Merchandise on display in Karachi for supporters of different political parties in Pakistan’s general election on 8 February. The main contest is between Nawaz Sharif’s PML–N and Imran Khan’s PTI in a skewed political field that favours the former candidate. Photo courtesy: IMAGO / Newscom World
Merchandise on display in Karachi for supporters of different political parties in Pakistan’s general election on 8 February. The main contest is between Nawaz Sharif’s PML–N and Imran Khan’s PTI in a skewed political field that favours the former candidate. Photo courtesy: IMAGO / Newscom World

With an unfree and unfair election, Pakistan prepares to repeat its past

Pakistan’s military is obviously backing Nawaz Sharif and the PML–N, at the cost of Imran Khan and his PTI, but how long until it again falls out with an elected government it once supported?

Salman Rafi Sheikh is an assistant professor of politics at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at: salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

On 3 February, a Pakistan court convicted Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, and his wife on a charge that their marriage in 2018 violated the law and sentenced them to seven years in prison. This means Khan has now been awarded four convictions in seven months. At the end of January, Khan was convicted in two cases – one related to divulging official state secrets and the other to corruption in retaining a gift he had received while in office. For these offences, the courts sentenced him to 10 and 14 years in prison, respectively. In August 2023, a court found him guilty of corruption linked to real estate and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment.

With Khan imprisoned and simultaneously booked in over one hundred cases, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), has virtually disintegrated, with key leaders either defecting to other political powers or opting out of mainstream politics. Meanwhile, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have made a deal with Pakistan’s military establishment, paving the way for a political revival. Backed by the military, he has managed to get clean chits from the courts in several corruption cases in which he had previously been convicted. Alongside this, Pakistan’s superior courts have also lifted a lifetime disqualification that had barred Sharif from holding any public office. 

Sharif, who returned to Pakistan in October 2023 after almost four years in exile in London, is now leading the election campaign of the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N) for the general election due on 8 February. The 2024 contest is largely between the PML–N and the PTI. The once formidable Pakistan People’s Party has been largely confined to the Sindh province, even though its leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is positioning himself as an alternative to the country’s polarised politics. Bhutto Zardari is trying to make inroads into Punjab, where the PPP was originally founded and where the PML–N and PTI now are now dominant, to revive his party’s fortunes. Millions of Pakistanis will vote to select representatives for both provincial and national assemblies. But in the very charged and deeply controversial political environment prevailing in the country, most voters see this election as neither free nor fair.

Khan, who continues to enjoy widespread popular support, has been in prison since August 2023. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has also deprived the PTI of its election symbol – a cricket bat – on the grounds that the party did not follow due process in holding internal elections. Many legal experts have criticised the Supreme Court’s decision as being politically motivated, especially because there is no provision in the country’s Election Act stipulating that a party can be deprived of its symbol. Another punishment, like a fine, could have served the purpose if all that was needed was some corrective discipline. Depriving the PTI of its symbol, in a country where voters rely on recognised symbols to pick their preferred parties and candidates, appears to be motivated by a desire to thwart the PTI’s voter base. Candidates who had been affiliated with the PTI will now be forced to contest as independents under different election symbols, causing the PTI to disappear from the ballot as a party.

The crackdown on Khan and the PTI is an outcome of the politician’s tussle with the military establishment. This began in early 2022 and escalated into a vote of no confidence against him that April, leading to the downfall of his government.

Dubious conduct

The current government, a caretaker administration appointed to see the country through the election, is led by Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, who accepts himself as the “military’s man”. His government is doing all it can to deny the PTI any space to campaign. When the PTI tried to hold virtual political rallies, the government disrupted internet services. Police have been arresting candidates affiliated with the PTI and forcibly preventing the party’s supporters from holding on-ground rallies.

Millions of Pakistanis will vote to select representatives for both provincial and national assemblies. In the very charged and deeply controversial political environment prevailing in the country, most voters see this election as neither free nor fair.

