SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE VIGOURS OF RIGGING

Published February 4, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In Pakistan, the moment someone mentions the word ‘rigging’, the first thing that comes to mind is the image of suspicious looking people stuffing ballot boxes with bogus votes. It’s not that this does not happen, but not on the scale most people think it does. It is only possible in certain polling stations. It could change the course of certain particular contests, but not an entire election. 

It would be a herculean task to stuff ballot boxes at multiple polling stations on election day. But this still remains the most popular perception of a ‘rigged’ election. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards, most people began to speak more about ‘pre-poll rigging’ — or the manipulation of certain conditions to favour the electoral fortunes of a favoured party. 

Take for instance the 1985 elections during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. The parties that boycotted the polls accused the regime of pre-poll rigging. By this they largely meant the dictatorship disallowing parties to contest. This is why they are often referred to as ‘party-less elections.’ But there was no stated law stopping parties from backing independents.

In her book Daughter of the East, former PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto wrote that her decision to boycott the 1985 elections was a mistake. It was a mistake because her party left the field open for “Zia’s people” (especially in Punjab) to come in and establish vote-banks of their own. 

No general elections had been held for eight years and people were looking to get MNAs and MPAs to resolve typical constituency issues. And even though the turnout was low in Sindh, it was over 50 percent in Punjab.

Accusations of ‘pre-poll rigging’ are not a new phenomenon and have been rife in Pakistan across several elections. What’s the difference between pre-poll rigging and shrewd politics?

Pre-poll rigging requires certain conditions/realities that can then be manipulated by a force that wants a certain set of people to enter the assemblies. These conditions are not cosmetically created as such and emerge organically. In 1985, there was an increasing desire emerging in Punjab’s population to have representatives who were more accessible, compared to the military officers who were running the government. 

It seems the Zia dictatorship was more aware of this reality than those who were opposing him. So, to keep them at bay, he simply decided to hold ‘party-less’ elections, knowing well that they would be boycotted by his opponents. Is this rigging? I don’t think so. It is simply shrewd politics, and politics is all about how best one can manipulate certain conditions/realities to their advantage. 

Now, let’s move many decades forward. Indeed, the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was shaped by a troika that included the military establishment (ME), the judiciary and a hyperbolic segment of the popular media. This, and the eventual victory of Khan’s party in the 2018 polls, could not have taken place without the presence of certain ground realities. 

After the fall of the Pervez Musharraf dictatorship, the ME sensed that a large part of the country’s middle classes were thoroughly distraught by the general’s unceremonious departure. The ME concluded that, since these classes were growing, they could become a constituency for a chosen (civilian) replacement for Musharraf, and also a conduit to proliferate a narrative pitched against the mainstream parties that had combined to oust the dictator.

But this was a hypothesised reality that needed to be tested. So, in 2011, a concocted story about the ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities of the country’s then ambassador to the US was quietly shared with Khan by the then ME and he was asked to relate this ‘story’ at a rally. Khan was put on a stage in Lahore and thousands of people thronged the rally, anticipating a ‘truth’ that, apparently, only Khan knew. The majority of the people who attended the rally were middle class urbanites, and they were thrilled by the ‘story’. 

A hypothesised reality was tested, confirmed and then manipulated to kickstart the ‘Imran Khan project.’ But there was another side to this reality: Khan’s constituency was largely middle class and housed in urban areas. So the aim became to get him enough seats in Karachi and in urban and peri-urban regions of Punjab without having to bank on lower-middle class, working class and rural class votes. How was this done?

A few years before the 2018 elections, radical Barelvi Muslims had begun to flex their muscle. A movement emerged calling itself Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP). It was centred in Punjab and began to gather a following among Punjabis from classes below the middle. This movement was ‘mainstreamed’ by those looking to manipulate it.

Then, in 2018, the TLP was encouraged to contest the elections so that it could usurp the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) working and rural class votes in Punjab and the lower-middle class Barelvi vote bank of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Barelvi working-class votes of the PPP in Karachi. This ‘vote spoiling’ benefitted the PTI. 

An emerging reality (the TLP) was encouraged and then plugged into an election to address PTI’s electoral limitations. Rigging? Not really. It was clever politics…until it wasn’t. This is when the whole Results Transmission System (RTS) debacle took place.  

The reality today is a highly polarised society. One side has had enough of Khan. The other side can’t stop lamenting about the ‘injustice’ he is facing. Saying that he will get a large ‘sympathy vote’ is a hypothesis. The other hypothesis is that people will move on and vote for parties that were demonised by the Imran Khan project. 

Both hypotheses are largely untested. Yet, it is increasingly becoming clear that the sympathy vote will be limited. It often is, as was the case with the PPP in Punjab in 2008 after Benazir was assassinated. Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence that the Supreme Court took away PTI’s election symbol to serve the ME’s interests. But a symbol-less PTI is now a reality — a reality ripe for manipulation. Rigging? No — politics. 

On another note, one wonders why, for example, the phrase “level playing field” never figured during the 2013 elections as it does today. Terrorists were mercilessly killing the workers and leaders of the PPP, MQM and ANP. These parties struggled to hold any rallies at all, whereas the PML-N and PTI went about campaigning without even once mentioning the attacks.

Perhaps this was a reality that many were not too disturbed about. It was benefiting them. Therefore, this in itself became a ploy really to keep the attacked opponents out. Rigging? You be the judge, especially those who are so concerned about ‘pre-poll rigging’ these days.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 28th, 2024

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