Polling is finally over, and counting of votes has begun in what is likely to be one of the most controversial general elections in Pakistan. Controversial, because the establishment’s year long war against Nawaz Sharif and his family has been waged in full public view. It didn’t really need the statements of Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Siddiqui to underline the obvious, but his assertion that the Inter-Services Intelligence had intervened to make sure that Sharif stayed behind bars till after elections was still a shocker.
Anti-military protests were reported outside Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, with crowds throwing stones at trucks carrying soldiers with the slogan of “Death to Khalai Mahklooq’ (which to the uninitiated translates as the ISI and its military controllers). The fact that this was only reported by The Guardian (UK) and not by national news indicates the level of hobbling of the media in the recent times. Protests against the all-powerful Pakistan Army is unusual for Pakistanis, since unlike India, the army tends to react violently when annoyed. Clearly, frustration against its tactics is high enough to risk throwing caution to the winds.
As predicted by Gallup polls, the turn out at most polling centres appears to have been low, including in Islamabad, while polling was delayed to just before closing time in places like Sialkot, a key battleground between the PTI and the PML(N). In Makeen, South Waziristan, people boycotted the vote due to the killing of a 16-year-old at the hands of ‘surrendered Taliban’ — a euphemism for the Pakistani Taliban who are working on the side of the security forces. Such killings are what provided huge popular support for the Pashtun Tahffuz Movement (PTM) who plan to protest the killing. More trouble can be expected in South Waziristan, already torn apart by a decade of violence.
Voting was also inevitably affected by violence. The total casualties of a suicide attack at Quetta, which was meant to hit the Security Forces has reached 31, and the imagery of the area shows the extent of the carnage. Another three soldiers were killed in Balochistan, while escorting a polling party. Clashes have been reported when cadres of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik — an extremist Barelvi group — tried to prevent an independent candidate Jibran Nasir from setting up his camp. Nasir is that rarity in Pakistani politics — a secular lawyer who has fought for human rights causes. And yes, the head of one of the worst terrorist groups in the world cast his vote. Hafeez Saeed seems to have been given the same VIP treatment meted out to former ministers and party heads.
So, is it business as usual in Pakistan, at a time of elections? Not really. For the first time, some seriously extremist groups are maneuvering for political entry. The last such experiment in 2002, when the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its cohorts were grouped together under the MMA, pales by comparison. In fact, these (relatively) milder religious groupings are running scared.
The level of media control is also at a level that was not even attempted by the last military government under now-in-exile Parvez Musharraf. This indicates a high level of insecurity within the milt-establishment, and will probably be self defeating. What doesn’t make it to the print media or TV is being shared on WhatsApp anyway.
And lastly, in many respects the extreme manipulation of elections is reminiscent of the 2002 elections held under tight military control. Then too, voter enthusiasm was low, and maneuvering to get the "emperor’s party" the PML (Qaid) was more than obvious to everyone. Despite the efforts of the establishment, the chosen party wound up with the slimmest of margins, requiring the then-president Musharraf to throw anti-defection laws to the wind, and bone up his group with a clutch of Independents.
The result was a mockery, held up for all the world to see. The military has learnt a lot since then, keeping to the barracks and pulling the strings from there. It remains to be seen who’ll have the last laugh — the voter or the "agriculture department".
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 21:00 PM