On 9 May 2023, thousands of PTI supporters attacked military installations following Khan’s arrest on corruption charges. Since then, the persecution of the PTI has skewed the electoral playing field to its disadvantage and to the advantage of the PML–N. This election environment is anti-democratic, reviving the spectre of military-dominated authoritarian rule that has long shadowed Pakistan. In his book Polyarchy, the political theorist Robert A Dahl considers free and fair elections to be conditional upon the “right of political leaders to compete for votes” and the “right of political leaders to compete for support”, among other things. The treatment of the PTI, amounting to pre-poll rigging of the vote, has given rise to a widespread expectation among voters that there will be rigging on election day itself. Thus, Pakistan’s 2024 election has already lost its credibility.

If the election’s results are already clear to voters even before they have voted, it deprives them of what Dahl considers “unimpaired opportunities” to “formulate their preferences”, and to “have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government, that is, weighed with no discrimination because of the content or source of the preference.”

The Balochistan factor

Meanwhile, violence in the insurgency-affected provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwah has raised questions of whether the election might be postponed. The military leadership has declared that the polls will be conducted no matter what. However, serious threats loom over the election after an independent candidate was killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah’s Bajaur district, and a leader and several workers of the Awami National Party were killed in Balochistan.

The military and the caretaker government’s attitude towards Balochistan tells a story of continued political repression. Since late December, Baloch protesters, led by the young doctor Mahrang Baloch, spent more than a month in Islamabad demanding a response to the enforced disappearance of thousands of Baloch people and justice for the extra-judicial killings of Baloch youth, allegedly at the hands of the military. The caretaker government has called the issue of missing persons and the protest movement against them part of a foreign-funded conspiracy to destabilise Pakistan. On 24 January, the protesters decided to end their sit-in and return to Balochistan, where they received a historic welcome from tens of thousands of people, signalling a growing distance between the Baloch people and the Pakistan state that may soon become too wide to be bridged.

Reinforcing the state’s apathy towards Balochistan is its electoral engineering in the province, a political project designed to keep even moderate Baloch ethno-nationalists out of power. In 2018, members of the PML–N from Balochistan defected and formed the military-backed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). Between 2018 and 2023, the BAP – which includes many Baloch leaders and tribal sardars with very close ties to the military and strong opposition to Baloch nationalism – was a key player at both the national and provincial levels. It was an important member of the Imran Khan-led coalition that took power in 2018, and also controlled the provincial administration in Balochistan. The BAP’s decision to leave the coalition provided the opening for the April 2022 vote of no confidence that deposed Khan. The party then joined the new coalition government led by the PML–N that stayed in power between April 2022 and August 2023. For 2024, many BAP leaders have already joined the PML–N, a development that neatly aligns with the military establishment’s support for the PML–N at the national level.

The military and the caretaker government’s attitude towards Balochistan tells a story of continued political repression. Reinforcing the state’s apathy is its electoral engineering in the province to keep even moderate Baloch nationalists out of power.

Vicious cycle

All these factors promise more of the same for Pakistan. While the PML–N is projecting its anticipated return to power as heralding Pakistan’s entry into a new era of development, its formation of a new government will only mirror the past. It will be no different from when Khan’s government signalled Pakistan’s move to a hybrid civilian-military regime – one in which democratic exercises like elections were carried out with continued autocratic political repression in the background. Moreover, with the recent changes to the Army Act, the legal regime has also changed. The army is now a legally recognised political and economic player in Pakistan. The PML–N-led government made these changes in 2023, and the upcoming PML–N government, or any other administration, will have to operate within this hybrid martial-law framework.

If Pakistan’s past is any guide to its present and future, the next government will carry within itself the seeds of a renewed contest with the military establishment. The latter’s overwhelming power will ultimately squeeze the political space available to the PML–N or any other party to execute its vision. No prime minister in Pakistan’s history has ever completed their five-year term. The return to politics of Sharif, a thrice-elected prime minister, within the overall context of military domination, comes without guarantees of the continuity of his rule going forward, let alone of the civilian supremacy in politics that he once championed. The military is suspected to have inserted parties like the BAP into the PML–N’s coalition, and other military-backed parties such as the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party, a breakaway faction of the PTI, are likely to also become key coalition partners. With its players in place, the military establishment can always re-enact, with some variation, the events of April 2022, forcing the collapse of an elected government that it once backed but then tired of. History will repeat itself.

Himal Southasian
www.himalmag.com