IN a landmark decision concerning Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan’s 16-year old petition, the Supreme Court announced that the then army chief, president and DG ISI were involved in rigging the elections of 1990.
The decision, apart from being unprecedented in its reach, confirms what many members of the PPP as well as independent analysts had long believed. It also generates a logical explanation for the series of anomalous election results seen in 1990, and perhaps beyond that; it provides empirical proof of how the powers-that-be perceived both popular politics, and the framework of electoral democracy in general.
There are a whole host of reasons as to why that particular election was rigged, but perhaps none other supersedes the fact that it was a popular political party that was in power, and that they were widely tipped to return to power in the event of free and fair polls.
The roots of this distrust-bordering-on-hatred of populist politics, by both the civil and the military bureaucracy in turn, can be traced all the way back to the PPP’s rise at the tail-end of the 1960s, the first general elections in 1970, and the larger notion of ‘national interest’ that seems to hover around and above our political sphere.
It’s worth appreciating — as a prelude to understanding the 1990 election-rigging exercise — that till the anti-Ayub movement had taken off, politics had by and large remained a controlled phenomenon.
The armed forces, ably assisted by a host of junior partners, not only provided the legal framework in which participatory politics was to take place, but also ruled on who exactly could participate.
The Basic Democracies system, which followed the implementation of the Elected Bodies Disqualification Order, was the first manifestation of this obsession with control and containment, which served to keep the larger structure of civil-military power as an uncontestable phenomenon.
The strategy, however, proved to be useful only for a short period of time, as a populist anti-dictatorship wave in both wings of the country signalled a considerable departure from restrictive forms of political activity.
The PPP’s rise to power in Punjab and Sindh was on the back of a populism that bridged the gap between the theoretically abstract notion of ‘political rights’ and the very real act of casting a vote.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, hitherto unchannelled sentiment of any kind — class, caste, region, language — could actually translate itself into an actionable form of politics. This, while seeming quite superfluous and perhaps even banal in today’s rhetorically democratic world, was a fairly big shift around 40 years ago.
What it essentially implied was that for the first time, the concept of a pre-determined ‘national interest’ that seeks to protect a certain power structure, was open to contestation through a political process.
So regardless of how the PPP, and Bhutto specifically, spent time in government, the mass acceptance of the notion of voting — as a form of expression and a catalyst of change — was a significant rupture in Pakistan’s political fabric.
Perhaps when seen from a more historical perspective, it is no coincidence that the armed forces, following Zia’s takeover in 1977, tried their best to recalibrate participatory politics to its pre-Bhutto position.
The crackdown on the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) in Sindh, the banning of union activity, and the local government system introduced in 1979, which preceded party-less elections in 1985, were clear attempts at mass ‘re-politicisation’, which entailed restricting political activity to individuals and local municipal services.
Benazir’s return to power in 1988 though, amidst much fanfare and popular appreciation, was a reminder of how the re-politicisation experiment was not as successful as expected and that it required some more time — thus paving the way for the machinations that led to the fall of her government and the rigging of the 1990 election.
The important thing in this historical narrative is that it was not simply the case of an individual COAS/DG ISI, regardless of how the SC judgment presents it, or a particular leader, in this instance Benazir Bhutto.
An analysis of political power in Pakistan would require looking beyond individuals, at how political parties, especially populist ones, provide an alternate configuration of power that is systemically different from one which is state-controlled, and has a bureaucratic structure.
To place checks and balances on alternate configurations — which could encroach upon the fiscal, ideological, and policy space that the armed forces and the bureaucracy have traditionally enjoyed — we see things like military coups, political subversions, and cases of electoral rigging.
It is of little surprise then that statements of intelligence officials recorded during the trial, and especially since the judgment order was released, have invoked the principle of ‘national interest’. One such official went as far as to say that the constitution came after the country was created, hence the interest of the country is far more important than the act of following the constitution.
Speaking in 2012, however, optimists claim that the last five years or so signal a departure in the way that the state, especially the ‘establishment’, views popular, democratic politics — citing the tenure of this government, its stance on provincial autonomy, and relations with India as evidence of some kind.
Without completely disparaging that particular view, the fact that subversions of multiple kinds have continued, through one arm of the state or another, gives fuel to a more sceptical view of affairs.
It remains to be seen how we manage our democratic transition after the next general elections, and whether this transition will allow the political process to finally ask questions about our national interests.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.