The history of elections in Pakistan is what we need to recapitulate in these times. And it is important that we do so given that Pakistanis will go to the polls on 25 July to elect a new government for themselves. But here comes the loaded question: will it be Pakistan’s people or its all-powerful military which will decide who assumes power at the election? Again, to what extent will Pakistan’s people deal with the question: to what degree will the politicians be in office but not necessarily in power?
These are questions which come up in light of the fact that the Pakistan army appears determined to place the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan in office as the nation’s new prime minister. Opposition to the PTI and of course to the army establishment, otherwise known as Deep State, has already been emasculated by the conviction and jailing of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz. The army has meanwhile denied that it has any intention of interfering with the election. That is an irony.
And it is an irony because the military has for decades been instrumental, directly or otherwise, in influencing the results of elections in Pakistan. In quite a few devastating instances, the army has subverted the results of elections which propelled popular politicians and parties to power or close to it. One recalls here the brazen manner in which the Jukto Front ministry in erstwhile East Bengal/East Pakistan was removed by the civil-military bureaucracy headed by President Iskandar Mirza in May 1954 only months into its election. Pakistan’s first general election was scheduled for early 1959, but that opportunity was torpedoed by the army when it seized power in October 1958. For the next ten years, General Ayub Khan, styling himself as field marshal, ruled the country on the basis of an indirect political system he called Basic Democracy.
Pakistan’s first general election in December 1970 led speedily to the break-up of the country. The reason was patent: the military, headed by General Yahya Khan, in cahoots with Z A Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, refused to hand over power to the victorious Awami League and have Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman take over as Pakistan’s first elected Prime Minister. Bengalis simply went to war against Pakistan. The result was the emergence of the secular state of Bangladesh.
In March 1977, the government of Prime Minister Bhutto went into extensive rigging at the general elections, which prompted countrywide calls for the resignation of the government. Bhutto went into negotiations with his political rivals, eventually reaching a deal on 4 July 1977 for fresh elections in the country. Early the next day, the army under General Ziaul Haq removed the Bhutto government in a coup, put Bhutto on trial for murder, had him executed through a controversial judicial verdict in April 1979 and went on to exercise a severe dictatorship in Pakistan. In August 1988, General Zia and senior military officers as well as the US ambassador to Islamabad were blown up in the sky over Bahawalpur.
Zia’s death prompted new elections which delivered victory to Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party. But new army chief General Aslam Beg attempted to prevent her from taking office for quite some time. Benazir Bhutto eventually took office but not before reaching a compromise with the army, which compelled her to keep Zia loyalists like Sahibzada Yaqub Khan on as foreign minister. Her government was dismissed in 1990. New elections arranged by the military brought its new favourite Nawaz Sharif to power. In 1993, Sharif was dismissed and Benazir returned to power in fresh elections. Three years later, in 1996, Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed for a second time and Nawaz Sharif was again brought to power.
The government of Nawaz Sharif was dismissed by the army in October 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup and ruled Pakistan for nine years. Sharif was first imprisoned and then sent off to exile in Saudi Arabia with his family, before coming back home to take part in fresh elections in early 2008. Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto, having returned from exile in the UAE, engaged in her own election campaign until her assassination in December 2007. Her party, led by her husband Asif Zardari, won the election.
In July 2017, Pakistan’s Supreme Court dismissed Nawaz Sharif’s latest government and banned him from politics. The country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) subsequently decreed that Sharif, his daughter and son-in-law would be in prison on corruption related charges. All three are in Adiala jail near Rawalpindi.
This record of murky elections in Pakistan, of the army acting as a larger state within the state, has successfully undermined all attempts at democracy in the country. The election of 25 July will not bring about any change. Imran Khan is already beginning to look like a plaything in the hands of the army.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and political