NH exclusive: Can poll in Pakistan be rigged by the military, is the question

Nawaz Sharif’s arrest, and the blatant efforts to load the dice in Imran Khan’s favour, may well boomerang, and cause a wave of sympathy for the former

Photo courtesy: Social media
Photo courtesy: Social media

Irfan Husain

Pakistani politics is not for the faint-hearted: a blood sport, it has left many political careers shredded, and many politicians scarred for life. If anything, it has become an even gorier spectacle over the life of the recently ended Parliament. And the ongoing election campaign threatens to be bloodier still: a spate of recent bomb blasts, including one in Balochistan that claimed over 145 lives, shows that violent jihadists are determined to discourage candidates.

Adding to the turmoil is the recent arrest of ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam as they returned from London where Kulsoom Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s wife, is battling a life-threatening throat cancer. Convicted of owning four flats in London that had been purchased in the 90’s by the Sharifs, the father and daughter were arrested as soon as they landed at Lahore airport.

Few in Pakistan believe that Sharif has received a fair deal. In a succession of verdicts, he was first deprived of his seat in Parliament, thus losing the prime ministership, and then subjected to a humiliating enquiry that has culminated in his arrest

Elected politicians have always struggled against the control the military establishment has traditionally exerted over the political process, but in the last few years, the higher judiciary and the media have also become active players that have helped to destabilise the previous government. Sharif, the leader of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was the Prime Minister for most of the last five years until he was disqualified from sitting in the National Assembly by the Supreme Court on ridiculously flimsy grounds.

Instead of nailing him on corruption charges brought under the Panamagate scandal, judges found Sharif guilty of being the undeclared beneficiary of an appointment letter issued by his son’s company in Dubai. Never mind that he drew no salary, and this is a ploy commonly used by Pakistanis to avoid the hassle of obtaining a visa for the UAE. Using a constitutional provision inserted by General Zia that called on public representatives to be ‘honest and righteous’, the Supreme Court banned Sharif from Parliament for life.

When the verdict was announced earlier this year, there were dark rumours that the establishment and the judiciary had joined hands to ensure Sharif’s elimination from Pakistani politics. They were supported by a large section of the media that acts on instructions from the public relations wing of the military, the ISPR. But instead of caving in to this intense pressure, Sharif came out swinging, all but accusing the army and the judiciary of being behind his unjust ouster.

In well-attended rallies across Punjab, his message of victimhood has resonated among his substantial support base. Instead of turning against him, his party has rallied around him. In speech after speech, he has blamed ‘aliens’ – a euphemism for the plotters – for his plight.

But his biggest selling point has been the development his brother Shahbaz Sharif has brought about in Punjab. A long-serving chief minister of the country’s largest province, the younger Sharif has worked tirelessly to improve education and health, apart from investing heavily in the physical infrastructure.

Comprising 60 per cent of the country’s population, Punjab elects 174 seats out of a total of 342 (of which 272 are directly elected, while 70 are reserved for women and religious minorities) in the National Assembly. Thus, a party that does well here has the best chance of forming the next government. In fact, Imran Khan’s biggest hurdle on his way to the premiership is his rival’s enduring popularity in Pakistan’s heartland.

Long suspected of benefiting from the establishment’s blessings, Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been Sharif’s nemesis over these last few years, leading a string of sit-ins and rallies against the government. His initial protests were against the rigging he alleged took place in the 2013 general elections. After several established that polling had been generally free and fair, Khan was presented a gift in the form of the Panama Paper leaks. Spurning Sharif’s offer of a parliamentary enquiry, Khan threatened to storm Islamabad until the Supreme Court offered to hear the case.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won a mere 33 seats in the 2013 elections after having formed the previous government in 2008. Five years of poor governance and allegations of massive corruption under Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, saw it pushed out of Punjab to the Bhutto fiefdom of Sindh, where it now runs a largely dysfunctional provincial government.

The MQM, an urban party consisting of descendants of mohajirs, or migrants from India, has long ruled the roost in Karachi and Hyderabad. Controlled by its founder Altaf Hussain from self-imposed exile in London, the party machine has been ruthless in collecting protection money, and in blatantly rigging every election since the 90’s when it rose to power.

Encouraged by General Musharraf as a counterweight to the PPP, the MQM has long enjoyed official patronage. But over the last year, it has been battered by security forces, and has split into four fragments. Altaf Hussain’s interminable telephone speeches have been banned by a court order. Seeing a vacuum, other major parties are hoping to cash in on the MQM’s disarray in Karachi.

Although Islam plays a role in the daily life of most Pakistanis, religious parties have never done well in the elections. The only exception was in the highly controversial polls conducted under Musharraf in 2003 when an alliance of clerics formed the provincial government in Khyber-Pukhtun province (earlier the NWFP)

In 2013, they won only 19 seats. However, extremist groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have now been allowed to field candidates across the country in the name of ‘mainstreaming’ radicals. Observers see this as a way of splitting the conservative vote to reduce Nawaz Sharif’s support.

So how are the major contenders for power expected to do in the general elections?

Without any interference from the establishment, Nawaz Sharif’s party would win a comfortable majority that would allow it to form the next government. According to a Gallup Pakistan opinion poll conducted a couple of months ago, the PML-N had a commanding lead over Imran Khan’s PTI in Punjab where the latter has increased its popularity from 17 per cent in 2013 to around 25 per cent. But at 40 per cent, PML-N has seen its support rise from 32.7 per cent in the last election when it won 129 seats.

The PPP languishes at around 15 per cent, the same it won in 2013. However, a more recent poll indicates a tightening of voter preference, with the PTI in a statistical dead heat with the PML-N.

The joker in the pack remains the military establishment. While it insists it has no role in the elections except to provide security, there have been reports of PML-N candidates receiving calls from spooks threatening them with visits from anti-corruption officials as well as the tax authorities. Many have switched sides to Imran Khan’s party since they see him as being the army’s favourite. The PPP, too, has seen an exodus of potential candidates.

But apart from pre-election interference, it is now difficult to rig the elections on polling day. The process will be monitored by local and international observers and supervised by supposedly neutral caretaker provincial and federal governments.

To keep Nawaz Sharif out of power, there is talk of a PTI-PPP coalition, even though Imran Khan has repeatedly dismissed this possibility. But just as the establishment managed to propel an unknown Baloch politician to the chairmanship of the Senate, it can be expected to knock heads and force the PTI and the PPP into a marriage of convenience.

However, Nawaz Sharif’s arrest, and the blatant efforts to load the dice in Imran Khan’s favour, may well boomerang, and cause a wave of sympathy for the former. Many of those sitting on the fence might decide to vote for the underdog. If this happens, Pakistan’s

political engineers may have reason to wish they had kept out of the electoral campaign.

The writer is a London-based author and columnist

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Published: 22 Jul 2018, 10:30 AM