Pakistan Election 2018: Heartbreaking to see citizens repose so much faith in a moth-eaten democratic process

The immediacy of present can sometimes blind us to its significance. It is a historic day in Pakistan. Only for the second time in its 70-year existence that a country of 200 million people and 105 million eligible voters exercised their franchise to transfer power from one civilian government to another. As outside observers (especially in India where we take the democratic process for granted), we must not be condescending or fail to grasp the magnitude of the occasion.

People queue up outside a polling station in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa. Riazul Haq/ 101Reporters

People queue up outside a polling station in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa. Riazul Haq/ 101Reporters

However, no matter in whose favour the most number of votes were cast on Wednesday, or who will be eventually declared ‘victorious’, the party that will win is not even contesting the elections. It doesn’t need to.

Regardless of whether it is ‘Im the Dim’ Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz led by Shehbaz Sharif (with brother Nawaz and his daughter Maryam acting as force multipliers from prison) or dynast Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, the Rawalpindi generals will control all avenues of power and continue to pull the strings of the puppet installed in Islamabad.

The candidates know it. If they were ever in doubt or allowed themselves to be swayed by even momentary flashes of delusion, the fate of Nawaz stands as an immutable, dark example. For daring to challenge the army’s authority in altering the trajectory of Pakistan, the three-time prime minister now languishes in jail with a failing kidney, damaged heart and little recourse to appropriate medication. His political career is over. His life hangs not by much of a thread. The price of insubordination is high.

Even as hopeful citizens braved the elements (in Pakistan it means terrorist attacks, not the weather) to cast their ballots, there was another blast on Wednesday in the land of endless blasts. This time at a polling station in Quetta where 31 people who came to vote were killed in a suicide attack (the death toll may rise). The Islamic State has reportedly assumed responsibility for the attack.

Despite the tragedy, voters in Pakistan flocked to the polling stations in large numbers. The Election Commission of Pakistan is optimistic that the record turnout of 55 percent in 2013 will be breached.  What’s even more encouraging is that a large number of women came out to vote.

It is a little heartbreaking to see the optimism and faith shown by Pakistani citizens in a moth-eaten democratic process that remains perennially subverted by the machinations of an unelected military. The moot question is, when the Pindi khakis have no wish to cede control over the power structure, why go through the rigmarole of a democratic process, conduct polls at a huge cost to the struggling economy and mount a dummy as the ‘prime minister’?

The answer is simple: The need for assuming power without responsibility. A glorified mayor in Islamabad could take all the blame for Pakistan State’s structural, endemic, enduring failings while the generals can go about enjoying the trappings of power. The need for a ‘civilian façade’ therefore, is paramount. As Hudson Institute director and former Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani writes in Foreign Policy, the military’s goal is to keep up “the pretence that Pakistan is a constitutional democracy, not a dictatorship. If the puppet strings are too visible, then the puppeteer holds all responsibility for all outcomes. The establishment wants it both ways: Power but no responsibility.”

This argument can be challenged with a factoid: If the Pakistan Army wants power without responsibility, why did it engineer four coups d’état to rule the country for 30 years through direct dictatorships? Why did, for instance, General Pervez Musharraf feel the need to oust then prime minister Nawaz Sharif via a bloodless coup in 1999? The answer takes us to another changing reality in Pakistan, one that is associated with the rise of technology.

Musharraf engineered (till now) the final coup in Pakistan. His fate taught the military establishment an important lesson. With the advances in mobile phone technology and advent of social media, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the army to control the narrative.

To understand this phenomenon better, we need to first keep in mind that the Pakistan Army, unlike its counterparts in other countries, draws its legitimacy and authority from the people. The army’s pivotal role in every area of Pakistan’s polity is the result of two ideological positions that define the country’s existence.

One, Hindustan (not India) is an existential threat to Pakistan and two, the army is the only ‘institution’ that can save Pakistan from that threat. As Faisel Pervaiz writes in his analysis on ‘Pakistan’s Military-Democracy Complex’ in Stratfor, these two beliefs compelled Pakistan to become “a national security State during its early years, subordinating economic and democratic development to military improvement and tilting the balance of power away from civilian rule.”

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It follows, then, that the army’s supremacy over every other institution in Pakistan is incumbent on its perception before the people. If the awaam becomes disillusioned with the Rawalpindi generals, then there will be a pushback and in the age of social media and smartphones, the army will have to strain to exert its control over the narrative. It may be compelled to use more force and covert methods to achieve its outcomes. This is precisely what is happening in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Army’s desperate measures to control the media by intimidating, threatening, bullying and abducting journalists is a tacit acceptance of a changed reality that it can no longer march into a prime minister’s house and take control of State television premises. If it does so, there is a very high chance that the army might face a popular backlash.

“The military is trying to control the narrative,” Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari was quoted as saying by The Times. Bukhari, a vehement critic of Pakistan military, was abducted last month in Lahore while she was on her way to a TV studio. She was later released following outrage on social media. “While media houses have surrendered, many journalists have not and are using social media to say what is really happening,” Bukhari told the British newspaper.

While the need for keeping up the pretence of a constitutional democracy has deepened, the fledgling political process, weak institutions and fragile civil administrations are nowhere close to challenging the hegemony of the military. For the foreseeable future, democracy in Pakistan will remain a virtual reality.

Follow all the live updates to the Pakistan general elections here


Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 20:26 PM

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