Sumera B Reshi
In view of the 2018 elections, Retd. Justice Nasir-ul- Mulk was appointed as a caretaker premier of Pakistan a few days back. Mulk is the seventh caretaker prime minister of Pakistan. In the past, Mulk has served as the interim chief of Election Commission of Pakistan and now will head the government until the general elections scheduled on July 25 are conducted freely and fairly. However, Pakistan should be applauded for allowing the two previous National Assemblies and the current one to complete its tenure. Certainly, this is a positive development and affirms the faith that still there is a room for democracy in Pakistan despite on and off political upheavals.
Amid election preparations, strong voices resonated from the opposition for the appointment of an interim prime minister and four other interim chief ministers to supervise the process for the next general elections due by mid-2018. Demand for an interim government came from all quarters, especially the opposition because they feared that if a pro-ruling party interim is a set-up before 90 days from elections, it can dilute the fairness of the elections. As per the Pakistani Constitution, “the purpose of the caretaker Cabinet is to create a conducive environment for genuine elections, ensuring the neutrality of the government to facilitate a smooth transfer of power from one elected government to another.”
Despite the interim government headed by Retd. Justice Mulk in place now, there is an aura of suspicion all over Pakistan. “He is a neutral figure, but of course, he won’t actually have any authority to fix any of the systematic problems in how elections are conducted. He is a token role which he’ll fulfil,” said a veteran Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert Abid Hassan Minto.
According to the former secretary of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Kunwar Dilshad, the Commission is also politicized. The creation of the ECP was through a parliamentary committee which is a political process. Thus there isn’t much difference whether the ECP nominates the caretaker set –up or the political party.
“Regardless of the caretaker set-up, the bureaucracy remains the same, and they are the ones who have the need to oblige the outgoing government because of the favors that have been bestowed upon them. We should follow the Indian model and transfer the bureaucrats to other provinces during the elections. Also, it is a good idea to conduct the elections in different stages,” added Kunwar Dilshad.
Doubts are looming large regarding what after 2018 elections. Will democracy survive even after free & fair elections are ensured and conducted? “Pakistan’s democratic experiment shows a wide divergence between democratic theory and the poverty of democratic culture,” stated Dr Hasan Aksari Rizvi, a Pakistan-based political analyst.
Undoubtedly, over the period of 71 years, democracy in Pakistan managed to come back to life after severe ailments. Besides ups and downs in its political set –up, democracy survived and is expected to continue but at present Pakistan faces certain key questions – whether democracy will be a power game of elites or will it serve ordinary citizens by establishing liberal constitutionalism, the rule of law, good governance, equality of all citizens with fair opportunities to earn a living, and the promotion of socio-economic justice? Why ask these questions now because soon Pakistan is going to test democracy once again.
As stated by Dr Hasan A. Rizvi, four major challenges will determine the quality of democracy in Pakistan after the elections. The prospects of free and fair elections in the upcoming elections, selection of apt candidates by the general masses in Pakistan will ascertain the future of democracy. Besides, the quality of elections will be determined by the equal opportunity provided to all competing political parties to access the voters.
Also, equal opportunities, the role of state machinery, state bureaucracy, and nature of the elections campaign, security arrangements and the affairs of the polling stations on the voting day will play a key role in upcoming elections and its prospects in near future.
Moreover, many political parties are uncertain of the exact election schedule and their doubts are not unwarranted. Domestic factors and new electoral constituencies in view of the provisional results of the 2017 population census, they fear that the elections might cause a delay. Besides political weather, geographical weather also won’t permit scheduled election in mid-July because July is extremely hot and the monsoons start in mid-July until the ending August. Further, there are the chances of floods in August – September. In the history of Pakistan, elections were never held in these months, therefore the apprehensions by certain political parties are reasonable.
There are, however, ample reasons that support election delay theory. Certain groups favor the completion of investigations and legal action to hold politicians accountable for corruption and misuse of state resources before the elections are conducted. It appears no major political party favors this notion nor do they favor long delays, nonetheless, they won’t mind putting the elections on hold for two or three months so that the new constituencies are addressed effectively.
In the past as well, there are certain instances when elections were delayed beyond 60 0r 90 days. To illustrate a few instances – In 1988 general elections were conducted long after 90 days and in 2008, elections were postponed for one month owing to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec 27, 2007.
However, the most critical issues according to Dr Rizvi was the selection of non-partisan caretaker government at the Centre and in peripheries for the interim period, which was fortunately sorted out. However, there are reasons why elections could get delayed. Since Nawaz Sharif and his family are facing trials in Accountability Court for corruption and allied charges and in case the judgement goes against them, the party will be isolated and in such a scenario, PML-N leaders might boycott the general elections.
