Gun Versus Vote

Pakistan, a nation of 241 million people, voted a general election on February 8. The poll took place against the backdrop of economic crisis and political uncertainty. A day later, Pakistan’s army chief congratulated the nation on what he described as the “successful conduct” of elections. Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by the Nawaz family, declared victory. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister and chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), rejected Mr. Sharif’s victory speech. Khan urged supporters to defend win. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) signaled that it was ready to form a coalition government. Protests against electoral fraud continue in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan. According to Aljazeera English, six people were killed and dozens injured in post-election violence across the country.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has fallen behind schedule in announcing the results. This drew criticism and accusations. PTI’s leaders claimed to have won in KP and in some constituencies in Punjab, a province that is the stronghold of the PML-N. The PPP won mainly in its traditional stronghold of Sindh. It also claims to have won seats in Balochistan, where candidates backed by smaller parties accused the PPP of rigging the elections. The results announced by the ECP are very different from the candidate counts and parallel counts shown on local TV channels. A four-party coalition consisting of Pashtunkhaw Milli Awami Party, Balochistan National Party, National Party and Hazara Democratic Party declared that they would fight for their rights and mandate. In KP, the Pashtun nationalist parties, National Democratic Movement and Awami National Party, have contested the CEP results and continue to protest against what they see as significant irregularities.

The hybrid power structure in Pakistan is characterized by the dominance of the security apparatus and the weakness of the civilian government. In order to survive, the civilian government is dependent on the former. The power rivalries between the two often lead to the fall of the civilian government. In this complex and unstable relations of powers, democracy remains a subject under the control of the establishment, and political parties have little influence on policy making. As a rule, all state institutions, including the judiciary, recognize the establishment as Big Brother in domestic and foreign affairs.

Although the military claims not to interfere in politics, politicians cannot come to power without the generals’ consent. In 2018, Imran Khan came to power with the support of the military, but was forced out of office in April 2023. Khan accused Washington of conspiracy. He also accused the military generals of plotting against him and the generals encouraged Pakistan’s major political parties to corner him. Khan mobilized his supporters and called for early elections, but in May 2023, when paramilitary rangers arrested him, some of Khan’s supporters attacked the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and the commander’s house in Lahore and burnt down Pakistan’s broadcasting office in Islamabad. Khan continued to fight against the generals but was sentenced to 14 years in prison on January 31, 2024 for corruption and leaking state secrets.

While civilian governments were in power, the military establishment ruled the country for decades and had the upper hand in policy making, manipulating elections and influencing political parties. As the recent crackdown on the political environment continues, it seems that PML-N and PPP have more chances of forming a coalition government. The PTI has little chance of rebuilding the bridge that Khan has already demolished. Some military generals harbour personal animosities against Khan and fear revenge if he returns to power.

 

Both the PML-N and the PTI declared victory, claiming to be the largest bloc in the National Assembly, but neither party won a majority of votes. No party can form a government on its own. This is nothing new. Pakistan has a long history of coalition governments.

The question is whether the coming civilian government can overcome the challenges? Life in Pakistan is a constant struggle. As an ordinary Pakistani citizen, one is faced with rising unemployment and rising inflation. Last month, the World Bank warned that Pakistan’s economy is on the brink of collapse. Human rights violations such as enforced disappearances, violence against religious minorities and the suppression of peaceful protests continue. Journalism has become a risky profession in Pakistan. Press censorship is at its peak. As a journalist, you risk a lot: losing your job, being kidnapped by secret services or even death. If you are Baloch, you are on the verge of a state-imposed trap that will catch any Baloch suspected of being associated with Baloch militant groups. According to Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, 5,000 Baloch are missing. Anyone who is a vocal Pashtun political activist is at risk of arrest, imprisonment or even death. On February 10, Mohsin Dawar, an ethnic Pashtun and candidate for NA-40 North Waziristan, came under fire while protesting against the delay in election results and alleged attempts to rig the election. Mr. Dawar was injured.

Pakistanis voted to bring about change, but now most of them are demonstrating to make sure their votes count. The Pakistani army has a long history of influencing elections and managing post-election crises. This time too, it seems fully prepared to do so. The Pakistani government will face numerous challenges, the most important of which is dealing with the economy. The country is suffering from its high foreign debt, which it will have to bear in the coming years. Relations between Islamabad and New Delhi are rough and difficult. The tensions between Pakistan and Iran are hidden behind the carrot and stick policy. Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, where the Taliban rule, remain complicated. Pakistani authorities accuse the Taliban regime of not cooperating in fighting the TTP militants, who Pakistan says are using Afghan soil for their campaign against Pakistan, but the Taliban regime rejects Pakistan’s claim.

Pakistan today is more polarized and unstable than ever. The political situation will be no less dire than the economic crisis. Whoever leads the government will face strong political opposition and frightening security and economic instabilities. Last but not least, in Pakistan the battle for democracy is a fight of vote against gun.

[Protest of PTI supporters in London for free and fair elections. Image via Flickr by Alisdare Hickson. CC BY-SA 2.0]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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