In the lead-up to upcoming general elections in Pakistan, the country’s Human Rights Commission has voiced significant concerns about “pre-poll rigging” and the “blatant manipulation” of the electoral process.
The Feb. 8 elections are apparently unlikely to be conducted in a fair and free manner.
Pakistan has a history of electoral engineering, with the military often playing a pivotal role as a “kingmaker.” This consistent military interference in Pakistani politics explains current fears about the integrity of the democratic process in the upcoming elections and beyond.
The military’s hold
For more than three decades in Pakistan’s 76-year history as an independent nation, the powerful military establishment has wielded significant influence.
Even during periods when the military was not officially in power, it’s been accused of extensive interference in political affairs. The military seized direct control of the country through coups d'état by Gen. Ayub Khan (1958-1969), Gen. Yahya Khan (1969-1971), Gen. Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008).
When the military isn’t directly governing, it exerts influence on the political landscape by engaging in political engineering, shaping the selection and rise to power of specific political parties. In his farewell address in November 2022, the former army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, openly acknowledged the military’s pivotal role in facilitating the ascent of former prime minister Imran Khan to power following the removal of Nawaz Sharif.
The military’s influence is at play in all facets of politics and security matters in Pakistan. It actively restricts the powers of politicians, preferring puppet-like figures who refrain from challenging its prevailing interests.
This pattern became evident in 2013 when Sharif won the election and subsequently fell out of favour with the military. His attempt to pursue foreign and security policies independent of the army’s influence ultimately ended his years in office a few years later.
Sharif’s experiences illustrate the military’s firm grip on decision-making processes and its resistance to allowing politicians to shape policies that might deviate from its established interests.
The military opposed Sharif’s efforts to build ties with India due to its apparent need to maintain simmering tensions with New Delhi to hold onto its domestic dominance. Ongoing conflict with India serves as justification for the military’s indispensable role in the nation.
In 2014, Sharif extended a significant olive branch to India by accepting its invitation to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi returned the favour in 2015 with a brief stopover in Lahore, raising hopes for improved relations. However, this thaw was short-lived primarily due to the influence of the military.
This support proved instrumental in propelling Khan to victory. The formidable military and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) meticulously crafted Khan’s public image as an upright individual untainted by financial scandals while concurrently portraying his opponents as corrupt politicians.
This deliberate effort instilled hope among the people for a transformative change in the country.
But soon after Khan’s ascension to power, he and the military began to butt heads, in part due to differences over the selection of the head of the ISI.
Tensions escalated, ultimately resulting in Khan’s orchestrated removal from office on a vote of non-confidence in April 2022.
In the aftermath of his ouster, Khan openly criticized the military. In response, the army took a series of measures to disqualify him from running in the upcoming elections. Khan was arrested on multiple corruption charges and has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
In a sweeping crackdown, members of his PTI party were coerced to defect and join opposition parties.
The PTI alleges the military is actively working to exclude it from the electoral race, underscoring the profound challenges to uphold democracy and political diversity in Pakistan.
In a significant turn of events, the military has cleared the path for the ousted Sharif to contest the upcoming election by quashing all legal cases against him, positioning him as the favoured candidate against Khan.
The prime objectives are apparently to sideline Khan and to ensure Sharif will refrain from challenging military interests in the future.
Escalating regional tensions
Pakistan is currently facing significant security and economic challenges. Iran recently launched missile and drone attacks on the Pakistani-Iranian border to target terrorist group Jaish-Al-Adl, which the Iranians claim is responsible for terrorist attacks in their country.
Pakistan is also facing terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) aims to establish Taliban rule in Pakistan.
Last year, nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist attacks, prompting the government to undertake a sweeping expulsion of Afghan refugees categorized as undocumented.
Inflation has also soared to approximately 30 per cent in Pakistan, exacerbating economic challenges that include frequent power shortages and diminishing exports, remittances and foreign direct investment.
Sustained political stability in Pakistan is imperative, and yet remains elusive until the military restrains itself within its constitutional role and refrains from unwarranted interference in politics. The military’s increasing power has seemingly taken precedence over the needs of the Pakistani people.
As the Feb. 8 elections loom, reining in the military is crucial for fostering a political environment that prioritizes stability and democratic principles in South Asia, as well as the overall well-being of Pakistanis.