Pakistan is going to polls under unusually fraught circumstances. A major candidate has been ruled out of the fray over controversial corruption charges. An aspirant to the top job is alleged to have the total support of the military. Others are groping in the dark, caught between fear and expediency, basically sitting on the fence. The July 25 elections have a total of 342 seats up for grabs, out of which 272 are general seats while the remaining 70 are special seats ring-fenced for women and ethnic minority candidates.
In the meantime, the more independent sections of the media are facing a trial by fire. The Dawn group for example is being coerced without formal charges to line up behind the powerful military, which it has refused to do. The result is an unofficial but extremely effective crackdown on the circulation of the Dawn newspaper while airing of its TV news has been severely curtailed through a silent fiat.
One can’t ignore the claims of the military’s critics that the elections look primed to be rigged in favour of former cricket star Imran Khan, an ally of the generals. Khan’s politics of riding religious populism and his surrender to the clergy will play a part in the future politics of Pakistan, which is already laid low by a surfeit of regressive links between politics, religion and foreign policy.
Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif has threatened to land in Islamabad to be jailed for his conviction on corruption charges. It is possible that he may get some sympathy support if the conduct of the polls is fair and neutral.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will play a pivotal role in Pakistan’s election. Dawn and others have expressed apprehensions about ECP’s role for the security forces in the conduct of the polls.
Whatever the outcome, the military looks set to remain the clearing house for substantial policies, including ties with India and other foreign challenges. Indians have been accused by the more liberal and democratic quarters in Pakistan of supporting the military by habit as the chief interlocutor on policy with New Delhi. Little looks primed to change that perception. In fact, there is already a palpable preparation in India to deal with the familiar power centres when the deed is done on July 25. What the Indian government has in mind, the opposition may not be privy to. Speculation is rife that there could be a standoff with Pakistan to improve PM Modi’s chances for 2019. How any war or bloodshed will impact Lalu Yadav, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav has seldom been explained. The opposition could be in a bigger bind if Modi moves to improve ties with Pakistan in some dramatic fashion.
Regardless of the outcome, India would do well to think about encouraging a more democratic neighbourhood. It could heed Dawn’s editorial, for example, of the difficulties that democracy is experiencing in Pakistan. A good neighbour can express concern without being intrusive in the affairs of another country.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will play a pivotal role in Pakistan’s election. Dawn and others have expressed apprehensions about ECP’s role for the security forces in the conduct of the polls. “It had been hoped that the first general election to be held since significant electoral reforms were legislated by parliament would see an assured ECP taking greater charge than ever of the full polling process in order to guarantee transparency and fairness,” Tuesday’s editorial said.
“Yet, the code of conduct issued by ECP has envisaged a new and unprecedented role for security forces assisting the polling process. Security personnel on deputation from the armed forces will now have a role in the transmission of the election results from polling stations to ECP.” That’s something for the Indian opposition to watch and think about as much as it is Pakistan’s problem. “The code of conduct does specify that election officials are overall in charge of the polling and counting processes and that the result of the count and ballot paper account at the polling station level must be shared with polling agents of candidates and election observers if they request copies. But it is discouraging that rather than expanding its control of the process, the ECP has seen fit to involve other entities in an unprecedented manner for certain crucial aspects of the poll process.”
The media is clearly worried. “At a time of heightened political controversies and allegations by some major political parties of anti-democratic interference in the electoral process, surely the ECP should have sought to demonstrate that civilian institutions are capable of delivering on the full range of their duties and responsibilities. Instead, the ECP seems to have taken a more inert approach to managing the election process than is desirable. Certainly, a balance is needed: too heavy-handed an approach by the ECP could stifle genuine electoral competition.”