“Pakistani democracy is like a vehicle that the prime minister may be steering but those driving it are invisible people sitting on the backseat. Such a vehicle is doomed to meet a terrible accident,” said Farhatullah Babar at the Asma Jahangir Convention on Sunday. The former senator’s words are not far from the truth.
Pakistan is facing one of its worst political crises at the moment. Last month, the elections for chairman senate showed how they were manipulated. The Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf cobbled together an alliance with some independent candidates to elect SadiqSanjrani as chairman senate in order to defeat the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. But this was not a natural alliance. As the senator, HasilBizenjo, pointed out during his speech after Sanjrani’s victory, there are some forces in the country that are ‘more supreme’ than Parliament. While talking about these ‘forces’, Bizenjo kept patting his shoulder, a sign politicians usually make while talking of the military establishment without taking its name. For PTI and PPP to come together – that too to elect someone who did not belong to either party – is surely not political expediency; it must have needed a push from some very powerful quarters. The PTI chief, Imran Khan, has always been quite vocal against the PPP co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, calling him a ‘thief’, ‘robber baron’ and other such harsh words. The PPP’s Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto have also minced no words when it comes to Khan.
On Monday, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, made a pertinent statement regarding the upcoming elections. Sharif said that he had doubts about them as these elections would either be rigged and/or managed. He also talked about pre-poll rigging. Eight legislators from South Punjab left the PML-N the same day. This is not something that came out of the blue. A lot of people were predicting defections from the ruling party. More defections are expected before the general elections. This is what pre-poll rigging looks like.
We also saw what happened during the Senate elections and even before that when the Balochistan assembly was literally snatched from the PML-N and ‘delivered’ to another party. These are just precursors to the 2018 elections, if they take place at all. There are rumours regarding a delay in the elections, although most analysts don’t buy them. As per some conspiracy theories, elections would be delayed once the interim set-up comes into place and the judiciary could play a role in this. The prime minister, ShahidKhaqanAbbasi, and the Opposition leader, Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah, will hold a meeting to discuss the caretaker government. In the coming weeks, we will see what the interim set-up looks like.
Perhaps these rumours led the chief justice, SaqibNisar, to clarify that there is no room for martial law, judicial or otherwise, in Pakistan and that he would not allow democracy to be derailed. “Any deviation from the Constitution will not be tolerated,” declared the CJ. While welcoming his remarks, Sharif also accused the CJ of using the same language against the ruling party as his political rivals do. This is a serious accusation, one that should not be taken lightly. The Pakistani judiciary has recently been accused of judicial overreach and of impinging upon the executive’s domain rather than focusing on its own work.
On the one hand, we see that the ruling party is being cut down to size while on the other we are witnessing how the media are also being cut to size. Pakistan’s top-rated television channel, Geo News, is off-air in more than 80 per cent of the country. It is not just Geo News but its affiliate channels as well. Both the interior minister and the information minister have clarified that the government did not order Geo’s suspension. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority also says that it did not order any such thing. Cable operators tell you in private that the orders have come from the ‘top’ but if the government has not done it, then who has? Obviously there is a power more ‘supreme’ and mightier than the civilian government and that is the military. When a channel is unofficially off-air, its revenues automatically shrink. This is a powerful tool to muzzle the media. Geo Television Network’s chief executive, Mir Ibrahim Rahman, told The New York Times: “We are going to the Supreme Court but we have been told not to expect justice.”
Geo News and its parent organization, Jang group, picked a side – that of the civilian government. It is because of this that they are now facing the consequences. As Babar Sattar wrote in his recent article, “Missing channels “, “Ours is the land of controlled democracy, wherein you wish to prevent undesirable electoral outcomes… Here there is no room for human agency or freedom to make choices. So Geo’s blackout isn’t about outlawing criticism of institutions. It could be the manifestation of another undeclared rule: no one can be allowed to beguile, directly or indirectly, gullible citizens into making bad electoral choices,…”
It is apparent now that as long as our media attacks democratic institutions and politicians, we are free. Once the media begins challenging the State’s national security narrative or questioning our foreign policy or talks about civilian supremacy, these freedoms are slowly but surely taken away. Our media freedom is clearly under attack but most media organizations are not taking a stand against this, mostly out of fear of enraging those who are ‘more supreme’. In the age of social media, it is hard to black out information but it is easier to censor the mainstream media. We have seen how the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a rights movement by the Pashtun community, has hardly been given any coverage in the media despite the success of the Pashtun Long March. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, people do know about its success and popularity but because it challenges the State’s narrative when it comes to military operations and security, there are many who are trying to discredit it both on social media and mainstream media. The PTM has raised the issue of extrajudicial killings and missing persons.
Gagged media, weak civilian government and a manipulated Opposition lead to nothing but a controlled democracy and that is what we are now. Nobody likes to give up power, that too voluntarily. The powers-that-be are certainly afraid of democratic evolution because then their own power slips away. It is this fear that has led them to come up with a new plan, which is not really new as we have seen such plans in play many a time in the past few decades. Such ‘experiments’ have damaged Pakistan in more ways than one. Whether this rehashed plan will work out this time around or not remains to be seen. We are living in a controlled democracy and it will only get worse.