Pakistan’s Electoral Limbo

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Pakistan’s Electoral Limbo

The last year has been been a microcosm of Pakistan’s seven decades of dysfunction, now culminating in ambiguity over the most fundamental of democratic exercises: holding an election. 

Pakistan’s Electoral Limbo

Lawyers and members of media gather outside the Supreme Court as they wait for court decision regarding provincial elections, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On April 20, the Pakistan Supreme Court gave the nation’s political parties a week to reach consensus over a timeline for national and provincial elections. In its order, the three-member apex court, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial, expressed “optimism” that all the major stakeholders would address the necessary grievances and agree on a date to hold the polls. On April 27, after the parties’ failure to agree upon a date, the Supreme Court conceded that it couldn’t “force” the parties to hold talks. Continued failure to agree upon a date, in turn, means that in accordance with the Supreme Court’s earlier order, it would be incumbent on the state to hold the provincial elections on May 14 – at least in theory.

The Supreme Court’s April 4 ruling, which undid the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to postpone Punjab’s elections to October 14 following the dissolution of the provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in January, comes a year after the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government was ousted in a no-confidence motion. These last 12 months have been a microcosm of  seven decades of dysfunctional governance in Pakistan, now culminating in ambiguity over the most fundamental of democratic exercises: holding an election. 

“Ask Umar Ata Bandial when the next elections will be held. He appears to have all the answers. Ask him why he took the decision [to overturn the ECP’s ruling],” former Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) Secretary Kanwar Dilshad, told The Diplomat.

Many pro-government voices criticize the judiciary for overstepping its bounds ostensibly in a bid – at least on the part of the three-judge bench led by the CJP – to bolster Khan’s electoral chances. Those backing the top court’s rulings allude to Article 224 of the constitution, which mandates that elections be held within 90 days of an assembly being dissolved. The questions raised over following through with the stipulation, echoed by the ECP, are founded on the financial impracticality of holding provincial and national elections separately, especially amid a “heightened security situation” – though one in which nationwide cricket matches are being hosted uninterrupted, it must be added.

Pakistan’s current political scene, epitomized by the Supreme Court’s order in effect asking political parties to come up with their own ruling, is akin to gully cricket teams brawling over contentious decisions in the absence of rulebooks, regulatory procedures, and umpires.

This chaos is rooted in the military establishment, often euphemistically alluded to as the “umpire” of Pakistani politics, maintaining its historical hegemony by crippling other institutions. As a result, even the party that has borne the brunt of the army’s political machinations in recent decades, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is virtually cheerleading for a military coup. The PML-N, leading the coalition government in the center at present, is only too aware that a free, fair, and timely election would result in a landslide victory for Khan’s PTI.

“A lot can happen between now, and say, October, that could alter the odds, which are currently heavily tilted in favor of Imran Khan,” said former Punjab Chief Minister Manzoor Wattoo. “External forces can influence a lot of things by then. Six months is a long time in Pakistani politics,” he added, using another common euphemism for the all-powerful military. 

Another obscure mention of the military’s maneuvers was bizarrely made by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif after triumph in a surprising no-confidence vote on April 27, punctuated with jibes for both Khan and the Supreme Court, even though it is now the prime minister who is tied to the all-powerful “hidden hands.”

While indirect references to the military’s might still continue to be deployed by some politicians and sections of the media, the usage of such euphemisms has significantly shrunk over the year in the aftermath of the PTI’s premature ouster. Even though Khan was the latest civilian leader to be artificially pushed and then retracted as the military’s marionette, his popularity has seen expression of anti-army sentiments exploding nationwide. This is best epitomized by the potential court martial of former army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa that has been discussed in mainstream media. This surge in animosity against the military leadership has hindered a seamless repeat of the army’s puppeteering cycle through the disqualification cases hovering over Khan, which the current ruling coalition has been banking on. As a result, the “unprecedented crisis” that Khan is now being accused of causing is a curve-ball lobbed in the general direction of those accustomed to unimpeded political engineering.

Notwithstanding the ousted prime minister’s own participation in emboldening the use of that practice, which he now proudly confesses to, Khan is hardly leading a charge for civilian supremacy and on multiple occasions has reiterated his willingness to reach an arrangement with the current military leadership, spearheaded by army chief Gen. Asim Munir. It was Munir’s appointment last year that became the center of gravity for the ongoing political crisis, given the tole that army chiefs sitting in Rawalpindi have played in determining who gets to head the quasi-governments in Islamabad.

The façade of any resistance in defense of egalitarian democracy on the part of the PTI, or the apex court’s claims of upholding constitutional democracy, is laid bare by the voices making self-aggrandizing claims grossly differentiating in their demands for polls in the two provincial assemblies. While both the Punjab and KP assemblies were dissolved in January, the political and judicial focus remains on Punjab – a province more populous than Sindh, KP and Balochistan put together. As a result, ruling Punjab is practically synonymous with ruling Pakistan, hence the roaring demand for provincial elections in that province, which in effect dislodges the mandate of the caretaker setup. The very existence of a caretaker government is a constitutional reaffirmation of the lack of trust in institutions and procedures, which the military has spent much of the 75 years of Pakistan’s independent existence exacerbating to a seeming point of no return.

“The army leadership had made itself so unpopular by continuing to step outside its constitutional jurisdiction and taking sides in politics, currently tacitly supporting the PML-N government for its own gains,” Lt. Gen. Talat Masood former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, told The Diplomat. “The only way forward is for all institutions to step into their designated domains, beginning with the military.”

The fact that opposition parties throughout history have been all too willing to embrace the military’s unconstitutional maneuvers, including brazen coups, underlines the fact that unlike other expansive institutions, the custodians of parliamentary supremacy have been the least invested in their own institution’s interests. Now being asked to agree on an election date, notwithstanding the move’s own bizarre unconstitutional implications, is a way for the powers that be to pitifully scoff at the disunity among the civilian leadership while simultaneously throwing them a bone and a gauntlet. The parties agreeing on an election date would in effect be agreeing to reverse the military-dominated power dynamics of Pakistan.