By Ayesha Jalal, Tufts University in Islamabad
While there are allegations of it being fixed, as a constitutional exercise it is preferable compared to the alternative which is martial law.
Observers do not expect the February 8 polls in Pakistan to be free and fair.
Their reasons are many, chief among them army control of the state. Cricketing star and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, once an army protégé, has fallen out of favour and has been ousted through a vote of no confidence despite popular support.
He has been charged and disqualified from contesting in the election. Simultaneously, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, until recently a fugitive from justice and in self-exile, returned after being granted bail. He has been allowed to contest the election and is expected to win with the army’s support,
360info spoke to Dr Ayesha Jalal, a historian and political scientist whose area of expertise is Pakistan and India. She is the author of The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2017), Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, (2008) and Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, joint author with Sugata Bose (2004) among other publications.
How significant is the February 8 general election for Pakistan’s stability, its people and democracy?
General elections are significant in order to lend some semblance of legitimacy to the political system. However, only one election in over 75 years of Pakistan’s history is considered relatively free and fair. Yet even this election, held in 1970, led to the country’s dismemberment and the creation of Bangladesh.
The 2024 elections are being held in exceptionally difficult circumstances and are already tainted by charges of political engineering and victimisation of one party – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by the former prime minister Imran Khan, who is currently in jail.
But it is also important to see these elections in context. They are being held after an unprecedented attack on hundreds of military installations on May 9, 2023, by PTI supporters protesting the arrest of their leader.
So while PTI sympathisers view the elections as already rigged and lacking in credibility, there are other parties in the fray that accept the exceptional and constraining circumstances in which national polls are being held.
In other words, whatever the doubts about the fairness of the 2024 elections, the exercise is necessary constitutionally and better than the alternative — martial law — in what is a bitterly divided and ungovernable country.
In what way was the Pakistan military reshaping the political landscape before the general election and with what goal?
The army high command, referred to as ‘the establishment’, has a stranglehold on virtually all aspects of critical decision-making in Pakistan.
While the army has formally eschewed any involvement in politics, the role of its intelligence agencies in surreptitiously shaping political and judicial outcomes is well known.
Currently, the establishment is trying to undo the unintended consequences of its interference in the political process in 2017 with the engineered dismissal of the elected prime minister, Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif – and the brazen support of state institutions for Imran Khan and his PTI in the 2018 elections and their aftermath.
While the PTI understandably regards the measures being taken in the run-up to the elections as unfair and undemocratic, others see this as unavoidable course correction.
With concerted attempts to demolish the largest political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, disqualifying its leader Imran Khan and forcing others to leave the party, how fair do you think this election will be?
What made the PTI ‘the largest political party’ was the active support it received from the establishment and key institutions of the state like the judiciary.
The undoing of the party that you are referring to is a direct consequence of the PTI’s decision to take on the state’s most powerful institution on May 9, 2023, to protest the incarceration of their leader.
Just as the PTI was railroaded into power in 2018, it is today being dismantled by jailing Imran Khan and forcing his supporters to leave the party. Depending on one’s view, this can be interpreted as unfair and undemocratic or a direct consequence of the PTI’s attack on military installations on May 9.
Will the disqualification of Imran Khan and the taking away of his party’s election symbol rally the people to support his party or will they abstain from voting?
The denial of the PTI’s electoral symbol is undoubtedly a setback for the party in a context where the majority of voters are illiterate. But the PTI has not been banned as a party.
Its candidates are still in the electoral fray, albeit with different electoral symbols. While this may confuse voters in some constituencies, PTI workers and its formidable social media network can and should endeavour to rally the people and limit the damage done to them with the loss of the party symbol. Abstaining from voting is not really an option for the beleaguered party.
However, the PTI will face difficulties in the aftermath of the elections as its elected candidates will not be subject to the defection clause that strips them of their seats if they cross the floor to another party. The possibility of horse-trading in the post-election scenario is looming large and will be to the detriment of the PTI.
