As Pakistan goes to the polls tomorrow (July 25), it appears that the blurring lines between mufti and mullah will converge further, to the detriment of its struggling democracy. The economic crisis, aggravated by unserviceable debts from infrastructure related to the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor, could trigger a complete meltdown, which a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (top priority of the new regime) may not be able to avert.
Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, for whom the military ‘deep state’ has reportedly ‘fixed’ the pitch, is unequal to the challenges of a failing currency, water and power shortages, Pashtun resurgence, and continuing violence by terrorists and Baloch insurgents. The military, equally unqualified to manage the crises, has suppressed all voices in favour of the PTI, Hafez Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (contesting under the banner of Allah-o-Akbar Tehrik) and other creations, including Balochistan Awami Party.
Dawn (July 21, 2018) has reported Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui alleging that the Inter-Services Intelligence is “manipulating judicial proceedings” and has asked the chief justice to ensure that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz remain behind bars throughout the elections. Addressing the Rawalpindi District Bar Association, the judge said, “Their personnel get benches formed at their will”. He alleged that the chief justice was urged not to include him (Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui) on the bench hearing the Sharifs’ appeals. Siddiqui was allegedly told that cases pending against him before the Supreme Judicial Council would be quashed and he would be made chief justice of the high court by September.
Another disturbing development is the Ahmadiyya (167,505 voters) decision to boycott the elections due to persisting discrimination. The current voter list also omits Jewish voters (809 in 2013), for reasons unknown. Ahmadiyya woes began when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-77) succumbed to radical clerics and declared Ahmadis a non-Muslim religious minority (Amendment No II of the Constitution).
Under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s 8th Amendment, electoral lists were prepared for different religious groups. However, under Western pressure, Gen. Pervez Musharraf reintroduced the joint voter list for all barring Ahmadis (Conduct of General Elections (Second Amendment) Order, 2002). Under Article 7C, Muslim voters were required to sign a declaration of belief in the unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad; those who refused were put on a supplementary list of voters in the same electoral area as non-Muslims.
The Nawaz Sharif government, in the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017, tried to modify the clause regarding finality of prophethood, but was forced to restore the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat laws to their original form after an outcry. Pushed to a separate voter list that makes their identities and addresses public and makes them vulnerable to extremist attacks, Ahmadis opted for boycott, something they have done for nearly four decades.
Unsurprisingly, observers are questioning the conduct of the polls. Election observers from the European Union are unhappy that their visas and government accreditations were delayed for weeks, giving them only few days on the ground before polling, whereas long-term observers earlier got five to six weeks on the ground. Journalists have complained of pressure to toe the army’s line; those deviating have suffered. In March 2018, Pakistan’s top private news channel, Geo News, was taken off the air. Anchor Talat Hussain tweeted that despite the massive rallies (of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), news media “have been told to stay free of fact”; “A spineless media industry has obliged”; and “This country is in the grip of martial law.” Geo News returned after weeks of negotiations with the military whereby its executives reportedly agreed to curb criticism of the army and judiciary.
Dawn reported disruption in its sales networks after publishing a long interview with Nawaz Sharif in May. The newspaper said the restrictions were “deeply alarming and should concern all free-thinking and democratic citizens of the country.” The elections have also been marred by harassment and arrest of workers of some parties; some suffered assassination attempts and terrorist attacks, including a suicide bomb that killed 149 people at a rally in Mastung, Balochistan (July 13, 2018).
Amidst growing concerns about the treatment meted out to the PML-N, Pakistan People’s Party and Awami National Party, the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, an NGO, said it was “gravely concerned over what it sees as blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections”. It expressed anxiety over the Army’s plan to deploy over 370,000 troops at polling sites, as against merely 70,000 in the general election of 2013, when the security situation was much worse. Even more ominously, the Election Commission has allowed army personnel to transport ballot papers to and from polling stations, raising questions about the transparency of the vote.
The PML-N has alleged serious harassment by the military. Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told the media that senior party members were coerced to switch sides (to Imran Khan) and threatened with corruption cases. Some members claimed to have been hounded through the courts. Abbasi’s nomination papers were challenged in the Supreme Court, but he was ultimately cleared.
Nawaz Sharif was ousted in 2017 after the Pakistan Supreme Court upheld a charge of failure to disclose a company directorship while in exile in Saudi Arabia, from which he had not drawn any salary. Later, he was banned from politics for life and sentenced to ten years imprisonment for failing to explain how his family acquired four luxury apartments in London. Nawaz Sharif is not listed as the owner, but the court ruled that his conduct violated a constitutional provision that officeholders be “honest” and “truthful”. He thus became the only Pakistani official ever convicted under that law, which many felt was selective accountability.
The real reasons for Sharif’s fallout with the Army are his attempt to prosecute former dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf for treason, and seeking peace with India. However, by promptly returning to face imprisonment, he has made himself a martyr for democracy in Pakistan.
Come Wednesday, the generals will likely succeed in making Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf the largest party and Imran Khan their proxy Prime Minister. But as the economic crisis escalates and mullahs in parliament demand their pound of flesh, Gen. Zia’s heirs may find it difficult to cope with the mess of their own making.
The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal
The Pioneer, 24 July 2018