Ranking the 5 ‘dirtiest’ elections in Pakistan history

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the unfairest of them all?
Published February 7, 2024

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the unfairest of them all?

Pakistan has had 11 direct general elections so far, with the 12th edition due tomorrow (Feb 8). In theory, this democratic activity is supposed to put the representatives chosen by the masses in charge, which in turn are expected to put the country back on track.

But despite nearly a dozen elections in the bag, general elections in Pakistan do not rid the country of its long running ailments. If anything, they create more strife within political parties.

One big reason that happens is due to the system being ‘rigged’ or ‘manipulated’ in favour of some blue-eyed flavour-of-the-month types, but against certain undesirables no more in the good books of the powers that be.

In the piece below, based on the input given by various political analysts, we have ranked five such elections that history tells us are widely seen as the ‘dirtiest’ or the most unfair of them all.

5 — The controlled elections of 1997

The four elections during the 10-year period between 1988 and 1997 followed a clear trend. Worried about Benazir Bhutto, the state would either try to curb her popularity or help Nawaz Sharif to the prime minister’s office.

However, once in the top seat, Sharif would get embroiled in power struggles of his own — if not directly with the military then with its favoured people in civilian positions. When one was out of favour, the other automatically became the blue-eyed, or the lesser of the two headaches, to take over, and was also allowed to by the state.

This happened for the last time in this decade in 1997 when Sharif secured a landslide victory, winning 137 of the total 217 National Assembly seats, almost doubling his haul of 73 seats in the previous elections. But far more staggering than Nawaz’s meteoric rise was the magnitude with which Benazir’s haul shrank.

From winning 89 seats in 1993, her PPP could bag a mere 18 four years later — a depletion of almost 80 per cent.

While the killing of Benazir’s brother Murtaza Bhutto a few months before the elections as well as allegations of corruption against her husband Asif Ali Zardari were expected to hurt PPP’s popularity to an extent, but not by the margin eventually seen. This was made possible through a crackdown in the aftermath of the previous Benazir government’s dismissal as well as the arrests of Zardari and party loyalists.

“The 1997 elections were quite controversial,” historian and satirist Nadeem F. Paracha told Dawn.com. “An elected government was sent packing [in late 1996] and a crackdown was launched against the PPP, due to which Nawaz Sharif got an overwhelming two-thirds majority in the parliament.”

“The competition was controlled,” another senior journalist Tahir Mehdi corroborated. “The PPP was cowed down so much with the Murtaza Bhutto [assassination] and Farooq Leghari was the president. The entire election campaign was based on this [narrative] that Zardari was ‘Mr 10 per cent’ and very corrupt.”

4 — The ‘partyless’ polls of 1985

The 1985 elections were originally supposed to be held in 1977 when General Ziaul Haq staged a military coup, promising the nation that general elections would be held within 90 days.

Eight years after his 90-day promise, the elections did happen but under quite unusual circumstances — the likes of which were never seen before and have never been seen since.

Dubbed the ‘partyless’ polls, the 1985 elections were unique in the sense that no political parties of the time were allowed to field their candidates, thanks to a timely amendment to the 1973 Constitution.

“Today, just one party (PTI) is being obstructed but in 1985 the entire election was held on a nonpartisan basis,” recalled senior analyst Nusrat Javeed.

“The 1985 elections were the ones that corrupted and damaged the entire electoral system of parliamentary democracy, parties, administration, etc,” Tahir Mehdi explained. “Even today, this practice of independent candidates joining political parties after the elections … the root cause of this evil was in 1985 elections.”

Another veteran journalist, Mazhar Abbas was of the view that the 1985 polls were not only rigged, they even damaged the fabric of the country’s society. “Non-party-based elections in itself is a form of pre-poll rigging,” he said in an interview with Dawn News English. “That approach divided the society into feudals, caste system, etc.”

3 — The General’s election of 2002

Pakistan has had a long history of the state meddling into political affairs and running the show from the background. But what if instead of pulling the strings from behind, the powerful quarters were front and centre, not even feeling the need of a political guise? That happened in 2002 when Pervez Musharraf, both the army chief and the president at the same time, decided to hold elections.

PML-Q, the party that won the elections that year, was created, or rather engineered, less than three months before the polling day. While the party itself was nascent, the politicians it comprised of were seasoned and poached from the two established parties.

The 2002 elections saw the end of a trend that had lasted all through the 1990s when the PPP and PML-N played musical chairs with the prime minister’s office — also called the two-party system. In the new millennium came a new strategy where both the traditional big guns (PPP, PML-N) were dumped, their top leadership exiled, and the leftovers used to draft the King’s party (PML-Q).

Not one to take chances, Musharraf, as the president, promulgated the Political Parties Order, 2002, with bespoke restrictions introduced to specifically knock out the PPP and PML-N. The executive order declared that the head of a contesting party must be present in Pakistan and they must not be convicted.

The pre-poll manoeuvring was so sophisticated that there was no real need of anything extravagant on the actual day of voting.

