On 25 July, voters in Pakistan will go to the polls to elect members of the national and provincial assemblies. Paradoxically, it may very well herald the end of the country’s most recent democratic transition.
On 25 July, voters in Pakistan will go to the polls to elect members of the national and provincial assemblies. There are two reasons why this will be no ordinary election.
This will be the first time in its tumultuous political history – with all the back and forth between democratic and military rule – when Pakistan will have had two consecutive democratic and peaceful handovers, with each government completing their tenure. This should be, on the face of it, much cause for celebration.
But, there is also cause for grave concern. Paradoxically, the upcoming election may very well herald the end of Pakistan’s most recent democratic transition.
Over Pakistan’s 71 years of independence, this now characteristic back and forth between democratic and military rule curiously appears to occur every 11 years or so.
It was ruled by military dictatorships from 1958-69, 1977-88, and 1999-2008; and has had civilian or democratically elected governments from 1947-58, 1970-77, 1988-99, and now since 2008.
We are now closing in on that tricky and crucial 11-year interval when Pakistan’s political system has historically ruptured. And there seem to be signs that this may well be underway once again.
The weakening of Pakistan’s main parties
Since sweeping to victory in the 2013 elections, the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (the PML-N, led by the Sharif family) has been severely weakened. Following a difficult tenure with loss of control over key institutions, the recent sentencing of the party’s leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in jail following conviction on corruption charges, and also his daughter, Maryam, popularly considered to be his successor, could be a body blow so close to the Elections.
Pakistan’s other main party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, led by the Bhutto family) is similarly weakened through corruption cases, defections, and what is increasingly being described as a constrained operating space for political parties.
Only a few years ago, political observers in Pakistan were concerned that with the weakening of the PPP and a lack of credible opposition to the PML-N, the latter may be invincible in future elections, leading to an uncompetitive political arena.
The opposite is now true.
A large number of candidates are planning to run as independents, having refused or returned the party’s tickets. They deny the allegation that they are a political group of sorts and the army too has refused to acknowledge any involvement with them. But the facts suggest otherwise. Most of these candidates have been allotted the same election symbol by the Election Commission – a jeep. The move has created some discomfort on all sides, leading to regular use of innuendos by politicians and commentators along the lines of: ‘who is driving the jeep?’
The main implication of the move seems to be that if no party manages a clear majority on 25th July, this group will provide crucial numbers in the cobbling together of a coalition that is more acceptable to the establishment than the PML-N.
By most accounts the party that would most likely lead this coalition would be Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, or Pakistan Justice Movement).
The scales are surely tipped in its favour now that its main opponent has been destroyed and it seems to have had access to the most unencumbered and violence-free space in which to operate, compared to other political parties.
For example, in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP), the province it has ruled since 2013, its main opposition, the Awami National Party (ANP), has been under violent attack from terrorist groups in both the 2013 and the current election campaign. Just last week one of its leaders, Haroon Bilour, was killed in a suicide attack. His father Bashir Bilour was similarly killed just before the last election.
Another more brutal terrorist attack shook Pakistan a few days later, in Mastung Baluchistan, where over 300 people were injured or killed, including Siraj Raisani, a candidate for the Baluchistan Awami Party.
Shrinking space for other democratic actors who hold power to account
The space has shrunk in Pakistan for other actors too.
Civil society, research, media, social media, and any form of dissent have all faced increasingly severe constraints. The number of people that have ‘disappeared’ over the last few years now stands at 313.
Activists have reported multiple counts of harassment, and about 30 international NGOs operating in Pakistan were asked to close shop in December 2017 (a detailed report on this will soon be available as part of IDS’s global work on shrinking civic spaces).
The year 2017 has been particularly bad for journalists and bloggers too. Attacks on mainstream media are best exemplified by this ad placed in one of the country’s main English language newspapers, Dawn, by the newsgroup itself. Leading with the caption, “Do you have the freedom to choose your newspaper?” the ad was prompted by the fact that the newspaper’s circulation has been restricted following an interview with ex-PM, Sharif. The ad does not name who might be responsible for the circulation restrictions, but simply reiterates its commitment to freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
Sudden prominence of Islamic fundamentalist parties
There are, on the other hand, actors with seemingly growing operating spaces. A hallmark of a managed election in Pakistan now seems to be the rise and prominence of Islamic fundamentalist parties (who only ever manage about 8% of the total national vote otherwise).
Under Musharraf, this was the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which rose to rule KP in 2002, and then disappeared promptly after the transition. The MMA is now back, as is the as is the Tehreek-i-Labaik, unknown until last summer and now in a position to field candidates in as many constituencies as the largest political parties.
Many political observers believe that Pakistan’s transition is now over, regardless of the result of the upcoming election.The only silver lining in all of this is that this time, it is not an outright coup. Maybe something somewhere actually has shifted in favour of elected political office.
Image: Flag map of Pakistan (Wikimedia)