Pakistan goes to the polls on February 8th facing a mountain of problems and a military quite happy to remain an integral part of the political system. Graeme Acton takes a closer look at the forces at work.
On Thursday, Pakistan, a nation of nearly 250 million people, will vote to elect a national government and members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
The vote comes amid a crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and a chaotic political climate.
Observers have consistently expressed concern over the nature of the poll, with many other PTI members also behind bars, or forced to flee the country. Those remaining are often choosing to run as independents.
Khan himself remains in prison, barred from public office for a decade. His wife has also received a prison term for being “illegally married”.
Khan was deposed as leader back in April 2022, when he eventually ran foul of the military establishment after forging a working relationship with it.
He’s been found guilty of corruption, and profiting by selling gifts owned by the state.
Last year any hope of a political reconciliation was dashed when Khan’s PTI supporters took to the streets in rioting that targeted military-aligned businesses and the military itself.
Since then the PTI has felt the full power of the military, which has sought to cripple the party as a political force. In that they have been largely successful, and in a way the situation mirrors that in Myanmar, where a charismatic and popular leader thought they could read the military and anticipate the reaction to political moves being made – only to discover too late they had miscalculated.
Despite assurances from Pakistan’s military in recent years, its influence still hangs heavy across the entire election process, imposing a regime of censorship impacting every party choosing to run candidates against the military-aligned. Paradoxically, public support for the military remains solid, with many voters fearing the possible anarchy that could be unleashed were the military confined to barracks.
The army’s grip on the political process goes back to a period where it ruled Pakistan directly for more than 30 years. With hints of democracy still flickering in the country, it’s still the army that really runs things from well behind the scenes. No prime minister has ever completed a five-year term in the top job, and as deposed leader Imran Khan learned to his cost, the military maintains a line that cannot be crossed by a civilian politician.
This week’s election is an opportunity for the nation to strengthen its democratic institutions and try to clear the air over its commitment to democracy. A transparent election is sorely needed to consolidate democratic norms in the country, address past issues of electoral fraud, and extract some measure of accountability from the victors.
A stable and democratically elected government in Pakistan is also likely to contribute positively to regional stability and international cooperation, especially across the border in India.
The issues over the disputed region of Kashmir remain however, with both sides playing hardball over the peace process. India says before any dialogue starts, Pakistan has to stop cross-border terrorism. Islamabad insists talks will only occur after India scraps the contentious Article 370 which gives Kashmir its special status.
Late last year, India’s Supreme Court upheld a 2019 decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to revoke the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir, which had given it a degree of autonomy.
Kashmir is claimed in full by India, although ruled in part by both India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947. The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three of their four wars over it since then.
Politicians in both countries have used the tense situation over Kashmir to attack their neighbours, and any moves towards normalising the relationship have been largely crippled by domestic politics on both sides of the border..
But despite the jingoism, there are small positive signs. For instance, in 2023, despite a broken diplomatic relationship between the two countries, Pakistan issued nearly 7000 visas to Indian Sikh and Hindu pilgrims to visit Pakistan to attend various religious festivals and occasions.
Also encouraging was the adherence by both sides to the ceasefire agreement, with no major confrontations or incidents.
If a new administration in Islamabad can reform the visa regime, continue to encourage religious tourism, and restart the dormant bilateral trade, the country will be on the way back from the economic abyss it is in danger of sliding further into.
Of course, with elections due in India later this year, the implications in beginning a peace process with Pakistan may be entirely too risky for the Modi government, who regularly blame Islamabad for all manner of problems. When it comes to neighbourly relations, Modi will perhaps be far more concerned with China, and resistant to get burned once again in trying to deal with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s western border region has again seen conflict, with terrorist attacks killing more than 1500 people last year.
Last month, Iran bombed what it said were separatist militants in Pakistan, and Islamabad responded by bombing separatist targets of its own in Iran, the most notable military exchange between the nations in 40 years.
So, elections in Pakistan come at a difficult time, with an economic crisis also exacerbated by widespread flooding last year, electricity shortages, and a declining security situation.
In the past two years, the Pakistani rupee has dropped to a record low, with massive inflation and concerns the country could default on loans from the IMF secured in 2019.
But despite the politics and the economics, the two countries need to adopt mechanisms for working on vital common challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, and improvement in standards of living for people near the border.
One of the most crucial India -Pakistan issues is water, specifically the water managed by the Indus Water Treaty signed over 60 years ago. Both countries are extremely reliant on the rivers of the Indus Basin, and those rivers are under increasing pressure with the impact of climate change and increasing populations on both sides of the border.
Water shortages are already quite common in the region, and development of water infrastructure must be high on the agenda for the incoming government in Islamabad. As climate change increases, india and Pakistan must inevitably join forces to modernise, and utilize as much of the water flowing through the Indus Basin as possible.
And from water flows money, economic activity, and the chance for Pakistan to develop.
But current disagreements over the design and build of two hydro-power schemes in the Indus Basin again have India and Pakistan at loggerheads.
As Pakistan votes in its 12th general election, the PTI and its followers remain confident they can do well at the polls, despite their imprisoned leader – who still polls ahead of his political opponents.
The other possible victors ; three-time PM Nawaz Sharif from the Pakistan Muslim League, and Pakistan peoples party leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zadari , the Oxford university-educated son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Alo Zardari.
For his part Sharif is a possibility due to his reformed relationship with the Army, who ousted him in a coup in 1999, and disqualified him on corruption charges in 2017. Latest reports suggest his support from the military will carry him to victory.
Bhutto-Zadari may be Pakistan political royalty, but the 35 year old is unlikely to take the day, although he may well play a part in a coalition government.
As always in Pakistan, it seems the key is the military, and the relationships politicians can develop with the judicial-military sector. Sharif may not be the people’s favourite, but that’s not really the point.
“ You cannot wish away the role of the military in Pakistan because it is entrenched for 70 years. But you need that balance. If you do not have that balance, you cannot have that governance system needed now for Pakistan’s survival. So, the point is we must completely reform our governance system and base it on the rule of law.” – Imran Khan.
Pakistan’s journey down that road to ‘balance”has been a long and painful one since partition, whether a new nascent democracy can emerge in 2024 from a military-controlled system is yet to be seen.
- Asia Media Centre