November 23, 2023
ISLAMABAD – ‘THE more the things change, the more they stay the same.’ That truism can be applied to Pakistan’s power politics. The same old game that we have witnessed many times in the past is being played out yet again on our political stage, with the characters only swapping roles.
With just a few months left for polls, the outcome, it seems, has already been decided. The field is now being cleared for a former three-time prime minister, who is bidding for a fourth stint, with the main challenger having been demolished.
Indeed, elections in Pakistan have never been considered completely free and fair but what is happening now has made a mockery of the entire democratic process.
It appears that another process of selection, with the most brazen pre-poll manipulation, is underway. That makes the legitimacy of the democratic transition extremely doubtful. What is happening now has perhaps not been witnessed even under military rule. The dismantling of the failed project has been turned into an exercise in vengeance.
While incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan has already been barred from the electoral process, a large number of PTI leaders and activists are either in prison or have been forced to quit the party. After being ‘disappeared’, they are brought before TV screens to renounce their association with the party.
This shameful spectacle has been going on for some time but even this atonement, it seems, is not enough: the quitters are also forced to join the newly established ‘king’s party’ if they want to be completely cleared. Even local-level party activists are not being spared. Meanwhile, a smear campaign has been launched against the PTI leader on a tamed electronic media.
There is not even a modicum of media freedom left. The caretaker government is nothing more than a front for the powers that be and has gone beyond its mandate, which is limited to overseeing elections and ensuring they are fair and free.
In fact, the interim administration is now being used as an instrument to carry out pre-poll manipulation. This is the environment in which the next elections will be held.
Meanwhile, the return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif after four years of self-exile under VVIP protocol indicates a change in the wind. Although he is still engaged in a complex legal battle to get rid of his conviction so that he can stand in the elections, he is already out in the field campaigning for his party.
True to our political tradition, several electables and groups have jumped onto the PML-N bandwagon. The widespread perception of the establishment’s support for it seems to have raised the party’s stakes.
Ironically, the PML-N has not only inducted many members of the Balochistan Awami Party but has also forged an alliance with the party, which, it had alleged, had been created by the establishment to undermine the PML-N government in the province.
Interestingly, the BAP, which is a conglomerate of tribal chiefs and local influentials, has also been part of the coalition cobbled together by the establishment to prop up Imran Khan’s hybrid regime.
The MQM, too, has entered into an ‘alliance’ with the PML-N. The development gives an indication of the post-election coalition set-up. While the main battleground is Punjab, the PML-N will still need the support of regional parties to consolidate its stake.
The formation of the king’s party under the banner of the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party has added a curious element to the plot. Founded by Jahangir Tareen, a former close aide of Imran Khan, the party almost entirely comprises PTI defectors.
While some electables from south Punjab have joined the party sensing that time was up for the PTI, many others have taken its cover to escape persecution. The project seems to be a part of political engineering to produce a ‘positive’ result in the elections. There are clear indications that the group will ultimately align itself with the PML-N-led coalition.
It looks like that the stage is set for the return of a PML-N led government. But things may not go as smoothly as planned, given continued public support for the PTI. Despite the crackdown and move to completely demolish its organisational structure, the party refuses to die.
Though in prison, Imran Khan still commands huge support. Moreover, the elections generate their own dynamics, affecting the situation closer to the polls. The fear of a possible backlash has probably been the reason why the establishment has been stepping up its crackdown against the PTI in recent weeks. But it will be difficult to rig the votes.
It is not surprising that the PPP leadership has also expressed concern over the fairness of the electoral process. It fears being marginalised in the ongoing power tussle that could limit the party to Sindh.
That also may be the reason why PPP leaders have stepped up their attacks on the PML-N. The party seems alarmed by the PML-N forming an alliance with the MQM and the Grand Democratic Alliance led by Pir Pagara. The situation is likely to get uglier as the election date approaches.
All this doesn’t bode well for the democratic process. A disputed election could further destablise the country, which is already facing multiple challenges.
The widespread perception of the party going to the hustings with the blessings of the establishment could badly damage the PML-N’s democratic credentials. The party can come to power with or without Nawaz Sharif being prime minister but it would be hard for it to bring stability to a fractured polity.
The very perception of being installed through tainted elections could inflict irreparable damage on the party and the country. It would be hard for the next dispensation to remove its tag of a ‘selected’ government. The country can’t afford yet another engineered political system.