Pakistan General Election: Ahead of polls, military's role and participation of militant groups will be key

Ahead of the 25 July polls in Pakistan, election campaigns have gained momentum across the country, with several political parties and independent leaders vowing to change the country's image if elected. There is also a debate on the influence and role of the military in these elections. Many still suspect that the general elections can be delayed further, and there is a reason why the military's role is being questioned to a great extent in the process.

 Pakistan General Election: Ahead of polls, militarys role and participation of militant groups will be key

File image of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed. Reuters.

Amid this confusion, several military-backed groups have jumped into the fray to revamp their image. The son and son-in-law of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed — believed to be the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks — will be contesting the upcoming elections for National Assembly (NA) seats from Punjab. JuD's deputy information secretary Ahmed Nadeem confirmed this development. The Election Commission of Pakistan, which had earlier refused to register Saeed's newly-established Mili Muslim League (MML) — as it was considered a political front for the JuD — has accepted the nomination papers of his son Hafiz Talha Saeed to fight for the NA-91 Sargodha-IV seat in Punjab in Pakistan's Lower House of Parliament. He will be contesting the polls on a ticket from the little-known Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek. His son-in-law Hafiz Khalid Waleed is in the race for a constituency of Lahore, a historic city that is considered a stronghold of the proscribed outfit.

The influence of Pakistan's security establishment is viewed as overwhelming even in political affairs. Democratic governments and elected prime ministers are not allowed to complete their constitutional term. Such groups are largely seen as pressure tactics to curtail the influence of certain politicians.

As per its plan, the MML will field candidates from 80 NA and 185 provincial seats across Pakistan, but the focus will remain on Punjab — the largest province — where 50 NA and 152 provincial candidates will be in the race. An MML spokesperson revealed that the real decision-makers had persuaded the top leadership of the group to shun militancy and take part in politics under a new banner, a common practice in the country to counter domestic and international sanctions by changing the titles of the outfits.

Groups under government scrutiny in the poll race

There are also other groups contesting the elections in Pakistan, whose leaders were placed in a watch list by successive governments for their suspicious activities. A citizen in Karachi has moved the Sindh Elections Appellate Tribunal challenging the acceptance of nomination papers from Karachi of one Aurangzeb Farooqui, who is associated with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan — both banned organisations. The petitioner has held that Farooqui, contesting on a Rah-i-Haq Party ticket, did not disclose these details in his nomination papers, because of which they should be rejected. Faroooqui was narrowly defeated in the 2013 elections from a constituency in Karachi.

The Tehrik-e-Labaik Ya Rasool-Allah Pakistan (TLYP), another group that is under government scrutiny, is now in the poll race. It is busy spreading hate against leaders considered liberals and anti-establishment. The same group had also caused a shutdown in the capital for three weeks alleging that the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017 was trying to amend laws on blasphemy. The government had reached an agreement with the TLYP after the military intervened. A serving general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had signed the deal as a mediator, while another serving general can be seen in a viral video distributing money among TYLP protesters. The military's media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, had later clarified that the money was distributed in good faith to ensure the return of the poor protesters, and that the military did not play any role in political matters in any capacity. At a recent briefing at the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor budged all journalists' questions on criticism of military interference in political matters, claiming that the criticism, particularly from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was in the context of heated election campaigns.

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters.

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters.

Nawaz Sharif versus men in uniform

Sharif is adamant. At a recent interaction with the media, he said he had kept many secrets and warned all quarters to mend their ways or risk him disclosing them. His recently published interview in Dawn on the 2008 Mumbai attacks had triggered a new debate in Pakistan. The National Security Council had rejected his stance and accused India of not cooperating in the progress of the trial in the case, mentioning that India had denied access to key witnesses, including Ajmal Kasab — the only perpetrator to survive the attacks who was hanged in India later in 2012. Sharif had later reiterated the need to restore order in the House and get rid of all elements and organisations involved in militancy within or across the border. He had also revealed before a court in Islamabad that one of the reasons behind his ouster from the prime minister's office was his determination to keep the House in order to ensure across-the-board action against all militant groups. Sharif believed that these groups and controversial internal security policies were reasons why Pakistan faced isolation internationally.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has been alleging pre-poll rigging, and the party supremo and three-time prime minister has been accusing khalai makhlooq — a term largely attributed to men in uniform — of interfering in politics to ensure his defeat. "Look how they brought down the Balochistan government just to induct a government of their own in the province," Sharif told reporters at an accountability court in Islamabad where he was on trial for a corruption case. "Look how they manipulated the elections to the Senate, the Upper House of Parliament, by appointing a little-known man as its chairman. Look how they are busy pressuring leaders of my party and forcing them to join other (pro-establishment) parties."

