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Polls won’t be derailed

March 18, 2013

THE Pakistani rumor mill is in overdrive on the issue of general elections. The word doing the rounds is that the elections may not happen after all. In the past weeks, I have even heard politicians and senior analysts talk in private about the high likelihood of elections being postponed or cancelled.

Two reasons dominate such thinking: one is that an “invisible hand” is scheming to derail the elections intentionally; the other is that the security situation will not permit an election that is orderly.

Let us get the second concern out of the way first. The worry is that the levels of violence perpetuated by militants will rise between now and election day and will prevent the polls from taking place.

This is bunkum — plain and simple. We held elections in Swat at the peak of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan-led insurgency in 2008 without any major security incidents there. By-elections have been held in various constituencies in Pakistan at different times over the past five years and have gone smoothly. In the neighbourhood, Afghanistan has held elections in the past decade in far worse security conditions. There are many other international examples of elections amidst law-and-order chaos.

It is true that elections are often a convenient time for militants to up the ante and gain concessions. Some increase in levels of violence can therefore be expected. For elections to become impossible however, we must postulate an astronomical rise in the quantum of violence. We must also assume that the intelligence and law-enforcement outfits would be totally unable to curtail militant activity even as it makes this leap.

This is a doomsday scenario based on an overly simplistic view of the state’s capacity. While the state seems to be fighting against heavy odds in terms of tackling terrorism over the long run, it has more than enough penetration within the militant enclaves to be able to put a lid on matters temporarily. The present levels of violence can be upped somewhat perhaps but the kind of chaos that will genuinely make elections impossible will require a near-zero success rate of the state’s violence-prevention efforts. No rational factors warrant such a drastic failure.

Yes, security can be the excuse for not holding elections. This ties in with the first category of concerns, i.e. somebody will engineer the situation specifically to derail the ballot.

Who is this ‘somebody’? Usual answers: Establishment and/or the president (the two potential gainers).

Let us unpack this.

Assume that the establishment wants to prevent timely elections. How will it achieve this?

Strategy one: Army chief takes over directly. Strategy two: the caretaker cabinet’s time is extended once they are in office and cabinet posts re-awarded to technocrats loyal to the establishment.

There is no regular constitutional channel available to achieve either. The first requires the judiciary to bless the military’s takeover. The second needs both the judiciary and the president to be on board.

First, given the new constitutional provisions, sanctioning a military intervention is far more difficult than it used to be in the days of state-run media and a pliant Supreme Court. More pertinent, blessing any extra-constitutional measure that would have a ‘grand deal’ involving the judiciary written all over it simply does not go with the Supreme Court’s present demeanour. For all the controversies around its conduct, the judiciary has been eagerly supportive of actions that facilitate an orderly election. One strand of its activism has been fixated on election-related issues — there isn’t a decision to date that can cast doubt over the court’s commitment to elections.

In reality, the Supreme Court is far more likely to step in to quash any unwarranted manipulation of the system than to back derailment of the process.

What about the president? He has already forgone the option of trying to use the joint parliament session to extend the term of the assemblies. If he was serious about postponing elections, this would have been the obvious constitutional route to take. Why didn’t he? And what is in it for him if the post-caretaker technocratic set up is to have the establishment’s nominees (or for the establishment if they can’t appoint their chosen few)?

And even if we assume that the president goes along with the establishment in seeking a delay in the elections, the judicial reaction will still be the same. If anything, the executive-Supreme Court dynamics make the response even more certain.

All this, however, is secondary to the real deal breaker: the opposition’s response. What incentive will they have to sit back and let this manipulation take place? Any such move will only bring the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf and the religious political parties to join hands and flood the streets of Islamabad in no time. If the state can be lured to offer concessions to Tahirul Qadri, it can’t be expected to last too long in the face of agitation by genuinely popular parties. In any case, what could the establishment possibly offer to incentivise the opposition to withdraw peacefully? After all, they will have nothing to lose in this scenario.

The fact is that even if some of the major stakeholders want to, they cannot derail elections without causing total chaos. Even then, the opposition will ultimately use their street power to force them to call elections sooner rather than later.

In reality however, none of this may be needed. Both stakeholders who are seen as potential beneficiaries of a postponement seem committed to holding the elections. There are no murmurs within the presidency or the establishment that hint at any serious conniving. In fact, both are very seriously thinking about their respective roles in the elections.

Holding elections may not be simple. But not holding them will prove to be suicidal for all relevant actors. This is a good indicator that we may be headed to elections — as good as one can have in a country full of surprises.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.