The completion of the current parliament’s tenure is an important milestone in Pakistan’s consolidation of democracy. For only the second time in the country’s history, a democratically elected government has been able to serve its term and lay the ground for a peaceful transfer of power to whichever party or coalition of parties is able to secure a majority at the next general elections. While the PML-N’s record in power was mixed at best, the true significance of its completed tenure lies in how the upcoming elections, like the two that have preceded it, will provide an opportunity for voters to use the power of the ballot to reward or punish their elected representatives and those who aspire to win public office. As Pakistanis grow into the habit of going to the polls to hold their governments and politicians accountable, there is every reason to believe that those in power will increasingly be judged by the quality of their governance and their commitment to fulfilling the pledges they make when campaigning.
It was not always evident that the current parliament would be able to complete its term. From the very outset, the PML-N was hit by crises, first in the form of the PTI’s sit-ins and rallies protesting the alleged rigging of the 2013 elections, then by the campaign waged against it by Tahir-ul-Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehreek (which joined forces with the PTI in its campaign against the ruling party), followed by the Faizabad sit-in and the emergence of the TLP, and finally by the fallout from the Panama Leaks. During this time Nawaz Sharif, like all of his predecessors, was unable to complete a term as Prime Minister, eventually being removed from office by the Supreme Court after being accused of concealing his assets and wealth in a judgment that many observers felt sent the wrong message and set the wrong precedent as far as consolidating democracy and establishing the balance of power between the judiciary, parliament, and the executive was concerned.
Despite these challenges and setbacks, however, parliament was able to make some significant achievements, introducing legislation pertaining to a wide range of areas, with its greatest accomplishment perhaps being the merger of FATA with the rest of Pakistan. Similarly, while the PTI and the PML-N continued to snipe at each other for the better part of the past half-decade, their antagonism arguably translated into what could be called a form of healthy competition as both parties touted their achievements in KPK and Punjab respectively as a means through which to garner support and mobilize voters for the 2018 elections.
Under normal circumstances, much of what happened over the last five years would be seen positively. In contrast with the past, a sitting government was repeatedly challenged on the streets and in parliament by a rambunctious opposition, with this confrontation not resulting in the collapse of the entire democratic order, and a spirit of electoral competition animated much of the approach to governance taken by the country’s largest parties. Indeed, it might not have been incorrect to suggest that the constant conflict and sense of crisis that characterised the past few years was nothing more than the inevitable birth pangs of a new democracy struggling to establish itself. Nonetheless, there is considerable reason to be wary of what is coming. The PML-N may have weathered the storms that it encountered while in power but, from the very outset, it was suspected that the government’s travails could be attributed, at least in part, to behind-the-scenes machinations by the establishment. Matters have not been helped by developments over the past year; the splits and mergers of political parties across the country, the blatant subversion of democratic norms in the Balochistan assembly, the subsequent shenanigans during the Senate elections, and the perception that the Supreme Court and NAB are pursuing an accountability agenda directed towards only one party and its leadership, all suggest that efforts are underway to manipulate the 2018 elections.
Earlier this week, PILDAT released a report that terms the pre-election process to be ‘unfair’. PILDAT bases this assessment on the perception that the military is not acting as a neutral entity in the electoral process, that NAB and the courts are also perceived to not be impartial, and because it is increasingly evident that curbs are being placed on the media that are limiting its ability to operate as a free and independent entity. Similarly, a resolution passed by the Balochistan Assembly calling for the elections to be delayed due to hot weather, as well as judgments passed by the Lahore and Balochistan High Courts invalidating the nomination forms used to register electoral candidates and the delimitation of constituencies in Quetta, have raised the prospect of the polls not being held on time in July. Finally, the PTI has been mired in confusion for much of the past week, withdrawing its nominees for the posts of caretaker Chief Minister in both KPK and Punjab, and then presenting a new list of names for the position in Punjab that the party leadership itself could not appear to agree on in public. While some have suggested that this simply shows the inexperience and, indeed, immaturity at the heart of the PTI, it might also be argued that in an atmosphere where the prospect of the elections being delayed is becoming increasingly real, any measures that have the effect of bolstering that possibility must be viewed with suspicion.
Contrary to popular belief, there is considerable evidence to suggest that elections in Pakistan are no longer rigged on election day itself. Instead, the manipulation of the electoral process takes place in the months leading up to the polls, with the transfer and appointment of bureaucratic personnel, the engineering of political defections, the manufacturing of political scandals, and the imposition of curbs on parties and their campaigns, all being part of a relatively sophisticated system of pre-poll rigging. In this context, any delay in the holding of elections can not be seen as anything other than an attempt to put this system in place in order to undermine the democratic will of the people when they finally go to the polls. Independently of partisan political alignments, all who have an interest in the integrity of the democratic process must be united in their opposition to any attempts to delay the elections.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.