Allegations, confrontations, internal divisions, doubts, and an intensely charged environment have marked Pakistan’s democratic process as nearly 106 million voters are stepping forward to elect their country’s new leadership.
While the poll results, to be followed by the customary chaotic making and breaking of political alliances, will decide the next cast of political leaders, doubts have already been cast by almost all the leading players about the transparency of the entire process.
One major reason for widespread uncertainty and disbelief is said to be a focused accountability campaign in full gear but targeting only one party and its leadership while sparing others. Other problems include a hyperactive judiciary, and a gagged media forced to observe self-censorship.
The July 25 parliamentary elections, only the second under a civilian administration in Pakistan, are unique, but for all the wrong reasons.
Three leading candidates — two in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and a third in Balochistan — have lost their lives in three separate terrorist attacks in July alone. A fourth miraculously escaped two attempts on his life. Those killed include Haroon Bilour of the secular Awami National Party, Siraj Raisani of the Balochistan Awami Party, and Ikramullah Gandapur of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Akram Khan Durrani of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam escaped two attempts on his life.
While election-related violence has previously rattled the country both in 2008 and 2013, during those years the Pakistani Taliban were enjoying safe havens in the tribal districts bordering Afghanistan. These renewed attacks from the Taliban, after their sanctuaries had been cleared, have been questioned in the media and among the political circles.
Candidates with links to sectarianism and jihadist groups are contesting the elections in many constituencies despite complaints from key political parties and legislators.
Prominent among those are the nearly 300 aspirants fielded by U.S.-designated terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML). While the MML’s application for registration was turned down by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the group’s leadership forged a quick alliance with the little known Allah-o-Akbar Party (AAP) to continue their run-up to the polls.
Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba turned Jamaat-ud-Dawa is alleged to have carried out terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008, killing 166 people and injuring many others.
Senior leaders of the sectarian Ahle Sunna Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) party, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi and Aurangzeb Farooqui, are contesting from different platforms. The ASWJ is an offshoot of the banned anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba group.
Hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan is another group contesting polls mainly in Punjab where it has a wide network of Barelvi followers.
Rizvi’s Labbaik movement, with the support of like-minded groups, paralyzed life between the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi for three weeks in November last year after a change of wording to an oath regarding Muhammad being the last prophet. The federal government had quickly rectified the modification by calling it a “clerical error.”
Speaking in the Senate on July 16, former Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani warned against the presence of Tehrik Labbaik candidates in the election contest. “What will the atmosphere of the parliament look like if even 25 of such people are elected?” he warned.
Security analyst and Director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) Muhammad Amri Rana told The Diplomat during a telephone interview that the presence of extremist and jihadist groups may bring the mainstream political parties under pressure.
Media Under Pressure
Almost all major Pakistani media outlets and journalists say they are observing an unprecedented degree of self-censorship involving the court cases against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members and criticism of the intelligence agencies, often referred to as “secret hands” or “people behind the scene.”
Two leading media houses, Geo television and Dawn group, are atop the list facing problems from the so-called “secret hands.” In an interview with the BBC, Dawn Media Group CEO Hamid Haroon accused Pakistan’s powerful military of an “unprecedented assault” on press freedom.
Journalists and columnists regularly complain about their articles being trimmed or removed by editors. Leading journalist and Geo television anchor Talat Hussain turned to Twitter to express his frustration over the censoring of his live coverage of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam’s arrival and arrest in Lahore, capital of Punjab province.
On July 11, weeks before the elections, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), in a threat alert, warned five journalists of possible threats to their life from “foreign terrorists.” They included television anchor Matti Ullah Jan, reporter Aizaz Syed, journalist Waheed Murad, journalist Omer Cheema, and anchor Hamid Mir. Ironically, some of these journalists were already tipped as “anti-state” by the military spokesperson during a news conference weeks before the new alert.
As the July 25 election drew closer, the judiciary, particularly the accountability courts, sped up proceedings against leading members of the former ruling party.
While Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were sentenced to 11 and seven years in prison, respectively, a court in the city of Rawalpindi sentenced another leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and a leading candidate, Hanif Abbasi, to life imprisonment on July 22 in a case involving misuse of a chemical ephedrine. Party leaders and commentators say the case had been pending for the past seven years.
Nazarul Islam, another PML-N candidate was arrested by the accountability department on charges of corruption and misuse of authority just a day after he filed his nomination papers to contest the election against a former Sharif-ally-turned-foe, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Islam has yet to be proven guilty. His teenage daughter and son are running his election campaign.
Controversy Around the Army
The majority of Pakistanis see the country’s powerful army as the savior and regard its soldiers and officer cadres in high esteem despite the military and its intelligence agencies’ interference in civilian affairs.
Notwithstanding three direct coups by generals, the military has retained its “hero” image. Its anti-Taliban operations in Swat and parts of the tribal belt have further enhanced its image among the common Pakistanis. However, this powerful institution has been on the receiving end of serious criticism in both local and international media for its alleged siding with some political parties and sidelining of others.
The latest allegations came from an Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui on July 21. Siddiqui accused Pakistan’s prime intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, of dictating to judges and manipulating court decisions. Soon after Justice Siddiquii’s statement, a Pakistan Army spokesperson requested that the Supreme Court of Pakistan investigate the charges.
Well before Siddiqui’s speech at the Rawalpindi district bar, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter accused the “Khalayee Makhlooq” or aliens for the court of actions against them. By aliens, they refer to the country’s intelligence agencies.
Angry protesters were seen chanting slogans against “aliens” in Rawalpindi when a court sentenced Haif Abbasi to life imprisonment. The protesters were accusing the Army and intelligence agencies of manipulating the elections. The Army denied allegations of interference and said they are facilitating the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in holding free and fair elections.
In Pakistan, each political party has an election symbol under which their candidates are listed in the polls. Candidates not affiliated with a political party are called “independents” and each independent candidate is allotted a separate symbol ahead of the polls.
The symbol of a jeep has been the much-discussed topic ahead of the July 25 polls. The roots of the jeep story go to Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, former interior minister and once a close aide of Nawaz Sharif. Khan parted ways with Sharif days ahead of the election and opted to contest the elections as an “independent” candidate. He was assigned the symbol of a jeep by the ECP. Within days, dozens of key Sharif candidates defected from the PML-N to contest as independents and all of them were allotted the symbol of a jeep.
Pakistan Army officers often use jeeps during duty hours and Chaudhry Nisar was seen as a pro-Army politician in Sharif’s party. Nisar denies any behind the scene dealing with the Army but the jeep symbol doesn’t help.
The ECP has issued notices to nearly half a dozen candidates for using abusive language against their opponents during electioneering. They include PTI chairman Imran Khan, head of the religious Jamiat Uelma-e-Islam party Maulana Fazlur Rahman, former chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Pervez Khattak, and former speaker of the lower house of parliament Ayaz Sadiq.
Taking cue from their leaders’ angry slogans and abusive language targeting their opponents, young activists and workers of the political parties continue the same trend on the social media, particularly Facebook, against their rivals.
This is the first time social media is at the forefront in terms of how voters access information, in contrast to conventional media, including newspapers and television channels, which are staying mute on many issues because of self-censorship.
Doubts and Uncertainty
Despite assurances from the top judiciary, the ECP, and even by the military from time to time, doubts had existed about the holding of elections on schedule. Now that the elections are being held as scheduled, there are widespread concerns about the polls being free and fair.
While the two top political parties – the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – have already expressed reservations about the transparency of the polls, smaller parties and the nationalists believe they are not getting the level playing field due to security threats.
The PML-N and PPP believe the country’s security establishment is favoring the PTI, the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, a charge both the Army and Khan vehemently deny.
Analysts, however, believe the post-election scenario is going to be equally chaotic even if Khan’s PTI achieves victory and is set up to lead the next government.
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.