Blackout to backlash

Published February 18, 2024
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

IT all started with the nationwide suspension of mobile phone services on election day. Poll managers might not have realised that this suspension would aggravate political chaos, which could lead towards a demand for fresh elections.

Though the caretaker government claimed it had suspended mobile phone services due to security concerns, the Election Commission and other concerned departments and ministries were reportedly unaware a day before the election whether a suspension would be necessary. This confusion fuelled debate that the election results could have been manipulated under the cover of the communication blackout.

While rigging charges and election day irregularities are not new in Pakistan, the dust usually settles after a few weeks, with political parties and losing candidates making compromises. Only a few continue their legal battles. In 2013, the PTI launched a massive anti-rigging campaign, maintaining pressure on the government through protests. With the poll managers on their side, they were confident of eventually coming to power. Meanwhile, the PML-N continued to rule in a compromised manner.

The managers seemed to believe that the political fervour would subside after the formation of the new government. While we may see temporary appeasement, tampering with election results weakens the country’s power structures and erodes public faith in the system. As scholar Adil Najam rightly points out, it is not the economy but the loss of faith in the state by its citizens that is the biggest challenge emerging from this election.

At this juncture in history, Pakistan needed the most transparent elections ever held.

The security concerns were genuine as general elections loomed; Islamist militants and Baloch insurgents had intensified their attacks to disrupt and discredit the democratic process. From Feb 1 to Feb 9, 36 out of 63 reported terrorist attacks were directly linked to election violence.

Most of these attacks occurred in Balochistan’s central and Makran regions and Pakhtun-dominated districts. While threats persisted in Dera Ismail Khan and North Waziristan in KP, these largely mirrored previous trends.

The pattern of threats was clear, with identified territories and known locations of heightened risk. Law-enforcement agencies knew the intensity of attacks and could have devised security plans accordingly. However, shutting down mobile services nationwide appeared unnecessary and potentially detrimental to the democratic exercise. Despite the suspension of the mobile phone services, the terrorists managed 11 attacks in the high-risk areas mentioned.

The state has invested heavily in developing counterterrorism infrastructure, including dedicated departments, such as the National Counter Terrorism Authority, specialised security cells, and forces. If these institutions cannot formulate a comprehensive security plan for elections, the state and incoming parliament must critically analyse their performance and resource allocation.

It was alarming that just after the polls, the TTP issued a statement addressing the JUI-F and Jamaat-i-Islami to say that the manipulated democratic system would not allow religious parties to come to power. The right path, according to them, was to join their ranks to topple the system and bring a Taliban-style system to the country. While the TTP’s stance is not new and does not likely inspire the religious parties’ leadership, their statement fuels the ongoing discourse on the country’s power elites. Baloch insurgents share similar views, asserting that the manipulated electoral process will not heal the Baloch people’s wounds.

At this juncture in history, Pakistan needed the most transparent elections ever held to restore the people’s faith in the system. Some speculate that the poll managers were following a different template, where parties and individuals showing resistance to the status quo were deemed unacceptable.

Establishments often focus on imposing order, frequently at the expense of political and social order. They may believe that order brings discipline and stability to society and governance, but they always neglect to consider how their policies erode their legitimacy to impose order.

At least the perception is deepening in Balochistan, where nationalist parties have become alienated, targeted by insurgents, and victims of the poll managers’ manipulations. Malik Siraj, a US-based journalist, has analysed the state’s approach in Balochistan well. He describes how the establishment and caretaker government brought the province back to the Musharraf era, when Baloch alienation peaked. He argues that the situation will aggravate if someone like Sarfraz Bugti, who shares that mindset, is brought to power in the province. This would erode the confidence the previous government had tried to rebuild.

It is now clear that a politician who sensed the changing political winds was Maulana Fazlur Rehman. He realised this was the right time to align himself with the rapidly growing anti-establishment sentiment. In a TV interview on a private channel, he claimed that the no-confidence motion that ousted former prime minister Imran Khan was tabled on the directives of former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. He further claimed that he opposed the no-confidence move. While his claim has been contested, it paved the way for him to join the PTI-led anti-establishment camp. Meanwhile, he has secured 11 provincial seats in Balochistan, exploiting the rigging narrative. Quetta-based journalists believe that the maulana’s mandate is different from the JUI-F’s actual electoral strength on the ground.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman has skillfully managed to break the ice with his long-time nemesis, but the longevity of this relationship remains to be determined. Should the establishment and incoming government make a tempting offer, he might readily join them. Conversely, he continues to play the anti-establishment card. In that case, any alliance with the establishment would entail higher costs than the benefits of shared power at the centre and in Balochistan.

The political crisis seems entrenched, with no immediate end in sight. One potential path forward lies with the new government. By acting judiciously and independently, it can rebuild public trust. However, political actors remain paralysed, unwilling to move without the establishment’s tacit approval.

This is the biggest crisis Pakistan faces.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2024

Editorial

Ominous demands
Updated 18 May, 2024

Ominous demands

The federal government needs to boost its revenues to reduce future borrowing and pay back its existing debt.
Property leaks
18 May, 2024

Property leaks

THE leaked Dubai property data reported on by media organisations around the world earlier this week seems to have...
Heat warnings
18 May, 2024

Heat warnings

STARTING next week, the country must brace for brutal heatwaves. The NDMA warns of severe conditions with...
Dangerous law
Updated 17 May, 2024

Dangerous law

It must remember that the same law can be weaponised against it one day, just as Peca was when the PTI took power.
Uncalled for pressure
17 May, 2024

Uncalled for pressure

THE recent press conferences by Senators Faisal Vawda and Talal Chaudhry, where they demanded evidence from judges...
KP tussle
17 May, 2024

KP tussle

THE growing war of words between KP Chief Minister Ali Amin Gandapur and Governor Faisal Karim Kundi is affecting...