Roughly two weeks are left in the terms of Pakistan’s National Assembly and coalition government, but the fate of the country’s general elections remains in limbo.
Already, provincial polls in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab have been delayed for months — in violation of the constitution. The same could now occur with the general elections, which must take place by early October if the National Assembly serves its full term, or by early November if the body is dissolved a day earlier.
For the United States and other countries in the West, this is familiar territory. Pakistan — a vital, flawed ally in the Cold War and War on Terror — has seen decades of military rule interspersed with periods of partial civilian rule.
Now, Washington and its trans-Atlantic partners again face the choice: do they hold Pakistan to account for its authoritarian turn or do they look away because its army is once again a valuable partner in a major global conflict? (Spoiler: Pakistan is helping the U.S. kill Russians again.)
Of Neutrals and Non-Neutrals
Pakistan’s constitution requires a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election process. And it limits the caretaker government’s remit to managing the polls, ensuring their integrity, and dealing with “routine, non-controversial, and urgent” matters of public administration.
But Pakistan’s civilian and military rulers envision a caretaker setup that is neither neutral nor restricted to handling the elections.
On Wednesday, a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament passed amendments to the constitution that empowers the caretaker government to make decisions on agreements and projects related to privatization and inter-governmental transactions.
Efforts are afoot in Pakistan, like in Egypt, to engage in a rapid-fire sale of state assets to Gulf Arab states, which have made clear that they’ll no longer provide handouts to Cairo and Islamabad and instead are looking for skin in the game.
Pakistan, after failing to complete an extended fund facility program with the International Monetary Fund, entered into a nine-month Stand-by Arrangement (SBA) with the lender to ease its balance of payments crisis. But by the end of this year, Pakistan will need to return to the Fund for another, more onerous program. Through the privatization process, Pakistan’s rulers hope to build the country’s foreign exchange reserves and reduce the leverage of the Fund and Western powers.
Multiple blocs in Pakistan’s ruling alliance would like to see an economic figure preside over the interim government. The coalition leader Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) has floated the idea of the current finance minister, Ishaq Dar, to serve as caretaker prime minister. The army and other coalition partners oppose the candidacy of Dar, a relative of the two leading figures in the PML-N: Nawaz Sharif, a former three-time prime minister, and his brother, Shehbaz, the current prime minister.
At the outset, the fierce discussions over who serves as caretaker prime minister appear odd. After all, it’s just a three-month position. And the stand-by arrangement with the IMF lasts well past what should be the election period and the new government’s transition to power.
But there are indications the caretaker prime minister may not be as temporary a position as it’s supposed to be. Pakistan’s coalition leaders — in talks held recently in Dubai — discussed the postponement of the elections for six months.
The Wrath of Khan
The proposal to defer the elections may also strike observers as strange. Institutionally, the outgoing coalition government faces no real opposition. The ruling parties have the powerful army on their side — at least for now. And since May, Pakistan’s intelligence services have been dismantling the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) is now a shell of its former self. Virtually the entire senior leadership of his party has been forced to leave the party. Many have been arrested numerous times till they issue resignation statements that resemble hostage videos. Thousands of his supporters remain behind bars.
The courts, once sympathetic to Khan, have been neutered. The media is muzzled. And Khan, one could say, has been reduced to a lonely content producer in his Lahore residence.
But Khan still has the support of his people. Despite having the kitchen sink thrown at him, he remains Pakistan’s most popular politician. His opponents — whose public approval ratings remain low due to their poor handling of the economy and perceived corruption — clearly fear that PTI could, somehow, still do well in the polls.
For Pakistan’s rulers, deferring the polls would buy them time to disqualify Khan from the electoral process and clear the way for the return of Nawaz, the elder Sharif, who is self-exiled in London after fleeing convictions on corruption.
But, once deferred, the general elections could be deferred again. Worryingly, the “opposition leader” in Pakistan’s National Assembly — he’s really government-aligned — recently said it’s not necessary to hold elections even for the next 10 years.
The Battle of Washington
Pakistani democracy is in danger. Whether it survives its latest test may be decided in Washington.
The Biden administration says it doesn’t want to become involved in Pakistan’s messy politics. (In some ways, it already is. Khan has alleged that Washington played a role in his ouster last year.)
But Congress could force the administration’s hand. Pakistani Americans with influence in the Democratic Party are mobilizing against Islamabad and its human rights abuses.
This week, a briefing on the Hill co-hosted by Rep. Brad Sherman featured Rep. Adam Schiff, and other ranking members of the California congressional delegation to discuss threats to democracy and fundamental rights in Pakistan. Formal congressional hearings could follow.
The diasporic pressure may be yielding some results. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Pakistani counterpart. The State Department’s readout of the call says that Blinken “stressed that democratic principles and respect for the rule of law are central to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and these values will continue to guide this partnership forward.”
Yet on that same day, the head of U.S. Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, was in Pakistan on a three-day visit. The talks, according to a CENTCOM press release, were aimed at “strengthen[ing] the military-to-military relationship,” including by helping “military trauma combat casualty care.” (Militant attacks on Pakistan security forces have surged in recent years, taking the lives of Pakistani personnel each week.)
The Ukrainians are running low on ammo amid what may be their last, best chance to force Russia to the negotiation table from a position of relative strength. Through its support for Kyiv, Rawalpindi — the seat of the Pakistan Army — is reminding Washington that a friend in need is a friend indeed.
If the past is any guide, Pakistani democracy may end up becoming a casualty of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. But Pakistani Americans are hoping they can produce a break with precedent.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.