Pakistan’s democracy has seen a turbulent run-up to the upcoming general elections. Short of a direct coup, the military establishment has tried to do everything it could to subvert Pakistan’s hard-fought democratic process. Despite all its shenanigans, the military establishment has failed to quell support for the popular Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N). If PML-N secures a majority in the upcoming polls, then its victory would symbolize the strengthening of Pakistan’s democracy.
It is no secret that the military establishment has been trying to target PML-N in the hopes of “engineering” outcomes in the upcoming general elections. The all-mighty military is widely believed to have orchestrated the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former premier, through a Supreme Court judgment last year. The SC judgment based its verdict on the findings of a five-member Judicial Investigation Team, which included officers of Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Inclusion of these officers lends credence to the military’s definitive role in Nawaz’s expulsion. It should be noted here that Nawaz Sharif was deposed not on corruption charges but on a minor technicality, which Supreme Court interpreted as a “misdeclaration” and hence Nawaz losing his status of being “honest” and “truthful” and therefore unfit for office.
Not only Nawaz’s ouster but also PML-N’s losing its government in Balochistan assembly earlier this year is seen to have military’s involvement. A vote of no confidence against Sanaullah Zehri, Balochistan’s former Chief Minister and a Nawaz loyalist, and the subsequent election of Quddus Bizenjo, someone considered close to the military establishment, were both seen as moves to deny PML-N from electing its chairman and deputy chairman in the Senate polls. The move succeeded. The election of Sadiq Sanjrani, the new Chairman Senate, was considered harmful for Pakistan’s democratic process. Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected newspaper, described the event as “from the coup inside the Balochistan assembly against the PML-N to yesterday’s strange election results in the Senate, the auguries are not good for the democratic project in the country”.
Military’s suppression of the freedom of speech has also marred the democratic process in the run-up to the upcoming general elections. According to Amnesty International, human rights activists are targeted through organized harassment. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been voicing its concerns over the muzzling of journalists critical of the military establishment for quite some time now. Geo News, Pakistan’s most watched news channel, was forced off-air earlier this year. Geo had been sympathetic to Nawaz Sharif, which irked the military establishment and led to an unannounced ban on its transmissions. It was only after Geo agreed to stop negative portrayals of the military establishment and the interference of Judiciary in Pakistani politics was Geo “allowed” to come back on air. After bringing down Geo to its knees, the military establishment has started targeting Dawn. The action against Dawn was prompted after it published an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which he hinted at the already established Pakistan’s involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Because of Dawn’s refusal to “bend the knee”, it continues to suffer disruptions in its circulation.
All this suppression of free media, the military’s involvement in removing Nawaz Sharif and the events since then are akin to pre-poll rigging. Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT) termed the pre-poll process as unfair. In PILDAT’s assessment of the process the parameter that received the lowest score is “Perception of Neutrality of Military towards competing political parties and candidates”. This highly unfair attitude of Pakistan’s military is primarily to ensure that PML-N does not form a majority in the upcoming polls.
Despite all the military’s “adventures” against it, PML-N has showed resilience. After being forced out of office, Nawaz Sharif went on an explosive political campaign with the slogan “vote ko izzat do” (respect the ballot) while accusing “Khalai Makhlooq” (Alien Beings), a not-so-veiled reference to the military establishment, of removing Pakistan’s elected representatives from office. His campaign has struck a responsive chord with the people as evidenced by large showings at his public rallies. Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother, has embarked upon a different narrative. His narrative demands vote on the basis of public service and deliverance of high quality infrastructure. The younger Sharif’s narrative has also significant weight behind it. Several international news media outlets and development organizations have praised Punjab government’s reforms. In its recent report on Pakistan, The Economist Intelligence Unit has glad tidings for the Sharif brothers. It predicts PML-N to form the next government.
If the PML-N secures a majority in the upcoming elections, and that’s a big if, then the outcome will be a significant victory for the democratic process in the country. PML-N is contesting the polls on two narratives; Nawaz’s narrative of “vote ko izzat do” and Shahbaz’s narrative of vote on the basis of deliverance. Irrespective of which narrative resonates more with the voters, a victory for PML-N would signify a victory for the de jure in the battle between the de facto versus the de jure. Until now, politicians wanting to come in power have to court the favors of the all-powerful military establishment. If Nawaz’s narrative were to be the one that bags PML-N the majority, then such a victory would not only challenge the army’s hegemony but also give a clear signal to the powers that be of their severely incapacitated ability to “manufacture” electoral results. If Shahbaz’s narrative were to be the one that bags PML-N the majority, then it would mean that election of politicians to constituent assemblies comes from their capacity to deliver rather than treating the military establishment with obsequious deference. Victory of either of these narrative would ring a death knell for the politics of those “electables” who switch sides depending on which party the military favors. Such an exercise would then be in futility.
The year leading up to the elections has been full of turmoil and there’s more to come as signaled by the recent resolution passed in the Balochistan Assembly to delay the elections. Habib Jalib, a famous revolutionary Pakistani poet in the 20th century, called upon Punjabis to rise against the military establishment’s dominance in his poem “Jaag mere Punjab” (Wake up my Punjab). Since PML-N predominantly attracts voters from Punjab, a PML-N victory in the general elections would mean that Punjabis have finally answered his call.