party went into a downward spiral that kept intensifying. As the party began to lose its iron grip over the city, the Scotland Yard investigation and allegations of links with the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) seriously damaged the party. While domestically the party had been accused many times in the past, it was the first time a foreign investigation found evidence implicating them. If that was not enough, the speeches by party premier Altaf Hussain reached such levels that party members began to distance themselves from him. Eventually, a line was crossed and Altaf Hussain came under the judicial scope. A media blackout of his speeches on judicial order rendered him a memory of the past … something Altaf Hussain has been desperately trying to counter and is now left with no other option than to stream his speeches over social media. However, in the    absence of the street power that gave him dominance over Karachi, and with the refusal of his loyal MQM members to heed him any longer, he is no longer the power broker he once was. MQM of today is a severely fragmented party, caught between factions that go by their area names, such as the MQM Bahadurabad group. This MQM barely managed to secure one Senate seat, despite having the opportunity to bag more. Karachi, once the fort of MQM, was ripe for PTI to make inroads and dominate in the absence of MQM. It chose to focus on the Punjab instead and an opportunity was missed.

With new delimitations yet to be announced, final census results made public and a caretaker government agreed upon, the next few months have crucial implications for the upcoming elections. PML-N, although now under Shahbaz Sharif, is still a ship forcefully controlled by the elder brother. For many a sinking ship, PML-N is unlikely to dominate elections as it did last time. PTI, while a flag bearer for many, has had a bumpy ride these past five years. In this time Imran Khan has led a month long demonstration against the government, missed most of the              National Assembly sessions, fought in courts (controversial constituencies and the Panama scandal) for justice and married three times. His marriages have at times generated more interest than his political manoeuvres, much to his party’s dismay. Jamat-e-Islami has remained restricted to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and there are talks of reviving the MMA alliance under Maulana Fazal Ur Rehman, bringing religious parties on a single platform. With MQM already in shambles, the only party left is PPP and that’s an interesting story in itself.

While the PPP has continued to dominate Sindh, despite an abysmal stint from 2008-2013, it has experienced ups and downs that merit consideration. Despite the party enjoying the popular vote in Sindh, one of the first shocks experienced was a tough contest at local bodies, where it barely managed to secure enough seats to get its mayor elected for Larkana, PPP’s homeground. The second shock came in the form of the utter defeat at the Larkana Bar Elections, where all its candidates lost. More setbacks came its way when Asif Zardari left the country due to tussles with the military and Awais Muzaffar Tappi escaped due to corruption charges. In addition, Memon was arrested for  corruption worth billions and there was the eventual escape (and later capture) of Rao Anwar, the policeman said to be handling the dirty work for the PPP top brass. As if that wasn’t enough, the PPP has been repeatedly    trying to install its handpicked Inspector General, removing the current Inspector General A.D. Khawaja … a move repeatedly denied by the judiciary on the basis of malafied intentions. With just a few weeks remaining before the caretaker government steps in, the PPP appears desperate to broker a deal with powers in the country.

If the by-elections and Senate elections are any indication, it appears that money again will play a pivotal role in getting candidates elected and systematic sabotage will be used to cover up any election irregularities. That is, if the judicial coup fails to bring the changes necessary for democracy to prosper.

And while the sceptics still believe the status quo is intact and nothing will really change, Pakistanis are remain to be ranked as the most hopeful people in South Asia. Even if the 2018 elections are rigged, there is hope yet for a better future.

The author is a regular contributor to LAFZ Magazine

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