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Pakistan’s Bittersweet Election Season

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Pakistan’s Bittersweet Election Season

Instead of a celebration of democratic transfer of power, doubts are growing about interference in the political campaigns.

Pakistan’s Bittersweet Election Season

A voting station during Pakistan’s 2008 election.

Credit: Flickr/ boellstiftung

Uncertainty, doubts, and skepticism are on the rise as Pakistan inches toward its July 25 parliamentary elections, the most controversial in the country’s democratic history thanks to recurring direct and indirect interference by the powerful military.

There exists both hope and despair – hope of a third transfer of power from one elected government to another and despair because of the increasing role of the proverbial “invisible hand” that some observers and political analysts label as the “creeping coup.”

Unlike the past, where the military used to pack elected governments through direct interference or pick and choose by acting behind the scenes, this time it is the top judiciary and the accountability department — the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) — standing in the front row and believed to be targeting some, while sparing others.

Allegations from the aggrieved parties seldom get due space and air time in the print and electronic media. This proverbial fourth pillar of the state, once aspired to be the harbinger of change in terms of spreading awareness among the Pakistanis regarding their basic human and constitutional rights, has reportedly come under severe pressure. Pakistan’s media sector is observing the worst kind of self-censorship.

Some leading newspapers and television channels complain their circulation and broadcasts are being interrupted and their workers harassed because they fail to toe the line of the country’s intelligence agencies regarding the coverage of particular parties, groups, and persons or issues. Desperate to get their message through, the aggrieved parties turn to social media.

One latest example is social media video of a candidate of the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif, who complained that intelligence officials pressured him to withdraw his candidacy and contest the election in an independent capacity.

Rana Iqbal Siraj, from the southern part of Punjab province, alleged that intelligence officials harassed and slapped him and when he refused to comply, they threatened to ruin his business. There was no public comment from the government or the intelligence agencies. However, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, speaking to media in London, where he stays to take care of his ailing wife, alleged that Rana Iqbal was bullied by “ISI operatives.”

This was the first time Sharif mentioned the country’s prime intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, by name in a tirade since his disqualification from office by the top judiciary in July last year. Sharif, his family members, and close associates have been under serious pressure from courts and the accountability department since then. It merits a mention here that Rana Iqbal withdrew his statement later, saying that the “men who slapped and harassed me were from the agriculture department.”

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, enjoys a considerable support base in his native Punjab province, the richest and most populous of Pakistan’s four federating units. Observers believe the party may easily register a majority if given a level playing field in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

However, Sharif’s vendetta with the military on issues pertaining to relations with India and Afghanistan and his objections to the security establishment’s policy regarding armed networks and groups made him a persona non grata for the military. Many in Pakistan now believe the armed forces are staying firm behind the country’s top judiciary to keep the pressure on Sharif and his close associates.

While Sharif’s opponents take his allegations with a pinch of salt, the majority of the plainspoken commentators believe his argument is not without solid ground.

The disqualification of Sharif’s outspoken associate Daniyal Aziz from contesting the July 25 election by the courts, the arrest (without proper investigation) of another of PML-N’s strong candidates, Qamar Islam Raja, by the accountability department, the regular summoning of Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif and former railway minister Saad Rafiq to NAB offices, and the pending cases against another outspoken candidate, Talal Chaudhry, are construed as part of the alleged game to diminish Sharif’s popularity and squeeze his popular support base.

Adding to the woes of PML-N, seven other strong candidates recently declined their affiliation with the party by opting to contest the upcoming polls as independent candidates. Several others from southern Punjab had already parted ways with PML-N to join the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Changing loyalties ahead of the election to take side with the potential winners is not something new in Pakistan, but observers believe the large scale defections from PML-N at a time when the party’s popularity still stands higher than its rivals can be chalked up to an external element, what they call the proverbial “invisible hand.”

While the top judge and the NAB chief have time and again clarified their positions about being apolitical and unbiased, no visible action either by the courts or the accountability department has been taken against Sharif’s opponents, the PTI of former cricket star Imran Khan in particular. To many, this is proof that the PML-N is being singled out for political reasons.

Khan, whose hankering for the prime minister post can be fulfilled only when the elder Sharif stays out of the game, shares a desire with the security establishment to close Sharif’s chapter.

Khan used to speak to activists during his 2014 sit-in protests in Islamabad about “umpire ki ungli” or the umpire’s finger, a cricket term that refers to the dismissal of a batsman. For Khan, then-army chief General Raheel Sharif was the umpire while Nawaz Sharif, then prime minister, was the hapless batsman, whose fate, according to Khan, depended on the raising of the army chief’s finger.

Khan’s PTI and Sharif’s PML-N are the leading hopefuls in the July 25 polls, but Sharif’s absence from the scene and courts actions against his family members and key associates weeks ahead of the elections raise question marks about the movers and shakers in Pakistan’s political arena.

Alleged pressure on the media about the unwritten code of “dos” and “don’ts” enforced with various degrees of intimidation and coercion creates more questions and doubts. While media offices, like the leading political parties (except for PTI), are unhappy with whatever is happening ahead of the polls, none of them dare to challenge the so-called “invisible hand” lest they also meet the fate handed out to Nawaz Sharif.

The enforced silence is killing Pakistan’s hope, at least for the time being, for strengthening its democracy which was getting roots with the third transfer of power from one elected government to another. The country still has a long road to achieve that goalpost.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.