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Analysis | Pakistan stages another unfair election

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History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. A bit more than a half decade ago, Pakistan staged national elections in a cloud of controversy. The eventual winner was boosted by the tacit support of the South Asian republic’s long-meddling military, which put its thumb on the scales in favor of its chosen candidate. The opposition saw its chief leaders sidelined on criminal charges that their supporters claimed were trumped up. They decried the result as “rigged.”

Fast forward to this week, as Pakistan holds its latest general election on Thursday. A similar dynamic prevails, though the cast of characters has been flipped. Former prime minister Imran Khan, who surged to victory in 2018, languishes in prison on a slew of charges that make him ineligible to contest the election himself. Meanwhile, three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif stands a strong chance of winning a fourth mandate. The corruption cases that kept him out of the running in 2018 — and sent him into self-imposed exile the following year — have been waved away by military authorities now more amenable to his return.

The reversal of fortunes is part of the sad seesaw of Pakistani democracy, forever tilting through crises and interruptions. The current election is supposed to punctuate a prolonged period of political limbo that followed the collapse of Khan’s government in 2022. It’s believed Khan’s ouster came after a falling-out with the army top brass, which had first nurtured the charismatic populist before turning against him amid mounting criticism of Khan’s perceived poor governance.

In the months since, Khan and allies in his party, the Movement for Justice, known by its Urdu acronym PTI, have been subdued by an onslaught of lawfare. Some prominent PTI officials have left the party to avoid the dragnet of the deep state. Others are locked away in jail like Khan, who has now been convicted four times by authorities on charges ranging from corruption to the “illegal” nature of his marriage to his current wife, who supposedly didn’t wait long enough after her previous divorce to marry Khan.

Most states have armies. In Pakistan, the army has a state.

Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan was convicted of exposing official secrets and sentenced to 10 years in prison on Jan. 30, days before an election. (Video: Reuters)

To many, the end goal is obvious: the total evisceration of Khan’s political career and the hollowing out of the political movement he began. “It sends a very clear message,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, told my colleagues. “The PTI won’t be allowed to come into power again.”

Yet Khan remains remarkably popular — a former cricket national team captain beloved by the masses who is seen as standing against a class of entrenched, feckless elites. And his party, despite myriad legal hurdles obstructing its full participation in the election, is desperately fighting to secure what votes it can.

“The PTI is deploying a two-pronged campaign strategy of secretive campaigning, often led by female teacher volunteers, and generative AI technology,” explained Reuters. “The party has used generative AI to create footage of Khan, its founder, reading speeches he conveyed to lawyers from his prison cell, urging supporters to turn out on election day.”

The military’s apparent crackdown on Khan and PTI appears to have possibly increased his support. “While his popularity had plummeted as the economy declined in his last months in office, he now has a cultlike following,” noted the New York Times. “Supporters see him — and by extension themselves — as wronged by the military leaders who they believe orchestrated his ouster.”

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The public mood in Pakistan is not optimistic. According to a new Gallup survey, 7 in 10 Pakistanis “lack confidence in the honesty of their elections.” It also found that a similar proportion of Pakistanis believe economic conditions are worsening where they live and close to 90 percent of Pakistanis see corruption as rife in their government.

A caretaker administration has struggled to cope with the country’s economic dysfunction, as public debt and inflation bite. It’s also grappling with a spiraling security crisis, as an ethnic insurgency rages in Pakistan’s vast Baluchistan province and the Pakistani Taliban continue to launch terrorist attacks across the country.

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In this context, it’s hard to see how much of a difference Sharif, a stalwart of the political scene, may be able to make should he come to power. It’s also possible that he may once more find himself sidelined by the real powers-that-be — Pakistan’s longest-serving prime minister has never been able to complete any of his three stints in office. “Given that Nawaz’s three terms in power ended with a fall out with the military, we can expect the same will happen this time around,” Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Time magazine.

But Sharif is part and parcel of a political system strung around Pakistan’s military, a sprawling entity that maintains significant economic interests and exerts influence across Pakistani society.

“Politicians are incentivized to side with the generals to attain power,” wrote Muneeb Yousuf and Mohammad Usman Bhatti in Foreign Policy. “This dynamic has weakened the constitution, compromised the judiciary, and undermined democratic elections. The military no longer intervenes in politics via coup, but its leaders have invested in the political system. Pakistan has developed into a hybrid regime where elements of electoral democracy and military influence mingle.”

The country’s main political parties don’t offer a pathway to break this status quo. They “lack the strong links to or mandate from the masses to challenge elites and make fundamental changes in our elite-dominated political and economic order,” wrote political economist Niaz Murtaza in Pakistani newspaper Dawn. “So, we may go from one weak and rigged hybrid regime to another that adds to our mounting problems and kicks the can further into the future.”

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