But given Imran Khan’s proclivity for unconventional political moves, a PTI boycott of the elections cannot be ruled out entirely.
Do you think those PTI candidates who can contest will be allowed to win by the military?
Not all the PTI candidates allowed to contest are unacceptable to the military. So there is a good chance of them winning, depending on who is in the opposition in any given constituency.
Was there an American hand in Imran Khan’s ouster as alleged by him? If so, is the US working in concert with the Pakistan military to ensure a friendly regime in Islamabad?
The US may not be entirely uninterested in the outcome of the 2024 elections. But it is very doubtful that it will be playing a direct role in determining the outcome. The PTI is known to have hired lobbying firms to advocate its case in the US, suggesting that it also wants to reassure Washington of its bona fides.
Do you think the Pakistani judiciary has been partisan in revoking the lifetime ban against Nawaz Sharif from contesting while imposing a five-year ban on Imran Khan for the same charges of corruption?
There is a considerable difference between a lifetime ban and a five-year ban even if both can be seen to be the result of the judiciary bending in the direction of what the Pakistani establishment wants, if not outrightly partisan.
Is there any public resistance to the military ‘engineering’ the elections for a favourable outcome? If so, how effective is such resistance?
There is active contestation of the military’s interference in politics in Pakistan and the public debate has gathered considerable momentum since the fall of Imran Khan’s government.
But resistance to military dominance cannot be effective unless the different parties come together to reclaim political space. Instead, all parties, including the PTI, seem to be more interested in getting the establishment’s approval since popularity does not guarantee access to state power in military authoritarian Pakistan.
Would you say that the February 8 general election is already rigged or do you think fears of election manipulation are exaggerated?
The February 8 elections are already compromised but there is no other constitutional option available to Pakistan. One can bemoan the unfair treatment being meted out to the PTI. But this is not the first time a party has been treated in this manner in Pakistan.
The other two main national parties, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto, faced a similar predicament in earlier elections. What is new is the establishment’s fury over the May 9 attacks on military installations, including martyrs’ memorials, and its determination to punish those in the PTI it regards as the perpetrators.
Why is the military betting on Nawaz Sharif this time around when he had been hounded into exile by them earlier? What do you think are the lessons that both sides have learnt?
Contrary to perceptions, the military is not betting on Nawaz Sharif because it now approves of him and his party. The reason quite simply is that the military has no other option after the failure of their decades-long ‘Imran Project’, especially in the powerful battleground province of Punjab.
The primary lesson is that the military has to stop interfering in politics and let the process take its natural course without any further interruptions. Pakistan’s political parties, too, need to take stock of the situation and desist from trying to get into the establishment’s good books by undermining their opponents.
How big a challenge is the state of the economy for the new prime minister?
It will be an enormous challenge even if the elections were not perceived to be so compromised by pre-electoral manipulations. The simple reason for that is that Pakistan’s economic woes are structural and of a long-standing nature. It is time to tackle these structural problems by extending the tax net, increasing production and promoting the country’s exports.
Why is it the fate of populist leaders in Pakistan – from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Imran Khan – to be jailed, executed or exiled?
Pakistan has been dominated by the military for the better part of its history and politicians have had to bear the brunt of the imbalances between elected and non-elected institutions of the state.
Has Pakistan ever had a truly free and fair election? If not, was 1970 the closest it came?
Even the 1970 elections were not devoid of political engineering by Pakistan’s all-powerful establishment. The only reason they have come to be perceived as ‘free and fair’ is because the results turned out to be very different from those anticipated by the state’s intelligence agencies.
If the establishment miscalculated the results in the western wing where the PPP triumphed because of its failure to gauge the political mood, it was completely taken by surprise by the one-sided result in favour of the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the eastern wing after it was hit by a devastating cyclone in November 1970.
The 2013 election was also significant in that it marked the first-ever peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another after the completion of a full parliamentary term.
Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History and Director of the Centre for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University, Boston, US.