People’s right to choose

Updated May 22, 2018


ONCE those outraging over Mian Nawaz Sharif’s statement slowed down a bit, it was time for the crystal ball and election predictions. The soothsayers (on television as well as social media plus a bit of old-fashioned print) are convinced the PML-N is now set to lose the election, because no way is the military going to let the party come into power after Nawaz Sharif’s recent statement. The party is now surely over (nearly a year after Sohail Warraich first predicted it), more than one guru has declaimed.

And it’s hard to convince people otherwise no matter what the early surveys predict (though after the Trump election and Brexit, surveys are about as reliable as roadside parrots who can predict the future for a small fee).

Unfortunately, with the dominant role the security establishment has played and continues to play in Pakistani politics, its ability to influence the system has acquired mythical proportions in our political imagination. If those in the know (primarily the gossip circles in Islamabad) are to be believed, elections are lost and won on the whims of the Pindi wallahs.

Hence, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain claims that Pervez Musharraf called and told him about the PML-Q’s seat count in 2008 even before the counting had begun. Imran Khan (after months of ‘dharna-ing’ about the rigging in the 2013 election) recently put the entire blame on Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the army.

Can one institution, however strong, decide the entire outcome of the country’s general election?

The military’s past and present interference in politics notwithstanding, are elections lost and won on single-point agendas? Can one institution, however strong, decide the entire outcome of the country’s general election? The Asghar Khan case and the 1990 election seem to suggest so. But since then, much has changed in Pakistani politics, including the relative dominance of the military. And perhaps the 2002 election is the best example of this.

With the security establishment directly in control, rigging in 2002 was carried out legally and also through coercive methods. And those who study elections argue that the bulk of the rigging takes place pre-election and not on election day itself. And this is exactly what the regime did in 2002.

The heads of parties such as the PPP and the PML-N were not allowed to lead their parties (convicted politicians were legally barred from heading political parties) and kept out of the country; the graduation clause was used to ‘encourage’ a new crop of educated leaders; and most of the Noonies were lured/forced to join the king’s party (the party which in 1997 had a two-thirds majority in parliament was reduced to less than two dozen seats in 2002). The engineering and manipulation of the 2002 election is now part of folklore as well as documented history.

But while for many, 2002 shows how the big, bad security establishment interferes and engineers our politics, the glass is also half full if viewed from another angle.

Despite all that Musharraf and the military-led government did, they couldn’t swing a simple majority for the PML-Q. It was the party with the largest number of seats but far short of a simple majority. It ended up with 118 seats (including the reserved ones) while the PPP came second with 81.

Ten members of the PPP were then compelled to heed the voice of Zameer and they formed a breakaway faction — PPP-Patriots — to provide some of numbers desperately needed by the king’s party while the MQM also came on board (probably quite eagerly after years in the wilderness). Despite all this, Musharraf’s prime ministerial candidate was short of one vote in the National Assembly. This came courtesy Azam Tariq, who was released from jail in order to cast the crucial vote to elect Zafarullah Khan Jamali. In return, it was reported that Azam Tariq demanded, and got, several Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan prisoners released.

All this is hardly forgotten history — so recent is it all — and yet our politicians and analysts believe that a security establishment which is now forced to operate from behind the scenes can swing an election in a way it could not in 2002 when it ruled the roost and also enjoyed considerable legitimacy. Hence, the PML-N’s defeat is apparently inevitable because Sharif senior has taken on the khalai makhlooq. And apparently, in the process the voter, especially in Punjab, has lost all agency.

This is not to say that the military is not a powerful institution which can and does play a role in Pakistani politics. But its role does not turn the election into a one-sided affair in which only one player has a say. Political parties, the voters, the candidates — everyone makes a difference and contributes to the final result. Had this not been the case, the PPP would not have emerged as the second largest party in the 2002 election; the pre-election manipulation carried out by Musharraf then didn’t spare the PPP.

And if the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (which too came together because of the powers that be) won in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2002, it was partly because of the regional context; the invasion of Afghanistan had led to anti-US sentiment which the religious alliance cashed in on.

Hopefully, this time around also, despite machinations and plotting, the people too will have a say. Apart from the khalai makhlooq’s interference, people might vote on the basis of development undertaken, inflation, electricity, the state of agriculture and even the Panama issue and the alleged corruption by PML-N. The much-reviled electables will also have a role to play as will the campaigns by the political parties.

And whatever the results, the election post-mortem should not give the credit or the blame to one institution. To do so is not just unfair to the Pakistani people but also gives too much credit to the military. This then creates the perception that the invincible security establishment delivers election results, encouraging parties, politicians and the voters to simply look the Pindi way for the direction in which the wind is blowing instead of focusing on the fight. And as a result, they end up ‘proving’ their own misguided beliefs.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2018