“There are general elections, and then there are the General’s elections, and this was the latter,” Dawn News journalist Zarrar Khuhro said. “The 2002 elections were unbelievably rigged. Every single administrative department from the police to the returning officers to the people who counted the votes — they were all on that side (the state).”

Khuhro explained that in Pakistan’s electoral history, disenfranchisement is often dressed up as reform, and the 2002 version of that tried-and-failed trick came in the form of election hopefuls being required to have graduate degrees. “On the face of it, it seemed fine but then what’s the state of education in Pakistan? So are you not disenfranchising millions of people?”

However, the Muttahida Majlis–i–Amal, a pro-Musharraf alliance of religio-political parties, was allowed a way in via an exception. “A madressah certificate was considered equal to a degree,” Khuhro said. “So you disenfranchised a vast majority of politicians but you allowed them (the clerics).”

2 — The mother of all rigging in 1990

The manipulation of the 1990 elections actually had its foundations laid prior to the elections of 1988 when the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), an alliance of nine parties, was created out of thin air by the then chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) retired General Hamid Gul, just to counter Benazir.

“In 1988, IJI was created overnight to block the clean victory of Benazir Bhutto,” Nusrat Javeed told Dawn.com. “All of a sudden, Muhammad Khan Junejo, Nawaz Sharif, Jamaat-i-Islami, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi — all teamed up. These nine parties joined forces in the blink of an eye.”

The newly formed IJI could not win the 1988 elections despite being the spy chief’s brainchild but come 1990, it was ready. To make sure they got the desired results this time, IJI own chairman (Jatoi) was installed as the caretaker minister.

In 2012, more than two decades later, the Supreme Court would rule that there was enough evidence proving that the 1990 elections were indeed rigged. It further noted that the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, COAS General (R) Aslam Baig and DG ISI Asad Durrani conspired against the PPP government.

Furthermore, Rs140 million from the public exchequer was distributed among opposition politicians through the then chief executive of a major bank, Younas Habib, to keep the PPP from winning.

“What happened in 1990 elections was the mother of all rigging,” said Mazhar Abbas. “The Asghar Khan case is the only instance when the Supreme Court, after years of hearings, declared that the 1990 elections were indeed rigged. This is perhaps the only election that has ultimately proven to be rigged.”

In addition to bankrolling the anti-PPP parties, work was done to also hurt Benazir’s repute. “There was a lot of character assassination of and negative propaganda against Benazir,” recalls Zohra Yousuf. “There was no social media then but they were using other tactics.”

1 — 2018 - The most unfair elections but only till date

For almost all the analysts Dawn.com spoke to, 2018 elections were the most common pick for the most unfair of them all, but with the caveat that it could be taken over by the upcoming polls when it’s all said and done.

The groundwork for the alleged manipulation of the 2018 elections was laid exactly a year ago with the ouster of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified from holding a public office by the Supreme Court on corruption charges.

The months leading up to the elections saw a massive bout of censorship of the media, while many ‘electables’ either quit the PML-N or joined the PTI, allegedly at the behest of the establishment. In fact, on the final day of scrutiny of nomination papers, seven of the PML-N’s ticket-holders from south Punjab returned party tickets and decided to contest as independents.

Meanwhile, after the elections, regional parties such as MQM-P and PML-Q, the latter being the perennial king’s party, lent their support to the PTI. Towards the end of the PTI government, MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqi would openly say that the party was coerced to join the PTI government. Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, then of the PML-Q but now of the PTI, would also accuse the Imran’s party of using the establishment’s crutches and never having learned politics for themselves.

“The 2018 election was more than just rigging,” Zohra Yousuf told Dawn.com. “There was a lot of pre-planning and manipulation, with pressure exerted on political leaders to leave their parties and join Imran Khan. Jahangir Tareen’s private jet was used to carry candidates, and leaders were even kidnapped and held hostage till they agreed to join the PTI.”

Apart from the pre- and post-poll favours, perhaps the biggest controversy was left for the day of voting itself. The Result Transmission System (RTS) an Android-based application for the prompt disbursement of results from polling stations to returning officers, had infamously crashed after the close of polling, bringing the entire process of result compilation and issuance to a standstill.

“The 2018 election was the most unfair and questionable mainly due to the RTS collapse,” said Nadeem F. Paracha. “There were a lot of question marks and there is still no explanation for it. It is not to suggest that the PTI did not have its vote bank but they had to be given an extra 13 to 14 seats, and that RTS failure facilitated it.”

According to Tahir Mehdi, the 2018 elections were a departure from the overt meddling of the state into the electoral process.

“While in 1985 everything was quite brazen, the 2018 elections saw the advent of the hybrid system,” he explained. “A lot of work was put in before the elections in terms of what candidates to field, what alliances to create. It was the birth of a totally new type of rigging, whose slightly more advanced form we’re going to see in 2024.

Nusrat Javeed was also of the opinion that 2018 was the worst of the lot, but warned that it may not hold the unenviable title for long.

“In Pakistan, almost all elections were manipulated — only their intensity varies. And based on that, in recent history, the 2018 elections were the worst,” he said.

“But the 2024 elections may even surpass 2018.”