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On Thursday, tens of millions of Pakistanis will go to the polls — ostensibly to elect their legislative representatives, who, in turn, will choose the country’s next prime minister.

But if Pakistan’s army has its way, that choice will be ultimately its own. 

Pakistan has seen long bouts of direct and indirect military rule in its 77-year history. Its elections have never been entirely free or fair. This time around, however, veteran Pakistani journalists and politicians say, the game is rigged quite unlike in recent memory.

These elections are an intensely stage-managed affair, departing from Pakistan’s usual, more subtle script.

They resemble more the direct, brazen authoritarian manipulation in Bangladesh, Egypt, and Iran — not just in the wide exclusion of candidates, but also in the severity of coercion. And they portend a long democratic winter in Pakistan, one that aligns with a global change in the climate of freedom.

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The Campaign Against Khan

For almost two years, Pakistan’s top generals have used nearly every tool at their disposal — from kidnapping and killing to selective prosecution and sextortion — to ensure that the country’s most popular politician, the former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party are kept out of power.

Khan, once a favorite of the Pakistan Army, has been at odds with the military since its leadership orchestrated his ouster from power through a vote of no confidence in April 2022 after a rift over foreign policy and senior officer appointments.

Dismissed as a political lightweight, Khan’s public support only soared after his removal, bolstered by the poor handling of the economy by those who replaced him and his defiance of the military.

Since 2022, Khan has survived numerous attempts to assassinate not just his character but also his very own person. He’s been in prison since his conviction in August 2023 on charges of wealth concealment. That was months after the army rapidly began dismantling his party, arresting and abducting thousands, after his supporters attacked military property in response to the violent dragging away of Khan by paramilitary forces.

Last week, he was hit with three other convictions in trials held in jail, with his defense barred from presenting evidence or cross-examining witnesses. A ban on Khan running for office was also extended to 10 years.

So when Pakistanis go to the polls, neither Khan’s name, nor, for that matter, that of his party, will be on the ballot. On January 14, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld a decision by the country’s election commission to deny PTI candidates the right to use the party symbol, after deeming it guilty of not holding required internal elections.

PTI politicians who have not been abducted or imprisoned can now only contest as independents, impeding the ability of voters — especially the illiterate who rely on symbols — to identify the party’s candidates. While other parties can hold mass rallies, PTI members are attacked by police when they attempt to convene modest public gatherings. Social media is shut down whenever the party holds “virtual” rallies.

Can Prisoner No. 804 Pull Off a Surprise?

Yet alongside the suppression, there is a mood of defiance in Pakistan. In a television interview this week, a young man tells a reporter he’s going to vote for “Prisoner Number 804,” as Khan is known. When asked why, he replies that Khan “is in jail for [the sake of] our country.” The ex-cricket star isn’t on the ballot. But voters are intent on choosing independents aligned with Khan.

And that’s why journalists aligned with the military are trying to suppress voter turnout, releasing videos arguing that the results are already fixed. But Khan’s voters — particularly among the youth who make up nearly a majority of the electorate — are motivated.

Nearly every single one of the two dozen voters interviewed in the city of Sialkot, a longtime stronghold of Sharif, told an anti-Khan journalist that they’d vote for the ex-cricketer, with most pointing toward his “honesty” and “sincerity.” One voter said of Khan: “He’s a trustworthy man. The rest are dishonest frauds. They’ve destroyed Pakistan.”

Khan’s political record, both in terms of governance and his past collusion with the generals, is checkered. But he has nonetheless come to symbolize opposition to a status quo abhorred by Pakistanis — a status quo seen as upheld by the rest of the political class and the army senior brass.

That status quo is hurting Pakistanis. As their rights diminish, so too has their purchasing power. Today, inflation is at around 30 percent and forecast to remain in the double-digits into at least next year. Along with stubborn inflation, Pakistan is seeing tepid growth. The economy shrank last year and is forecast to grow by a modest 2 percent this year.

Stagflation is eating away at the morale of ordinary Pakistanis, driving more into poverty and many to the exits. Since 2022, Pakistan has ranked among the top ten countries of origin of irregular migrants to Europe.

The man many believe the army wants to lead the next coalition is a familiar face: the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Like Khan, Sharif too was once a protege of the army and later clashed with it each time he’s been in power. Indeed, Sharif was also disqualified from running for office ahead of the 2018 elections, in part to pave the way for Khan.

During the 1990s, Sharif developed an organic constituency by building infrastructure and defying the army. But since 2022, he’s lost much of his support base to Khan due to his party’s collusion with the military to oust the ex-cricketer and subsequent economic mismanagement. Under the premiership of Sharif’s brother Shehbaz, inflation in Pakistan soared well into the double digits, reaching a record high of nearly 40 percent last year.

The army, somehow, believes the electorate will vote for the return of Sharifs, who are seen as incumbents.

If Khan’s candidates do pull off a surprise, they will come under severe pressure from the Pakistani military to vote for its preferred candidate as prime minister.

But the next round in this long battle is on Thursday. And Khan, who led Pakistan’s national cricket team to a surprise World Cup victory in 1992, hopes to pull off another big win — this time from behind bars.

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.

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