Amid growing optimism and political uncertainty, the politically-charged Pakistanis are going to elect their representatives for the national and provincial assemblies on July 25. This day would mark the end of one of the most divisive and abusive electoral campaigns in the history of the country. Throughout this campaign, politicos remained unconcerned altogether about the things like morality and decency while criticizing and bashing their political opponents. They looked more interested in pointing out the weaknesses and failures of their political competitors rather than explaining their own performance and future plans. Devoid of the recognized journalistic ethics, a large number of political analysts, columnists and TV show anchors also just chose to become the mouthpieces of their favourite political parties and leaders. Unfortunately, while politicos are busy in promising their voters the moon, casting a vote has somehow become nothing beyond mere a Hobson’s choice for most of the disillusioned Pakistanis.
Besides the mainstream mass media, social media has also played a role in poisoning the country’s political environment. Voters and supporters of all political parties kept on using social media to freely express their likes and dislikes even before the polling day. They actively defended and rationalized each act and policy of their favourite leaders while missing no opportunity to defame and discredit other leaders. We also saw some political parties talking about ‘political engineering’, and making complaints for not being provided a level playing field ahead of these elections. Moreover, a number of terrorist attacks recently made on various election rallies in KP and Baluchistan have also resulted in adding the elements of fear and violence to these polls.
It has widely been predicted that there would be a hung parliament in Pakistan following these elections where no political party would be in a position to form next government alone. In fact, PTI and PML(N) are currently the two major political parties in the country. These two parties are being considered the primary competitors in these polls. Though PML(N) has been the largest parliamentary political party, it is currently in disarray. This troubled party is being considered the miserable victim of the on-going political engineering in Pakistan. Its supremo Nawaz Sharif has been jailed after being removed from the premiership. He was also debarred from heading PML(N) after being disqualified for life by the apex court. Though unsubstantiated, the repeated corruption allegations levelled by various PTI leaders against PML(N) leaders have badly damaged the public image and reputation of PML(N).
The besieged PML(N) is also facing strong criticism and condemnation from a large conservative segment of the society for introducing a controversial amendment relating to Khatm-e-Nabuwwat in the country’s electoral laws last year. A large number of so-called electables, who were the backbone of PML(N), have also left this party to join PTI. Moreover, based on the slogan of “honour the vote”, the PML(N)’s anti-establishment and anti-judiciary political narrative has apparently failed in gaining any significant momentum, especially in Punjab. And lastly, the so-called anti-incumbency factor in the country has made things even worse for the troubled political party. Therefore, this ‘leaderless’ and ‘truncated’ party would hardly in a position to make any major breakthrough in these polls.
As the PML(N) has become somewhat dysfunctional, PTI would be a viable political alternative to most of Pakistani voters. For being not a ‘tried and tested’ political party at least at the federal level or in Punjab province, PTI is the ultimate beneficiary of the anti-incumbency factor in the country. This ‘pro-change’ party is also in a position of politically exploiting the growing anti-status quo public sentiments in the country. Its political slogans like ‘Naya Pakistan’ and ‘One Pakistan’ are currently inspiring and appealing to many people. Besides this, there is also a strong perception that this party enjoys the support and backing of the powerful state institutions, namely the military and the judiciary. Therefore, if not a majority party, PTI would emerge as the single largest political party in these polls.
As a matter of fact, the results of almost every general election in Pakistan have been controversial. However, the 2018 General Election has been rendered controversial even before the polling day, thanks to our ‘reformist’ state institutions. Since the formation of controversial JIT in the Panama case to probe corruption allegations against the deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif, there has been a strong perception that the superior judiciary and the security establishment have covertly joined hands to render PML(N) a political non- entity in Pakistan. Unfortunately, these state institutions made no serious endeavour to dilute this perception. Instead, a number of developments in the country during the last few months have just reinforced this perception. Indeed, the premier accountability agency NAB has also been playing its role in strengthening this perception. This perceived military-judiciary nexus is considered responsible for dislodging Nawaz Sharif, and subsequently disqualifying him for life to participate the country’s politics. The supervision and strict timeframe set by the apex court for the conclusion of corruption cases in the accountability court against Nawaz Sharif was simply unprecedented. Similarly, the timing and manner of the conviction of Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Reference has also raised many eyebrows.
On last Saturday, we just saw how things have worsened in Pakistan. Firstly, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui, a serving judge of the Islamabad High Court publically held the superior judiciary responsible for the current miserable state of affairs in the country. He also accused the premier military intelligence agency, ISI, of manipulating and interfering in the judicial affairs. On the same day, an anti-narcotics court in Rawalpindi chose to award life imprisonment to PML(N)’s candidate Hanif Abbasi a few days ahead of the polls in the ephedrine case- a case which has been lying pending for the last eight years. The court announced this verdict hurriedly in an unprecedented manner at midnight. This verdict was severely criticized by many. In fact, this verdict has largely been viewed as a favour given by the judiciary to the establishment’s blue-eyed boy Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed on the eve of elections to enable him to win his national assembly seat without facing a tough electoral resistance. Indeed, both these developments further strengthen the perception that the superior judiciary is in cahoots with the security establishment when it comes to damaging PML(N) politically.
At present, I don’t see a political stability or tranquillity in Pakistan in the future even if PTI alone or a PTI-led coalition succeeds in forming government at the federal level. If PML(N) loses these polls, it would try to make them controversial. It has already rejected the appointment of Dr. Hasan Askri Rizvi as the caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab after formally recording its protest over this issue. Therefore, PML(N) leaders would overplay the perceived bias and partisanship on the part superior judiciary, accountability institutions and the caretaker government against them. They would also try to establish a nexus between these state institutions and the security establishment. Essentially based on a political culture involving extra-parliamentary opposition, public agitation, and street protests; the ‘opposition model’ evolved and actively practiced by PTI during the last five years would continue to persist in the years to come. Therefore, the ‘experienced opposition’ would give ‘naive government’ a hard time. Though there would be a harmonious civil-military relationship, but the so-called judicial activism would be an irritant between the executive and the superior judiciary in Pakistan. On the other hand, if the so-called status quo parties, particularly PML(N), succeed in forming next government in Pakistan, there would again be a confrontation between the executive and other key state institutions, including the judiciary and the security establishment. In either case, Pakistan and Pakistanis would be the ultimate sufferers.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.