It is a mere coincidence that Hafiz Saeed's close aides are also being tried by an anti-terrorism court in the capital near the same court where Sharif and his family members are being tried in a corruption and disproportionate assets case. These militant groups are also campaigning against Sharif ahead of the elections, dubbing him an Indian lobbyist mainly because the former prime minister had publicly opposed these outfits and called them an obstacle to diplomacy with regional countries, particularly India. The security establishment had been suspicious of the efforts made towards restoring peace with India during Sharif's three tenures. There were protests and sit-ins against his governments for pursuing such policies.Decode Pakistan Logo

Sharif is confident that he is being sidelined once again. He views this exercise as an effort to pressure him to bow down and mend his ways. However, he is determined to face the wrath of the powerful quarters of the establishment. He had urged the top judge of Pakistan to take action against those who are busy in pre-poll rigging. Currently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing a case related to rigging in the 1990 general elections. The then ISI chief Asad Durrani had accepted his role in manipulating the elections to work against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto by distributing money among politicians, including Sharif, who was the establishment's favourite at the time. Sharif, however, denied receiving any such assistance from the ISI.

Sharif gradually turned anti-establishment with mounting support from liberals and anti-establishment forces. He is the only prime minister in Pakistan to get elected to office three times. He also appointed nearly half the army chiefs in the country's history. However, he did not have the most pleasant experience with the military's top commanders. Pervez Musharraf, one of Sharif's handpicked army chiefs, later imposed martial law and threw Sharif behind bars. After returning as prime minister for a third term, Sharif initiated a high treason trial against Musharraf mainly for abrogating the country's sacred Constitution. This move became a bone of contention between Sharif and the military. He had also testified against Musharraf, mentioning that the relations worsened after an intelligence agency chief in 2014 sent him a message asking him to quit or go on a long leave. Sharif opted to face the military instead. He was disqualified by the Supreme Court through a controversial judgment, and since then, Sharif has upped his political movement to regain his lost position. A few dissenting voices and separatist leaders, from Balochistan in particular, have also announced their support for Sharif in the struggle to ensure civil supremacy.


File image PTI chief of Imran Khan. Getty Images

File image of Imran Khan. Getty Images.

A rival in Imran Khan

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is considered Sharif's main rival in the elections not only because of politics but because of his close ties with the military. PTI had welcomed the election commission's decision to deploy army troops at polling stations. Khan, who is seen as a prime minister in waiting, has also been behaving like a prime minister in waiting, one of his close party leaders said while sharing details of a recent PTI meeting, at which Khan had asked the party's top leadership to behave like a government in waiting. Khan is confident that PTI will be voted to power in the 25 July elections and is apparently also pleased with the military's dominance over the democratic setup. Several political experts believe that this could prove problematic for Khan even if he becomes prime minister with the support of establishment-backed groups. Currently, there is no party in a position to form government without an alliance.

Khan's ties and trust in the military has already been tested. PTI had lodged a 126-day-long sit-in protest in 2014 against the Sharif government in front of the Parliament to pressure the then prime minister to accept the military's demands. Alleging rigging in the 2013 elections, Khan had announced countrywide protests against Sharif's government. During an interview to a television channel recently, Khan accused the army of backing Sharif in the 2013 polls. He is now happy with being able to corner Sharif. The former cricketer is now pressing his demand for free and fair elections after getting support from other political parties, a move that appears suspicious to a number of independent political leaders.

However, former ISI chief, lieutenant general (retired) Zaheerul Islam, does not agree with Sharif's narrative that the establishment is busy with such political engineering. Earlier, he had confirmed that in the wake of a few complex national security issues, the military was upset with Sharif's style of governance.

The former prime minister is ready to contest the elections even from behind bars. A decision to convict him on unsubstantial corruption charges is also on the cards. Sharif is ready to face jail time once again, and to win a majority in the 25 July elections is his last chance to return to Parliament. "Musharraf's trial will be concluded at any cost, and those who are busy in unconstitutional activities will also face the consequences," Sharif said.

Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 07:37:30 IST