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On Aug 13, 1988, Gen Ziaul Haq reiterated that the coming elections would be held on a non-party basis.

Earlier, in June, the Supreme Court (SC) had accepted Benazir Bhutto’s constitutional petition declaring non-party elections a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of association. The decision implied that the country would return to the party-based electoral system but the general vowed to resist. He was killed in a plane crash four days later.

His death, however, did not undo the changes that he had made in the country’s electoral and governance system. It is unfair to club all of these together as just the 8th Amendment. That misrepresents the numerous and sweeping changes he introduced, defacing the 1973 Constitution beyond recognition. Instead of a thriving parliamentary democracy, it now stood for non-party elections on the basis of a separate electorate to give birth to a parliament that was allowed only to play second fiddle to a president who drew legitimacy from the fact that he was the head of the army.

The political discourse of the decade following the general’s death is a story of the struggle to bring the system back to normalcy. The 1988 general elections were the first major step in this direction.

Ms Bhutto went to court again to secure an order to make elections party-based and the government finally accepted this on Sept 16, two months before polling day. She had dominated the political landscape since her return to the country in April 1986. Martial law had been lifted on Dec 30, 1985, after the non-party parliament and the government of the then prime minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo, had provided constitutional cover to all of Gen Zia’s acts since July 5, 1977. The restoration of the amended constitution offered very little space for political activities. The Junejo government was being suffocated by the overbearing general whose obsession with power was turning into paranoia. Mr Junejo’s manoeuvres stretched Gen Ziaul Haq’s patience to its limits in May 1988, when the latter turned the tables on the elected government using the constitutional tool of Article 58(2b), which he had himself fashioned. With Mr Junejo gone, the military government came face to face with the PPP of Benazir Bhutto.

The geopolitical leverage from which the military regime had benefited over the past decade was disappearing fast. A dejected Soviet army had started pulling out of Afghanistan in May 1988.

One of the military establishment’s main strategies to contain the rise of the PPP was to unite everyone who had anything against the latter under one umbrella. The Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was thus an alliance of those who had benefited from the military rule.

The main components of the IJI were the Muslim League and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The Muslim League was dominated by the affluent middle class of central Punjab while the JI was its ideologue. The National People’s Party of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Sami-ul-Haq (JUI-S) and the Jamiat Ahle Hadith of Maulana Lakhvi were worth around a single seat each in the parliament.

The other components had no direct electoral significance. Some were probably added just to bring the total to nine that was the same as the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) of 1977. The PNA had contested against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s party and lost, but subsequent protests by the alliance had culminated in the imposition of martial law.

Yet the IJI was not the only challenge the PPP had to face. A number of changes in laws and procedures introduced into the electoral system obstructed the free and fair character of elections.

The new electoral rolls prepared in 1987 had 40 per cent more voters than the ones used for the non-party elections of 1985 (32.5 million in 1985 compared to 47.9 million in 1987). This should have resulted in a higher voter turnout in polling stations. But the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan made it mandatory, through an ordinance, for voters to present an identity card. The Lahore High Court declared the rule void but the SC ruled in its favour on November 12, four days before the polling. The poor and the marginalised who formed the biggest part of the PPP vote bank were also the ones who did not possess an identity card. The population census conducted in 1998 showed that half of the country’s women and a third of its men did not have an identity card; one small amendment in the rules disenfranchised millions of people. It is now no secret that the presidency also housed a cell that manipulated election results.

Despite the odds, Ms Bhutto triumphed. Her party won 93 seats and polled 38.5 per cent of the vote, becoming the single largest party. Her 7.5 million votes were almost a quarter more than the 6.1 million votes secured by Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP in 1970. More importantly, the party won seats and polled substantial percentages of the votes in Balochistan and what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it had no presence earlier. The centre-right and far-right alliance consolidated its vote bank under the banner of IJI. Their 5.9 million votes translated into 54 seats in the National Assembly but, more importantly, the alliance won a majority in Punjab and formed government there.

Their success in Punjab stole the shine from the PPP’s victory at the federal level.