Pakistan’s upcoming general election, scheduled for July 25, is taking place in a climate of growing political tensions and uncertainty. Increasing allegations of the military’s intervention in domestic politics aimed at manipulating the election process and outcome cast a shadow over the polls. Any covert or overt intervention on the part of the military will not only create political instability in the country but will also increase an already deep-rooted civil-military imbalance. Any rigging of the election is likely to cause widespread resentment among voters and pit political forces, which stand to gain from a military intervention, against each other.
History of Military Intervention
Throughout Pakistan’s history, its military has manipulated various state institutions, such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, to weaken political parties that question its role in policy and decisionmaking. Throughout the 1990s, the military is known to have put up grand political coalitions and employ other bureaucratic hurdles to counter political leaders such as Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto who questioned the Army’s hold on domestic politics. Over the last decade of uninterrupted civilian rule, the military has shown a disposition to become more involved in the country’s politics though covertly, applying constant pressure on civilian authorities to ensure it retains influence over foreign policy and defense.Throughout Pakistan’s history, its military has manipulated various state institutions, such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, to weaken political parties that question its role in policy and decisionmaking.
As the next general election draws closer, the military has become bolder: the pre-election period has been marked by intimidation and manipulation of print and electronic media, which has the potential to influence public attitudes going into the election. Private TV channels and newspapers that are critical of the military’s role in domestic politics have either been forced to shut down or their distribution has been interrupted. A report by an independent Pakistani think-tank analyzing key developments in the past year based on 11 parameters, including the perception of neutrality of the military in the political process, has termed the pre-poll process “unfair.”
In addition to this behind-the-scenes intervention, it has been argued that the military may have played a role in constructing court cases against members of the outgoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, to damage these lawmakers’ reputations and prevent the party from coming back to power. As is evident from the trajectory of governance in Pakistan post-Independence, the military apparatus is wont to respond when questioned, and as it retains control over Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, both the previous and current outgoing governments have remained wary of making moves that may oppose the military’s control. Most recently, the way former Prime Minister Sharif was removed from office raises questions about the military’s role, especially given that the military was responsible for removing him from office twice before. Officially, Sharif’s forced resignation came as he was found guilty by the courts in a controversial corruption scandal. However, many believe that Sharif was forced out because of his willingness to assert civilian supremacy over the military.
Despite deep concerns over military intervention or manipulation of the electoral process, the Ministry of Defense has approved the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)’s request for the deployment of 350,000 soldiers to provide security at polling stations across the country. Not only will these soldiers be present inside and outside polling stations, but they will also oversee the security of the Printing Corporation of Pakistan, which publishes and distributes ballot papers. However, the military’s reach extends farther than just providing security: it seems to be working towards ensuring that political leaders and groups that have questioned its position and influence in the past do not return to the parliament. For the military, a civilian administration that does not criticize the Army’s role in domestic politics and foreign affairs and settles with the military’s defined security policy domestically and regionally has always been a preference.
For the past few months, a pattern which seems to be the work of undemocratic forces has emerged that indicates that such a development is likely. In the province of Punjab, which is also the stronghold of Sharif’s party, the way the ECP has delimited constituencies is likely to put PML-N at a disadvantage electorally. Moreover, the questionable disqualification of a number of PML-N electables by the country’s courts also threatens the party’s chances to secure a majority in the parliament. In Punjab alone, a large number of PML-N electables have defected from the party, either in opposition to Sharif’s recent policy of targeting the military or have been pressured to join the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which continues to toe the military’s line in hopes of making electoral gains across the country. In Baluchistan, a largely unknown political figure was recently elected as the Chief Minister of the province after a PML-N-led coalition suddenly collapsed. The recent Senate poll in Pakistan, which took place in a mysterious fashion, saw Sharif’s party lose the election even though it had a majority in both houses of the parliament.
Considering these developments, it may be that Pakistan is headed for a hung parliament, where no single political party wins an absolute majority. Should these elections bring in a weak government, it will be unable to question the military’s ever-growing influence in the country. In such a scenario, the newly-elected government is likely to come under a lot of pressure from opposition political parties and will remain dependent on the military for its survival. If so, the military is likely to find itself more entrenched in domestic politics post-elections, resolving issues tied to the domain of civilian politicians such as economy and trade and directly or indirectly intervening to resolve political deadlocks. This is largely due to the fact that while the military does not react kindly to challenges to its authority, it ultimately does not seek political instability in the country, least of all at a time when Pakistan is facing serious economic challenges.
Pakistan’s Democratic FutureWhile Pakistan is set for a third consecutive election without the direct interference of a non-elected institution, democracy still remains weak and vulnerable to interference.
The alleged election engineering doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy in Pakistan. While Pakistan is set for a third consecutive election without the direct interference of a non-elected institution, democracy still remains weak and vulnerable to interference. The existing institutional imbalance between civil and military institutions will likely deepen after the upcoming general elections, due to which it should not be expected that the country’s domestic and regional security policies will change drastically.
Unless the country’s civilian forces unite as a strong political institution pushing for civilian supremacy, this civil-military imbalance will continue. However, civilian leaders in Pakistan cannot seem to agree on constitutional norms related to democratic politics such as accountability or transparency or to act in accordance with those norms. If those in power cannot abide by these norms and rules, it is unlikely that other state institutions will. Unfortunately, this seems to be the likeliest outcome for governance in Pakistan, at least for the foreseeable future.
Editor’s Note: As Pakistani voters head to the polls on July 25 in what will be the second time in the country’s history that one civilian government will transfer power to another, SAV contributors Umair Jamal, Farhan Siddiqi, Hamzah Rifaat, and Rizwana Abbasi assess the likely outcome, its impact on Pakistan’s domestic economic agenda and foreign policy, and what role key stakeholders such as the military and the religious groups may play in the process. Read the entire series here.
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Image 2: Aamir Qureshi via Getty