As nearly 100 million Pakistanis prepare to cast their ballots in this week’s parliamentary election, the vote is unlikely to end their economic, security, and political woes.
Instead, the July 25 vote is set to lead Pakistan to greater instability with intense political wrangling, a worsening economy, and greater insecurity showcased by devastating terrorist attacks on election rallies this month.
Perhaps for the first time in Pakistan’s checkered history shaped by powerful military dictators and anemic civilian administrations, the elections are already controversial with reports and allegations of manipulation, threats, censorship, intimidation, and ‘political engineering’ at an all-time high before a single ballot is cast.
"[We] don't see free and fair elections taking place in Pakistan," Senator Muhammad Javed Abbasi, a member of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) political party, told members of the Senate or upper house in the Pakistani Parliament recently.
Pervaiz Rashid, another PML-N senator, warns of a stark reaction if his party is deprived of its mandate. “The anger will not be against the winners but those who enabled the winners,” he said, alluding to his party’s claims that Pakistan’s powerful military is manipulating the election process to help its rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or the Movement for Justice party.
"You have done the interference that you had to do in the elections. You have broken and formed political parties using your force," Rashid alleged. "Don't commit acts that will damage your reputation. Do not interfere in the election results.”
PML-N claims that this month’s conviction of its leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other leaders in court cases, pressures on its candidates to abandon the party, and censorship of the media are all part of prepoll rigging. Its leaders have even alleged that the military is influencing the judiciary to deny it another term in office.
On July 22, the Supreme Court launched a probe into the military’s alleged meddling in the elections after a senior judge accused the country’s top spy agency of manipulating court cases against Sharif. "The [Inter-Services Intelligence] ISI is fully involved in trying to manipulate the judicial proceedings," Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui told lawyers on July 21.
"An honorable judge of the Islamabad High Court of Pakistan has leveled serious allegations against state institutions, including honorary judiciary and the premier state intelligence agency," top military spokesman Asif Ghafoor said in a July 22 statement. “In order to safeguard the sanctity and credibility of state institutions, the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan has been requested to initiate the appropriate process to ascertain the veracity of allegations and take action accordingly.”
Such wrangling is likely to intensify if the PML-N loses elections, particularly in its stronghold, the eastern province of Punjab. This prosperous and most populous province is home to most of the seats in the popularly elected lower house of the Pakistan Parliament. Under the country’s parliamentary democracy, political parties need to win in Punjab to assume office in Islamabad. The region has repeatedly returned Sharif to power since the late 1980s.
With the political elites, judiciary, and the military engaged in a seemingly open dispute and power struggle, there appears to be no clear mechanism for resolving such an intricate conflict, which is likely to escalate the post-election instability.
The electoral maps in the remaining three provinces are equally complicated. Even PTI leader and likely prime ministerial candidate Imran Khan is conflicted over the prospects of a hung parliament.
“It will be very unfortunate if we have a hung parliament,” he told the BBC Urdu Service. “[However], I can tell you today that I will not be striking a coalition deal with the PML-N or Pakistan Peoples Party.”
The political instability will be further magnified by a security crisis. Three electoral candidates and some 170 other people were killed in suicide attacks claimed by various hard-line Islamist militant groups such as Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and Islamic State.
The attacks are particularly worrisome as they followed years of claims by the military to have squashed terrorism in the aftermath of a decadelong struggle involving scores of large-scale ground offensives, intelligence operations, and air strikes.
An uptick in terrorist violence is likely to invigorate the military’s foreign and domestic critics who accuse it of still supporting militant groups responsible for fomenting violence in neighboring India, Afghanistan, and the country’s northwestern Pashtun belt.
The Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement demanding security and rights for the country’s Pashtun minority that emerged this year, is set to be more vocal. The PTM is likely to intensify protests after the elections to push the military to abandon support for the militants. (The Pakistani military denies supporting any militants or political parties).
Critics of the military see an ulterior motive in allowing hard-line far-right Islamist groups such as a new incarnation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) led by Hafiz Saeed to participate in the election. The LeT is blamed for the November 2008 attack that killed 164 people in India’s financial capital, Mumbai. Washington has designated Saeed a terrorist, yet he is campaigning for his son and scores of followers to become lawmakers.
"The military wants to alter, engineer the national discourse," author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa told Reuters.
She argues that mainstreaming the LeT and similar groups is part of the military’s effort to weaken major political parties so that they cannot challenge its dominance over key state policies and the economy. "They want to build a new nationalism. They want a new identity, and that is Islamic identity," she said.
Pakistan’s daily Dawn was scathing in its criticism, too. “If extremists are allowed to contest for seats and make it to the legislatures without renouncing violence, what is to be made of NAP’s goal three, which states that ‘militant outfits and armed gangs will not be allowed to operate in the country’?” a July 23 editorial in the paper said while referring to the Pakistan National Action Plan for counterterrorism.
“What good is banning organizations when they reappear with new names, and when militant leaders run for office?” the editorial asked.
The political and security turmoil is unlikely to bode well for Pakistan’s more than 200 million people struggling with mounting poverty. Currency devaluations are pushing its account deficits high, which might prompt Islamabad to seek a bailout from the International Monitory Fund.
But an IMF bailout is unlikely given that Islamabad has to cut borrowing and spending as it will struggle with the consequences of assuming too much Chinese debt. Beijing is investing more than $62 billion in energy and infrastructure investments as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which aims to link its western Xinjiang region to the Arabian seaport of Gwadar in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan.