Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2018-07-20 06:15:15 Published on Jul 20, 2018
The usual shady politicking ensures that it doesn’t take a psephologist to figure out who will win the Pakistan elections.
Is the Pakistan election a fixed match?

In a free and fair election, despite his disqualification and subsequent conviction, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s party would have come out on top in the general elections that will be held on July 25, 2018. But these elections will be anything but free and fair. Quite like the Accountability court that had decided the case against Sharif even before the trial began, the verdict of the 2018 elections has been decided even before polling starts.

While the details of the election results will be known only around mid-day July 26, the broad trend can be guessed already. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, which Khan is Chairman of, will be at least the single largest party and will be able to cobble together a simple majority without too much difficulty. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) might still emerge as the second largest party, but will neither be in a position to -- nor be allowed to -- forge a broad-based coalition to upstage the political calculations of Khan and his patrons (the military establishment). Chances are that the PMLN will probably be split after the elections, if that is what it takes to pave Khan’s way to prime ministership. The Pakistan People's Party could be the fourth largest party with the independents (most of whom will follow the line laid out for them by the “miltablishment” to support or merge with PTI) emerging at number three.

The religious parties, the five-party alliance of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the other more extremist parties such as Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (the shell company of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s political wing), Milli (or Military) Muslim League (MML), will win some seats and a lot more votes but are unlikely to play any major role in government formation. Smaller, regional parties like the military-created Balochistan Awami Party (with the ironic, or is it the appropriate acronym, BAP) or the Balochistan National Party, Awami National Party and others will make up the balance of the seats.

Until the return of Sharif from London, there were still some odds that the election was open, and in a tightly contested poll, anything could happen. The opinion polls showed the two main contenders neck to neck. Defying all predictions of an implosion once Sharif was ousted or after the term of the PMLN government ended and the “caretakers” assumed office, the PMLN remained more or less intact. Despite the intense pressure on party members to defect, the desertions that were engineered, the plethora of cases filed against leaders and arrests of candidates on charges of corruption that were suddenly activated, obstacles placed in their campaigning, the entire political climate that was manufactured to portray them as ending on the losing side, the PMLN remained in the fray.

But the sort of heavy-handed crackdown on PMLN workers to prevent them from rallying in support of Sharif, and the clampdown on the media to prevent it from showing the surging crowds on the streets of Lahore to express solidarity with him, has thrown all democratic pretence out of the window, and removed all doubts about the trajectory of the elections. To an extent, the miltablishment and its underlings in the “caretaker” setup have overplayed their hand and exposed their intentions as well as their bias. One unintended consequence of this has been that it has, for the time being at least, bridged the differences between the two wings of the Sharif family. The incarceration of Sharif and the sword of accountability that is now dangling over the head of Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother and the current President of the PMLN, has meant that for now both brothers have to put their differences aside because they know that if they don’t swim together, they will definitely sink together.

But while the overkill by the miltablishment has backfired and only generated more sympathy for the Sharifs, it is unlikely to make much difference at the hustings simply because the outcome of elections has been pre-decided. There are many analysts and observers who believe that the miltablishment cannot entirely control the election results because Pakistan in 2018 is very different from Pakistan of the past elections. The awareness of the voter, plus the advent of the phone camera and the role that will be played by social media makes it much more difficult to steal the whole election. While all this is true, the fact of the matter is that these analysts discount the role of hubris and overconfidence of the “deep state” which thinks it can get away with murder.

After all, if the miltablishment can get away with the mass murder of Pakistani civilians and dissidents, surely it can get away with the murder of something as esoteric as a democracy. In other words, the factors analysts believe will act as deterrents against brazen rigging are unlikely to hold back the “deep state” from doing what it thinks it needs to do to get a desirable result. One example of this is the manner in which majors and colonels are instructing the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) officials, the returning officers and the district administration - and despite the embarrassment this has caused, this interference continues apace, albeit somewhat more discreetly.

Normally, rigging or the stealing of an election takes place in three phases or stages. The first is what is called pre-poll rigging. This is basically stacking the deck to ensure a particular result. The miltablishment has already managed to complete this operation. The political engineering to favour the favourites, the administrative appointments to ensure a smooth passage for the favourites, and the legal tools used to hobble the undesirable politicians have tilted the balance in Khan’s favour. Yet, it is highly unlikely that the miltablishment will be satisfied with just pre-poll rigging to get the result it wants. Past experience has informed the Pakistani “deep state” that merely setting the field to ensure a favourable and desirable result is often not enough. After all, this has been tried many times in the past but has never really yielded the result that was desired.

If anything, despite all the field setting, the results cannot be calibrated exactly and ever so often the favoured candidate either wins so big that he goes out of control or else the electorate throws up rude surprises. For instance, in the 1970 elections, no one expected the Awami League to sweep erstwhile East Pakistan so comprehensively that it would get a majority in the National Assembly. Again in 2002, despite Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship, the King’s party – The Pakistan Muslim League Urdu was able to form a government only after engineering defections from the PPP and even then had to depend on the vote of a notorious sectarian terrorist to get their Prime Minister elected by just one vote. And both these elections were held when the military was controlling everything and yet it couldn’t manage the voting behaviour.

A similar situation cannot be risked this time. Therefore, all stops will be pulled out to ensure there are no rude surprises on election day. In other words, the miltablishment will also indulge in the other two stages of rigging: poll-day rigging (playing fiddle with the votes) or old-fashioned rigging, and if even that fails, then the third stage which is post-poll rigging. The third phase of rigging is basically about herding the elected “representatives” in a particular direction, and if necessary breaking or even hijacking parties to ensure that the establishment’s man gets the Prime Minister’s chair. To the extent it is possible, the miltablishment will try to hide its fingerprints on the stolen election. But if push comes to shove and this isn’t possible, they will do it brazenly, hoping that it doesn’t lead to the sort of consequences that followed the 1970 election.

Poll-day rigging will probably be indulged in on the marginal seats. Even in Pakistan, it is difficult to overturn a result in which the margin of victory is 20,000 to 25,000 votes. But if the margin is merely a couple of thousand ie 2,000 to 3,000, then it becomes so much easier. Given that there are going to be many constituencies, even in Punjab, where the margins are expected to be very tight, it won’t take much for the “deep state” to play the fiddle. Already the ECP has eased the task by bestowing magisterial powers on the soldiers manning the election booths and polling stations. Even without these powers, it is difficult to imagine a humble school teacher or government clerk defy the diktat of a Khaki-clad goon when senior bureaucrats, judges and politicians crawl before mere captains and majors. But with these powers, even the pretence of playing by the book by lowly government servants will disappear.

To be sure, some stuff will leak out, but it will be buried under the din of the results and the celebrations that follow. In any case, the media is muzzled. Its tall claims of being independent and a major power player have come crashing down. It is so into crawling before the Khaki goons that it has obsequiously blacked out anything and everything that the military doesn’t want printed or aired, including the accounts of Khan’s tryst with drugs, his sexual peccadilloes and his vacuity.

If, however, the poll-day rigging also doesn’t work, then the post-poll stage will kick in. The ground for hijacking parties or candidates has been prepared. For instance, after the elections, there is a high possibility that Shahbaz Sharif could end up in prison if he doesn’t play ball. And playing ball means prostrating before the miltablishment and not doing anything to create difficulties for Khan. An estranged PMLN leader, Chaudhry Nisar is waiting in the wings to take over the party. He is fighting the elections as an Independent, but has declared that he remains a member of the party. The great thing about Nisar, who is a lackey of the miltablishment and a close friend of Imran, is that with him at the helm of PMLN, the N doesn’t need to be changed; Nawaz will simply change to Nisar. And then, there are the other smaller groups and parties that can be preyed upon.

Therefore, does all the speculation and excitement about who will be the next Pakistani Prime Minister even matter? The PM is effectively the municipal commissioner of Pakistan and in charge of drains, hospitals, schools, roads etc. All the important functions of state such as security, foreign policy and even economy will be in the hands of the miltablishment. Whether it is Imran Khan or some other favourite of the military – the name of Asad Umar, son of a 1971 war criminal Pakistani general, is also doing the rounds – it will not change the way Pakistan works and interacts with rest of the world. Naya (new) Pakistan will pretty much remain Purana (old) Pakistan.

This commentary originally appeared in

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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