There’s a lot of talk about election engineering and pre-poll rigging going on in Pakistan. It recently became a hot topic again since CEO of Pakistani English daily Dawn gave an interview to BBC, in which he claimed that Pakistani military and security agencies are behind election engineering in Pakistan. When asked to give evidence, Mr Hameed Haroon pointed towards chatter on social media where he claims to see the hidden hand of Pakistani security establishment, which left Stephen Sackur dumbfounded.
So I decided to explore this apparent issue from my own perspective.
We have two possibilities:
1. Either Pakistani security establishment is rigging elections, or
2. It’s not.
Possibility # 1:
Q: What’s the basis of the claim that Pakistani security establishment is rigging the election?
1. Court cases that are being faced by Imran Khan’s rivals, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari and their respective parties. The only problem is that they are facing cases because they broke the law. These cases were not made up out of thin air. They are backed by solid evidence of wrongdoing. Unlike Imran Khan, Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari have both enjoyed posts of the Prime Minister and the President, respectively. So they are also answerable for what they did or did not do during their tenure, including the question how exactly they made all the money that they possess. Moreover, even the most outrageus of conspiracy theorist out there won’t claim that the Pakistani security establishment was behind the release of Panama Papers, which really made the case a central issue in Pakistani political scene.
But it will also be incorrect to state that Pakistani security establishment had absolutely nothing to do with these cases. Fact of the matter is, it did. And the proof of that is that the judges involved in hearing these cases are still breathing. In the past, whenever Pakistan’s political elite, and Nawaz Sharif in particular, faced court cases, the judges would either get physically attacked or receive death threats until they dropped the case or gave undue favors. But this time around Pakistani military chiefs, first Raheel Sharif and then Qamar Bajwa, made it clear in public statements that the military stands with the law and the Constitution of Pakistan, while they privately assured the judges and lawyers that their security will be ensured so they could perform their job without any kind of threat of physical harm. This was the only role that the military actually played. And even this role wouldn’t be necessary for the military to play if Pakistan’s political elite had spared the police force from their corrupt practices – but unfortunately that’s not the case, and political appointments, bribes, etc keeps the police force consistently incompetent.
2. Another basis for the election engineering claim is that all kinds of extremists are being cleared by the Election Commission of Pakistan to contest election. Some of these people include Aurangzeb Faruqui of ASWJ, Maulana Fazlu Rehman Khalil of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and several close aides of Hafiz Saeed. Many ask, why is this being allowed, and they do have a point. Mainstreaming extremists will result in the mainstreaming of extremism, there’s no doubt about that. But a flip side of this dilemma is that mainstreaming of extremists may also make some of them more moderate over time. There are several examples around us to prove that at least in some cases when an extremist was given a second chance, they did change for the better. One of the most well-known examples of this is British-Pakistani Maajid Nawaz, who used to be an extremist until he was jailed for a short period of time in Egypt but then was given a second chance. Today he’s one of the leading counter-extremism experts in Britain. So we do know that people have the potential to change for the better.
It is also true that Pakistani military has been pushing for mainstreaming of some of these extremists in an attempt to push them towards moderation. In Afghanistan, US and Afghan government are pursuing pretty much the same strategy where first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was brought into the mainstream and now Trump administration has ordered direct talks with the Taliban. The idea, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, is to bring those who surrender to the state into the mainstream while simultaneously waging war against those who continue to engage in terrorist activities. There are those who agree with this strategy and there are those who do not – but this may very well be the least worse of all the worst options.
3. Some people point towards the media where there is a view that the media is being silenced by Pakistani security establishment. Let’s be clear, Pakistani media has faced clampdowns under every single government in the past, whether civilian or military. But if we compare what media faced during the era of Zia-ul-Haq with the situation of media today, the claim that media is facing restrictions sounds almost laughable.
Pakistani media has never been so free as it is today. It can choose to print almost anything and cover any story. It can leak details from national security meetings and get away with it by simply saying that the journalist has the right to protect his sources. And while that may very well be true, what journalists don’t have the right to do is write falsehoods or support rogue elements like a convicted criminal. And yet Pakistani media has been doing all of that and more, without any consequences. No one revoked the license of any tv channel or newspaper. But that doesn’t mean that Pakistani media has faced no trouble since 2013. It sure has. And a lot of those times that trouble came at the hands of political parties that champion democratic rights. For instance, consider the incident of 22nd August 2016 when members of MQM (Mutahhida Qaumi Movement) attacked the office of ARY News channel and caused property damage and beat up the mediapersons. If that’s not enough, consider the incident of 2017 when the mediapersons of Samaa TV were attacked by a relative of Punjab’s influential minister Mr Rana Sanaullah, who belongs to the PML-N, whose leader is convicted criminal and self-proclaimed champion of democracy Mr Nawaz Sharif.
