Many considered the 2018 general elections as one of the most rigged elections in Pakistan’s history. A common catchphrase making rounds was that the establishment a.k.a military was pushing the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to the corner to bring its ‘handpicked’ party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to power. The tumultuous downfall of the PML-N starting with the Panama papers and ending with the incarceration of the deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with his fiery daughter Maryam Nawaz, were read as scenes from the script written at the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ).
The suspicions came full circle with the decision against Hanif Abassi in the Ephedrine distribution case, given at late hours two days before the general elections. To skeptics, it was a move to further malign the PML-N in the eyes of its voters. On the other hand, unlike previously, the responsibility of elections, from the printing of the ballot papers to the maintenance of law and order to the counting of results was entrusted to the army. Even though Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military’s spokesperson and Director General ISPR, held two press conferences to dispel doubts about the military’s meddling in the elections, there were a few takers of the assurance. This was because Pakistan’s political history is heavily punctuated with the military’s footsteps.
Three coups spreading 38 years of military rule and multiple attempts to ouster democratically elected governments are a few examples of non-democratic interventions. Post-2008, the military in principle decided to let democracy survive on the back of the political structure that supported the multiple party system. Meanwhile, in exile, Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) late leader Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had agreed upon a Charter of Democracy which had two main elements: One, to close the doors for the military intervention by uniting among themselves. Two, to strengthen state institutions to make accountability a procedural thing and leave little space for corrupt practices to impede governance. Unfortunately, neither did the military stop intervening nor could the political parties stick to their resolve of standing together and dispensing with corruption.
After the 2008 elections, while Pakistan bled unattended because of terrorism and energy crises, the civilian government led by the PPP was busy hatching schemes both with the domestic and international establishments to keep its boat afloat. The PML-N, in opposition, played into the hands of the ‘other forces,’ to keep the government under pressure. As for the military, the judiciary it was said had been picked to do the trick instead. According to the PPP government from 2008 to 2013, the party was embroiled in so many cases that it was left with little time to think about governance. A lame excuse, though. Come 2013, and the PML-N was elected to power. In June 2014, the massacre at Model Town, Lahore, saw 14 innocent people killed brutally by the Punjab Police in an embroil between Minhaj-ul-Quran and the Punjab government. This crisis laid the cornerstone of instability that kept getting worse until the PML-N’s tenure ended on May 31, 2018.
Pakistan army is seen by many as a corporate entity that functions like a political party in the country to protect its interests. The allegation has it that, it is through the Inter-Service Intelligence agency and the Military Intelligence that the army works its way into the political and civil issues. The charges do not stop here. The baton is also believed to be carried into the foreign affairs, where policies toward India, Afghanistan, the US and nuclear issues are alleged to be made at GHQ.
It was in this backdrop that the entire foreign, media more or less, pointed its fingers at the military for its untiring efforts at bringing the party of its choice, the PTI, to power.
Political meddling notwithstanding, two interesting trends are evident from the 2018 elections. One is the discontinuity of third and fourth generation of traditional, feudal and religious families. Nearly two dozen heavyweights, the so-called “electables”, have been purged from the system. Second, the election of a political leader as the possible head of the incoming government, who is not corrupt financially and does not have any business stakes. It is unprecedented in Pakistan to have a leader at the helm without any corruption baggage.
Another equally relevant discourse of the 2018 elections has been the concept of transforming Pakistan to restore the dignity and self-respect of the ordinary citizen. People in Pakistan are unhappy to see their ruling class more concerned with their privileges and comfort than with serving their people. As media carried this discourse and discussed it threadbare, the people put their weight behind a new Pakistan freed from the clutches of exploitative leadership.
Will Pakistan transform to serve its people depends on how the civil-military relations proceed. The question of the centrality of decision making, from where emanates the structure of power, has remained the bone of contention and also the reason why coups happened or elected governments were removed through scheming.
Putting the past behind, is it possible for the power contenders to decide upon the dynamics of control and influence, and give democracy—-rule of law, respect for dissent, women’s right and freedom of expression—- a chance to survive? People in this 70-year-old Pakistan want a reason to live beyond waiting every five years to see a just leader finally stepping in.
The dynamics of power politics need a reversal. Pakistan was never that ready for this transformation as it is now with PTI in the saddle with a slogan of change.
n The writer is a freelance journalist
based in Lahore.