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SIALKOT, PAKISTAN, 2012 © Jahanzaib Naiyyer

Raising the Bar for Democracy in Pakistan

As the elections inch closer, the bar needs to be raised for democracy in Pakistan and the expectations that come with it.

Civilian leaders being pushed out of office is the norm in Pakistan. With the recent ouster and sentencing of Nawaz Sharif, it is the third time that the former prime minister has been forcibly removed during his tenure. The widespread belief that the Pakistani establishment has colluded with the courts to remove Sharif has led many to label this as a “judicial coup.”

Plots to topple the Sharif government were hatched ever since he came to power in 2013, and throughout his term he endured enormous pressure from the army and judiciary. According to Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US, “Elected politicians in Pakistan are subject to the whims and superior judgment of appointed generals, judges, and civil servants.” Elections, without respect for their outcomes where leaders are consistently co-opted by the system, are meaningless and ridicule the sanctity of the popular vote.

The judicial duality in Pakistan’s treatment of military generals and prime ministers is evident in its history, and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) court’s convenient applications and political accountability this time around fit perfectly into the overall trend.

Since Pakistan is an army with a country, former President Pervez Musharraf — the ex-army chief — escaped trial in 2016 and now lives in exile in London and Dubai, despite his alleged illegal subversion of the constitution in 2007. This is while the selective targeting of the party cadres of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) — the chief opponents of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — continue to squeeze their support bases.

This manufacturing of electoral opposition toward the two mainstream parties (PML-N and PPP) is hardly surprising, given the prevalent notion that the establishment is backing the PTI. The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) assesses the neutrality of the military toward competing parties with a low score of 33.4%.

French writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville emphasized the crucial role of lawyers and an independent judiciary in a democracy. In a country with several centers of power, the checks in the form of lawyers and courts have, rather than fulfilling their higher purpose of checking the establishment and its actions, supported its foul play.

The run-up to the elections in Pakistan on July 25 has also seen a massive crackdown on the media, including large outlets such as Dawn, Geo TV and Jang, with unprecedented levels of censorship and harassment. Intimidation and the coercion of journalists who have not towed the narrative of the establishment on issues or parties have taken place, and hawkers have been banned from distributing their papers.

Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders, said this interference in the form of draconian constraints is “absolutely unacceptable in a country that claims to be democratic.” These attempts to influence the election’s outcome, as well as control the narrative by silencing the voices of leading parties whilst encouraging uncritical coverage of opponents, has stifled freedom of expression, free debate and alternative perspectives that are hostile to the establishment’s interests.

If this wasn’t enough, there has been a spate of violent attacks targeting parties like the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) in which candidates and hundreds of people have been killed. ANP General Secretary Hussain Babak holds the federal and provincial governments responsible for the lack of security arrangements.

The volatile security environment preceding the election has significantly impeded and threatened the efforts of parties to effectively campaign and mobilize voters. The Economic Times reports: “Electioneering is a public activity requiring a guarantee of public safety. It is a poor indication of the health of this election if on-ground campaigning is suppressed or forcibly suspended.” This violent turbulence right before the elections is ironically at a time when the overall security situation in Pakistan has improved due to effective nationwide counterterrorism operations.

Very much in sync with the rest of this shady election, the 100-strong EU election monitoring team, which usually begins its work a month in advance, has this time been allowed to start just a week before the vote.

Also, in a recent move, the election commission has given the army the authority to act as magistrates and conduct spontaneous trials of anyone breaking election laws to ensure the integrity of the polls. This expansion of the army’s already bloated powers by giving it a judicial function has been touted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as “unprecedented and bordering dangerously on micromanagement by an institution that should not be involved so closely in what is strictly a civilian mandate.”

The manner of Sharif’s dismal, the extreme levels of media censorship, and the selective targeting of political parties while extremists get mainstreamed all espouse the persistence of the deep state that is continuing to rule covertly. Based on this electoral engineering and abnormal pre-election climate, the HRCP states, “There are ample grounds to doubt the legitimacy of the elections” and it has criticized the “unabashed attempts to manipulate their outcome.”

Lack of Credibility

In this bleak run-up to the elections, the polls on July 25 are left with little credibility. Pakistani democracy is simply leaning on the procedure of elections and winning seats, while the very democratic institutions that are meant to protect democracy are engaging in maneuvering and foul play in an environment fraught with violence and extreme media censorship.

However, elections are only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps, with Pakistan’s turbulent history, there is cause to celebrate the country’s only second peaceful and timely transfer of power, and it is an achievement if elections take place at the proposed time. But maybe it’s also time to raise the bar for Pakistani democracy and hold it to international standards. And especially so in the run-up to the elections that has dented the democratization process in Pakistan.

As CNN host Fareed Zakaria famously said, “There is life after elections, especially for the people who live there. If a democracy does not preserve liberty and law, that it is as democracy is a small consolation.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jahanzaib Naiyyer / Shutterstock.com