Besides the apprehensions in the delay in elections, Pakistan is confronted by another hurdle. Since the elections were announced and campaigns began, the tension between the civilian politicians and the powerful military ran high. According to the Reuters report, published on 1st June 2018, four PML –N lawmakers received threats and were asked to align with rival parties. Besides politicians, pressmen also accuse the military of “political engineering”. In the past, the military has covertly encouraged political proxies to further their own agendas. However, the military has strongly denied the allegation but history of Pakistan is witness to the stealth interference of the military in politics.
Pakistan being the nuclear-armed nation of 208 million people, is in economic instability. At present, its currency reserves are depleting rapidly and its current account deficit is widening which analysts believe will egg the government to seek second International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout since 2013.
Last year in July, Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court as Premier of Pakistan. He now faces corruption charges, which he describes as ‘pre-poll rigging’ meant to block his return to power. Nawaz Sharif’s PML –N was a major political front beside PPP, however, the fate of PML-N appears quite bleak. Today, PML-N has contenders and the major contender is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan. Political pundits believe that Khan’s anti-corruption crusade is the driving force which could propel him to power. Amid his growing fame, rumors are running high that PTI has full-grown support from the military, which Khan vehemently denied and accused Sharif of hiding behind such allegations to avoid accountability.
As per 1st June Reuters report, unknown people threatened four PML-N lawmakers from the Punjab province. In the last few months, at least 15 National Assembly PML-N lawmakers have left the party, mostly to join PTI. PML-N officials said that most were politicians who won their seats as independents in 2013 and joined PML-N afterwards.
Despite the denial by the military and PTI patron, analysts firmly believe that the military was squeezing PML-N ahead of polls. “This kind of interference has always been there, but this time it is so naked that everyone is seeing it and everyone is talking about it,” said Ijaz Khan, a retired international relations professor at Peshawar University to the Reuters.
A Lahore-based political analyst, Khalid Javed, seconds Ijaz Khan’s views. Javed also accuses the military of backing the political alliance against the Sharifs. “The military wants a weak government after the next general election. The generals believe that a strong government and a popular leader can challenge their immense power. They fear that Sharif’s party is likely to win the next election, so they are using Qadri, Khan and Zardari to ensure that Sharif’s party does not secure a majority in the next parliament,” said Javed.
Further, experts believe that the Sharif fell out with the military because he wanted to keep the generals within the country’s constitutional limits. His larger goal was to normalize ties with India and Afghanistan, which the military establishment strictly opposes.
Ahsan Raza, a Lahore-based security analyst, shares a similar view. “Sharif, if he comes to power again, is likely to rein in Islamist groups and once again try to normalize ties with India and Afghanistan, because he believes that these jihadists and religious parties are controlled by the military to keep civilian governments under pressure.” However, the military seems to be in a complete denial mood and aren’t ready to comment on the allegations levelled against them. Silently the military is performing their cardinal duty, which is to keep away Sharif from power.
Not only Sharif but a report published by an independent think-tank, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) had a similar opinion regarding the interference of the military in politics. According to a ‘Pre-Election Assessment Report by PILDAT, pre-poll process have been ‘unfair overall’ in the 12 months before the elections.
“Surreptitious muzzling” of the media, a rise in bias from the military establishment and a “perceived partisanship in judicial and political accountability have nearly eroded the prospects of a free and fair election in 2018,” confirms PILDAT report.
Meanwhile, the judiciary has maintained the deadly silence. Until now, only politicians and the military are in the ring exhibiting their muscle power through hidden campaigns or war of words. However, to prove its innocence, the judiciary in Pakistan has denied favouring any political party and has rejected allegations about its alliance with the military to weaken PML-N.
What remains now is the ECP, which according to experts are busy in formalizing a code of conduct for the pre-poll campaigns. Experts also opine that the new rules and regulations would prohibit anyone from criticizing the military and the judiciary and ban politicians from talking about their accomplishments during their rule.
As per proposed new rules, PML-N can’t talk about its achievements especially CPEC & other infrastructure projects, nor can it defend its civilian rule, therefore, it is evident that PML-N is going to suffer the most.
Unquestionably, Sharif has many mega infrastructure projects to his credit but the corruption charges severely dented his reputation as a civilian leader or a rescuer. Sharif’s misfortune opened a window of opportunities for Imran Khan. Khan made a campaign against corruption crusade his raison d’être to counter Sharif. Luckily, Khan’s message resonated well, especially among the youth. For middle class & young Pakistanis, Khan was an apt answer for Sharif’s disloyalty to the nation and its people. Nevertheless, critics doubt Khan’s intentions. They believe that Khan only attacked civilian politicians but spared the military’s corruption and has played in the hands of generals.
Analysts also opine that the alliance against Sharif will weaken democratic structures and give the military an upper hand in governance and policymaking. Then in such a chaotic situation, will democracy survive and will the elections be free and fair in a question shrouded in mystery. Therefore, July will hot politically as well as weather-wise.