If there is one good thing to be said about the events of the past few weeks, it is that the façade has finally crumbled and even the pretense of the elections being free and fair is no longer sustainable. For those willing to see, the writing has been on the wall for some time; the selective ‘accountability’, the engineered defections, the conveniently timed splits within political parties, the crackdown on the press, and the unconstitutional expansion of judicial authority have all pointed towards a deliberate attempt to manipulate the July 25 elections. All of this has been justified by invoking the usual reasons of state; an assertive Supreme Court is needed to perform the tasks a venal legislature and executive will not, corruption must be weeded out for the good of the country, protest must be policed in the interests of order, and compromise is necessitated by pragmatism. Yet, all of this rings hollow as it becomes increasingly clear that, far from exercising their right to choose their own representatives, Pakistan’s voters will be participating in a coronation when they go to the polls in ten days.
Pakistan’s transition to democracy since 2008 was always imperfect at best. Critics of the system, and there have been many, have been quick to point out that corruption and poor governance have been the hallmarks of the past decade of civilian rule, and that the parties in power have largely used their position to further entrench themselves within the country’s political framework. Yet, while these criticisms are correct, they are also disingenuous as they seem to assume the alternative – authoritarian rule – has somehow been good for Pakistan in the past when any objective assessment would suggest the opposite. More importantly, only the incredibly naïve or wilfully ignorant would ever suggest that substantive democratization happens overnight; it is a long, incremental process, the signs of which had slowly begun to emerge in Pakistan amidst the passage of legislation like the 18th Amendment, the empowerment of the courts and media, and the emergence of healthy, performance-based competition between the different provincial governments.
Given time, there is every reason to believe that the worst elements of Pakistan’s democracy would have gradually withered away as the system evolved and matured. That now seems like an increasingly unlikely prospect as the country witnesses a return to the faux-democracy of the 1990s and before, when opportunistic parties and politicians bartered with powerful anti-democratic forces to bring governments down and participate in farcical elections staged to appoint the next set of ‘democratic’ placeholders. When Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006, it was hoped that this cycle would have come to an end, with both leaders and their parties finally recognizing the mutually destructive nature of their Faustian pacts with the establishment.
Whether or not that lesson was learnt is not clear, and the PML-N and PPP both have much to answer for in terms of their continued reluctance to work together, not necessarily as political allies but as partners with a mutual interest in protecting the democratic process. Yet, it is Imran Khan and the PTI that will undoubtedly be remembered for their eager willingness to participate in an election process whose artificiality becomes increasingly evident with every passing day.
In 2013, the ANP and the PPP were repeatedly subjected to pre-election violence, with the former in particular losing hundreds of its workers and activists to terrorist attacks. The scale of the violence was such that both parties were unable to campaign effectively, leaving the field open for their rivals. The same appears to be happening once again, with a string of attacks targeting the in KP and Balochistan leading to the deaths of Haroon Bilour, Siraj Raisani, and hundreds of supporters of the ANP, the BAP, and the JUI-F. In Punjab, hundreds of PML-N members, supporters, and local government officials have been pre-emptively detained by the authorities for no other reason than the possibility that they ‘might’ try to hold rallies for Nawaz and Maryam Sharif. The Sharifs themselves, having returned to Pakistan to submit themselves to the law (unlike a certain commando in self-imposed exile), are currently in Adiala Jail. Elsewhere, reports abound of parties being unable to hold meetings and mobilize their supporters; in Islamabad, the Awami Workers Party reported that it was disallowed for placing banners around the city, while no less a personage than Bilawal Bhutto was prevented from travelling to Peshawar. In the background, media channels and public personalities critical of the establishment and the judiciary continue to be muzzled, with dozens of journalists and activists reporting that they have been explicitly told to avoid discussing ‘sensitive; subjects.
Amidst this general atmosphere of repression, the PTI continues to be the one party that is unscathed. Its ‘electables’, drawn from the ranks of its rivals, strut about the country as harbingers of change even as the party itself continues to react contemptuously to any attempts to investigate its affairs, such as in the foreign funding case being pursued by the ECP. While others are prevented from travelling or campaigning, the PTI finds itself in the enviable position of being able to do both without the imposition of any constraints by the courts, the caretaker administrations, the law enforcement agencies, or violent non-state actors.
This is not democracy, and this is not a fair election. Yet, despite all this, it remains far from obvious that the PTI will be able to secure the kind of majority it would need to form a government on its own. The most likely scenario at this point is the creation of a coalition, one in which a motley crew of ‘independents’ and smaller parties will be used to repeatedly bludgeon the majority partner into submission every time it steps out of line. As was the case in the 1990s, the PTI, if it comes to power, will quickly learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
n The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.
Amidst this general atmosphere of repression, the PTI continues to be the
one party that is unscathed.