Some 106 million Pakistanis are eligible to cast their votes on July 25 in what has been billed as the country’s most significant general election since the military ceded power back to civilians a decade ago. But it is a landmark poll for all the wrong reasons.
Rather than reflecting the will of the people, the result is expected to yield an ungainly coalition engineered by army generals, with the support of a clearly partisan judiciary and a thoroughly manipulated media.
So further instability beckons for one of China’s closest allies, and with it the threats to Beijing’s showpiece Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – despite reassurances extended by Pakistan’s military to worried diplomats.
Under intense pressure, dozens of candidates have switched loyalties to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricket star and playboy Imran Khan, the prospective prime minister favoured by the army bosses.
Many other politicians have disowned nominations from political parties ruled by the dynasties that have resisted the overbearing military for decades. Some have formed new regional political parties and pressure groups.
Militant Islamists are also active ingredients in this potent mix. They are all expected to converge around Khan after the results are tallied, even if the PTI fails to emerge as the largest party, to form an administration which would unquestioningly advance the political agenda of the military, even though the military insists that it has no favourites.
This anticipated outcome hinges on efforts to dissuade voters from backing the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party of ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He has tried to reinvigorate the campaign by playing the victim and returning home from London to serve a 10-year prison sentence on a corruption case, but he is unlikely to succeed. Candidates who have remained loyal to Sharif have barely been able to mount campaigns in their respective constituencies and have been subjected to persistent intimidation by intelligence operatives.
But much would depend on what happens on polling day itself. If Sharif’s supporters turn out in force, his party could still pull it off. Not allowing him to form government in such a scenario would rob the election of any remaining vestiges of credibility, as would any attempt to steal the election through the 371,000 soldiers and reservists manning it.
Pakistanis have seen it all before. No elected prime minister has ever been allowed to fulfil a full five-year tenure in office. They have been unceremoniously dumped and replaced by the military’s hand-picked nominees, such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and prime minister in the 1970s, and Sharif himself in the 1980s.
When one of these puppets has subsequently sought to cut their strings after coming into power, they have been overthrown by another, invariably in partnership with the military and judiciary – as was the case throughout the 1990s.
Since the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s, however, the Sharif and Bhutto dynasties have worked intermittently to trim the role of the military. This has motivated Musharraf’s successors to seek to dispense with them altogether and replace them with a new favourite – Khan.
However, there is no reason the military would treat him any differently, were he to become the prime minister. Many of the PTI’s candidates are recently inducted turncoats with no ideological commitment to the “change” Khan keeps talking about. The other feudal landlords and religious extremists whose support Khan would need to form a government would also invariably undermine any major move, not to mention the vengeful politicking by the established political parties he has helped to sideline.
Already, there are murmurs within pro-military circles that Khan’s demagoguery and personal conduct makes him unfit to lead a nuclear power. These may not prevent him from becoming prime minister, but it augurs ill for the longevity of his tenure.
The military’s divide-and-conquer strategy has all but rendered the general election pointless. Whatever the outcome, major segments of society will feel robbed, adding to the slow-burning public discontent with interference in the democratic process.
It may not spark any immediate political unrest, as the social and political fault lines are too pronounced to support a unified resistance against the military. Fears of reprisals are also too palpable to be ignored.
But trouble is brewing, and at some point a constitutional crisis could arise that no amount of domestic political engineering – or Chinese-funded development – can stop.