Any attack on media is condemnable and any government restrictions are certainly wrong. But at the same time the media has the responsibility to respect the law, which also applies on journalists, and not become an instrument of chaos.
4. There is also a view among Pakistani politicians that they are not being allowed to campaign freely. Recent multiple political leaders were apparently stopped from carrying out rallies and the blame once again is put on Pakistani security establishment. But this may have more to do with the increased terrorist threat in Pakistan during election season than the military trying to hatch some nefarious scheme to rig the election. A recent bombing in Balochistan which has killed over 200 according to some reports and the continued threats from Afghanistan-based terrorist groups to attack election-related targets in Pakistan contribute to some of the restrictions that political leaders may have to face, which is obviously very unfortunate but also necessary to keep everyone safe.
Q: Why would Pakistani security establishment rig the election anyway?
A: It doesn’t need to. The participants already rigged the election themselves. Let me explain how. Nawaz and his daughter are out of the game for a long time to come. And if anyone needs another reminder, they are screwed because they screwed themselves. Asif Ali Zardari (leader of PPP) and his sister are on Exit Control List (ECL), which means they can’t leave Pakistan, and are likely to face cases relating to charges of money laundering and even espionage (see: case of Iranian spy Uzair Baloch). Bilawal Bhutto, son of Asif Zardari, is still too young and inexperienced and is sort of a laughing stock in Pakistani political scene and stands little chance at least in this election. This leaves a huge leadership vacuum in the two traditional mainstream parties in Pakistan and only leaves intact the third biggest political force – Imran Khan’s PTI. Combine all of the above with the fact that the majority public opinion in Pakistan at the moment has almost completely turned against the two traditional parties. Even people who don’t necessarily like Imran Khan or agree with his party’s policies agree on one thing: there is no going back to the two traditional parties, Nawaz’s PML-N and Asif Zardari’s PPP, since they have already been tried and tested.
In the present scenario, the military does not need to rig the elections. They’re already rigged thanks to criminal practices and immature politics of the leadership of both traditional parties. Now all the military needs to do is to make sure that the voting process is free and fair and we will most likely see Imran Khan’s PTI win the next election – an outcome which many of us may not like but may very well need to cope with. Unfortunately, the job of guaranteeing a safe and fair voting process in Pakistan can only be performed by the military, which if anything points towards the failure of the two traditional parties to make the police force and other relevant civilian institutions capable enough to guarantee a safe and fair electoral process.
Possibility # 2:
Q: If the elections are not rigged, why the allegations of pre-poll rigging?
A: The allegations are coincidentally coming from the same two traditional parties whose most senior leaders are facing charges of massive corruption, among other things. Or maybe it’s not really a coincidence. The strategy that is being employed by both traditional parties is to make the election controversial before the voting process. The reason is obvious: both parties know they’re not going to win a clear majority this time and may even face more setbacks as court cases of leaders of both parties continue. So their strategy makes sense but will also put the entire democratic process in jeopardy.
We can continue to debate about allegations of pre-poll rigging but one thing that we can all agree on is there has probably never been an election in Pakistan where there has not been some kind of rigging during voting process (pre-poll rigging and rigging during voting process are two entirely different things). So it would be foolish to expect that there will be no rigging during voting process in this election. In Pakistani election, the idea traditionally is to cheat whenever, wherever you can, and literally everyone does it. None of us have any concrete proof that Pakistani security establishment is engaged in pre-poll rigging, which is a serious allegation especially in a baby democracy like Pakistan. Not even the CEO of Pakistan’s leading English newspaper has evidence to prove that claim.
Will this be the most free and fair election in Pakistan’s history? Maybe or maybe not, although the voting and counting process is still to happen and before that it would be premature to say anything with complete confidence. But a counter question would be: was the Saudi and US brokered National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) of Musharraf era not pre-poll rigging? How exactly did Saudis and Americans decide who will rule Pakistan before election had taken place? While there’s no evidence for the allegations of pre-poll rigging today, there is enough evidence to prove that NRO was essentially pre-poll rigging. And yet the two biggest champions of democracy in Pakistan – the two traditional parties PML-N and PPP – were the biggest beneficiaries of the NRO.