How the Pakistani military ensures elections are never free or fair in the country?

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As Pakistani elections loom, the country’s terror networks – many with links to the Pakistani military – are attacking politicians with deadly bombings.

Since the restoration of democracy in Pakistan in 2008, the country has gone through three elections that I have covered and yet many agree today that these elections have never been free or fair and it is far from being a democracy. Pakistan, run by its military generals in the shadows, continues to be managed through a hybrid regime, since the last 5 years when the former Prime Minister Imran Khan was selected to run the country by the so-called Pakistani establishment, a euphemism used by the Pakistani media, which is not allowed to openly discuss military affairs.

However, it is not just about managing the country, but also managing the elections. Since 2008, the military has used different methods to try to ensure that the election are not indepedent of their influence and one of the most convenient method the generals use is to ensure rigging on the day of the vote, with fudging the count. Given the military is the one providing “security” for the polls, it can be a relatively easy task. However, such direct rigging has its disadvantages as there are many local and international electoral watchdog organizations that may raise the alarm. So the military has to opt for other methods – mostly focusing on pre-poll rigging.

I remember meeting an intelligence official for a story I was working on, in the run up to the 2013 Pakistani general elections. While I was in his office, I saw him receiving phone calls from local Pakistani politicians, asking which political party was “the military’s horse to bet on“ so that they seek the ticket for that particular party. This is perhaps the easiest way to ensure that politicians echo the interests of the military. Why would a politician seek a military official’s advice? I asked. The official just smiled in response.

Another method that the Pakistani military employs to influence elections is by using coercion to change party loyalties. As we remember, in the 2018 elections run up, “the agriculture department” pseudonym came up, as reports of a local Pakistani politician being beaten up emerged. At first he blamed the military for the attack, and then later backtracked saying it was the agriculture department officials who had come to collect taxes from him and that turned into a scuffle.

But one of the most deadly methods that the Pakistan army employs is the unleashing of terror groups that it has known and hidden links with, and it appears that in the run up of the next upcoming elections – this may become a tactic widely used by the military. And it will not be the first time. The military used this pre-poll rigging method in 2013, when terror attacks during mainstream political rallies became a norm, forcing many of these parties which may have posed a challenge to the military power, abandon their campaigns. I witnessed the same in the 2008 elections, albeit at a lower frequency.

The recent suicide bombing that killed 44 people at a rally of the pro-Islamist political group – JUI-F (which itself has close links to extremist groups invovled such terror attacks) is a message to the Pakistani politicians to behave. By attacking the most visibly religious of them all, the military is saying that none will be spared if they fall out of line.

Another interpretation of the situation is that the military is doing this to ensure that the upcoming election is delayed and it manages the country through the caretaker setup which will be taking power next month. The military is suggesting to put a technocrat in-charge of this temporary setup so that it can easily manipulate the person and force a delay. Whatever the case be, it appears that the military is once again hell bent on ensuring that the elections are not independent, and its hold over Pakistan remains strong.

 

(This article has been published first in South Asia Press. The Columnist of the article is Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani national)

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