Pakistan holds polls, army’s shadow looms - Hindustan Times
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Pakistan holds polls, army’s shadow looms

Feb 07, 2024 10:00 PM IST

With a hung verdict predicted, the security forces are likely to shape the government

In the throes of a serious political, economic and security crisis, Pakistan is holding its delayed federal and provincial elections today. It is a familiar script with the army exercising control over the process. The principal political actors remain unchanged — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — but the status of the first two has radically changed since the 2018 elections.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, center, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, right, waves to their supporters as they arrive to address an election campaign rally in Hafizabad, Pakistan, on Jan. 18, 2024.(AP) PREMIUM
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, center, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, right, waves to their supporters as they arrive to address an election campaign rally in Hafizabad, Pakistan, on Jan. 18, 2024.(AP)

Imran Khan, the blue-eyed boy of the army in 2018 having connived with the latter’s strong-arm tactics against Nawaz Sharif, finds himself hoisted with his own petard. Due to his strident anti-army stance following his ouster from office and past acrimony with the army chief Asim Munir, he is now the army’s bête noir. But he continues to be popular. A Gallup Pakistan survey released last month showed that he had lost only three percentage points from his popularity rating of 60% in June 2023. This has forced the army to use its familiar underhand means to tilt the electoral field against him. Incarcerated for months now, Khan, his wife Bushra Bibi, and deputy Shah Mahmood Qureshi, have been handed down varying prison sentences of up to 14 years on flimsy charges in four cases, three in the last few days, following dubious judicial proceedings. This debars him from contesting the elections. Several other cases are pending against him. Even by Pakistan’s standards, this is an overkill.

Imran Khan’s PTI is a depleted party having lost a number of its senior leaders to desertions and incarcerations under pressure following anti-army violence by its cadres in May 2023. The Election Commission recently deprived it of its election symbol — a cricket bat — holding the party guilty of not adhering to intra-party democracy norms, a charge that almost all political parties in Pakistan are guilty of. This would necessitate PTI candidates contesting as independents with different symbols, thereby causing confusion among their supporters. Those elected thus, being exempt from anti-defection provisions, can easily be coerced by the army to shift sides. PTI candidates have already faced harassment at the hands of law enforcement agencies and election officials while filing nomination papers. Further rigging on polling day cannot be ruled out.

In contrast to their troubles in 2018, Nawaz Sharif and PML(N) are the favoured lot this time. Cases against Sharif and senior party leaders have collapsed in court. A recent Supreme Court judgment has cleared the path for him to contest elections — it reduced the duration of disqualification from holding public office, handed down to him by the apex court in 2018, from life to five years. He has been circumspect in his speeches on the issue of civilian supremacy but has repeatedly called for accountability from those who ousted him from the prime minister’s office illegally, possibly to counter the Opposition’s accusation that he is the army’s ladla (favourite).

The widespread perception of a fixed election has resulted in a lacklustre campaign. PML(N) started its campaign barely three weeks before the elections, with Sharif ceding considerable limelight to his daughter Maryam, believed to be his political heir.

The number of young voters in Pakistan, below the age of 35, has gone up sharply to 57 million (around 45%) from 47 million in 2018. They reject the politics of wheeling-dealing and patronage networks and constitute the core of Imran Khan’s support. What they will do on election day is an open question. Will they stay home or come out in large numbers and support the independents of PTI?

Major political parties, especially PTI, have campaigned extensively on social media. However, some of its key campaign events have faced major internet disruptions, allegedly engineered by the State authorities.

What can we expect after the elections?

First, the electoral field having tilted significantly against PTI, the results will not be a true reflection of the people’s will, as was the case in most of the past elections.

Second, the army will continue to have the upper hand. Having consolidated his position after the May 2023 violence, army chief Asim Munir has remained actively engaged in governance, including economic management, and has maintained a high public profile. Addressing a gathering of university students recently, General Munir said their five-year tenure does not give politicians a licence to misgovern for five years. He is unlikely to take a backseat after the elections. In comparison to the civil-military arrangement under Imran Khan, dubbed a hybrid system, the Pakistani media is now talking of “hybrid plus”; the plus denoting an even greater role for the army.

Third, with PTI, its principal adversary in politically dominant Punjab, nearly decimated, PML(N) fancies its chances in the Punjab provincial assembly. PPP is expected to win in Sindh province. The results of the provincial assembly election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, hitherto a PTI bastion, remain uncertain. Balochistan is likely to produce a hotchpotch of largely pro-army legislators as in the past.

Fourth, reports from Pakistan suggest that no party is likely to get a simple majority at the federal level. But there is also a widespread perception that with his changed fortunes and PML(N) likely to emerge as the largest party, Nawaz Sharif is close to an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister. However, a hung assembly would necessitate either a PML(N)-PPP deal or, more likely, a coalition involving pro-army smaller parties/independent legislators. Neither will it make for a strong government. Knowing his past emphasis on civilian supremacy, will Nawaz Sharif be the first choice of the army for the prime ministership? More importantly, will he agree to head a coalition dependent on numbers subject to manipulation by the army? The picture should become clear in the coming days.

Sharat Sabharwal is a former high commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal

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