Excluding party leaders

Published October 1, 2023
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

STRONG exception was taken by civil society, the media and at least one large political party to what the caretaker prime minister appears to have said in response to a question.

The essence of his reply was that free and fair elections would be possible in Pakistan even if former prime minister Imran Khan and some of his party colleagues remained behind bars.

He subsequently said that his words were taken out of context. Although he may not be technically wrong — provided the imprisonment is the result of a fair judicial process and not political victimisation — the reaction to his statement was not without reason.

Pakistan has a long history of excluding popular political leaders and political parties from the electoral process. In December 1970, when the country held its first direct general election to the National Assembly, there was no bar on any political leader or party from participating in the electoral process.

The election led to a landslide victory for the Awami League and its head Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. He won an absolute majority by securing 53 per cent of the seats of the Assembly, drawing 39pc of the popular vote.

This ‘mistake’ of not excluding him from the electoral process was ‘rectified’ when he, despite winning an outright majority, was not allowed to form the government, and, instead, was arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted in West Pakistan.

A death sentence could have been executed, but events forced the transfer of power in a truncated Pakistan to West Pakistan’s most popular leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who not only released Sheikh Mujib but also ensured his safe passage to London.

In the subsequent election, the experience gained in the first one was contemplated, and ‘mistakes’ were not repeated. By most independent accounts, the second general election in 1977 was blatantly rigged and its results could not produce a legitimate government.

Intensified street agitation encouraged a military takeover and prime minister Bhutto was deposed. Bhutto’s tarnished popularity was resurrected after he was removed by army chief Gen Ziaul Haq, leading to indefinite postponement of general elections, which were promised by him in 90 days.

The martial law government made all the arrangements to ensure that Bhutto and his PPP would not return to power. Bhutto was tried in a murder case and executed.

The next general election was held after eight long years, and that too on a non-party basis so that there was absolutely no possibility of the PPP claiming victory.

The PPP boycotted the election. The party and its popular leader, Benazir Bhutto, were, therefore, successfully blocked from the electoral process. The PPP and Benazir Bhutto were allowed to return to politics and elections only in 1988, after Gen Zia died in a plane crash, but the victory was diluted to a point where the PPP government remained ineffective.

Her government was prematurely sacked and not allowed to return in the subsequent election.

Pakistan has a long history of excluding popular political leaders from the poll process.

When Nawaz Sharif emerged as a popular leader after his confrontation with president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993, he was sacked as elected prime minister and not allowed to return to power in the subsequent election in 1993. A number of cases were instituted against him and his party colleagues to ensure that he remained entangled in them.

The same treatment was meted out to Benazir Bhutto, who was sacked as prime minister in 1996. Not only was she not allowed to return to power in the 1997 general election, her party could barely win 18 seats in the National Assembly as opposed to the 86 it had won some three years earlier. Benazir Bhutto and her husband were booked in several cases of corruption.

Nawaz Sharif, who returned as prime minister for the second time in 1997 with a two-thirds majority, was sacked after the 1999 military coup, and prosecuted in the case involving a conspiracy to hijack a plane in which Gen Pervez Musharraf was travelling.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a special court but the military government appealed for enhancing the sentence to death. Ultimately, he and his family were exiled to Saudi Arabia and he could only return to Pakistan close to the general election in 2008.

His party could not win the elections in 2002 or 2008. It was ensured that the breakaway PML-Q, patronised by the military chief-cum-president, ‘won’ the election in 2002.

Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the third time in the 2013 election, 14 years after his removal, and after Gen Musharraf had resigned as president, and, more importantly, as army chief.

He was forced out of office once again in 2017 after he had developed differences with the military leadership and was convicted in a case of not disclosing the salary receivable from the company owned by his son.

This account of change in governments shows that a popular leader has never been able to return to power in the election immediately following his or her removal.

Popular political parties have faced fragmentation in the past. For instance, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a close associate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, formed the National People’s Party and supported the military government.

The PML-under Nawaz Sharif had faced a similar fate when a number of the party leader’s associates formed the PML-Q and supported the military government which had toppled him in 1999.

The PTI is going through a similar phase of desertions and fragmentation, although its own follies like the one on May 9 also have to be blamed for this.

Two political parties, including Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party, led by former PTI secretary general Jehangir Tareen, and the PTI-Parliamentarians, formed by Pervez Khattak, the former chief minister of KP under the PTI government, have emerged.

The lesson is that popular political parties and their leaders who fall from favour have to face pressures, desertions, fragmentation, imprisonment and exclusion from the electoral process in one way or the other.

History seems to be constantly repeating itself in Pakistan with almost predictable uniformity.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org

X (formerly Twitter): @ABMPildat

YouTube: @abmpildat

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2023

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