Unlike in the elections of 2008 and 2013, there is a strong perception this time that the Pakistan Army is pulling strings behind the scenes to ensure that the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) does not return to power. Nawaz Sharif had seemed doomed from the time of the Dawn leak in October 2016 — the daily reported the details of a meeting among select members of the civilian government and the military brass, during which Nawaz’s brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, purportedly challenged the Army’s ties to jihadists. The report came when India-Pakistan ties were at their lowest after the Uri attack and India’s retaliatory surgical strike.
After the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz in the Panama Papers case, he alleged that the military had got rid of him through a “judicial coup”. He blamed the spate of exits of “electable” PML (N) leaders in South Punjab on the “khalai makhlook”, or extraterrestrials, and “farishtey”, or angels, thinly veiled references to the intelligence agencies. Many of those who left joined Imran Khan’s PTI. Across the country, 143 Independents are contesting — many are former PML (N) members, and all have the same election symbol — the jeep. Among the jeepwallahs is Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, Nawaz’s Interior Minister who is close to the Army.
New parties with clear or apparent ties to the military have appeared suddenly. In Balochistan, the Army is alleged to be helping the Balochistan Awami Party, which was born this March. The funeral of a BAP candidate killed in the Mastung bomb blast was attended by the Army Chief. In Karachi, the two-year-old Pakistan Sarzameen Party is seeking to replace the MQM, which has earned the wrath of the military. In Sindh province, a new formation called Grand Democratic Alliance, with many prominent former PPP members, is seeking to cut into PPP votes. The PPP, too, has a bad history with the Army.
The Laskhar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawa, nurtured by the Pak Army for operations in India, has fielded candidates — including the UN-designated terrorist son-in-law of Hafiz Saeed, Hafiz Khalid Waleed. Their political front, Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, was cleared by the Election Commission to contest, even though an earlier front had been denied permission. Another designated terrorist, Aurangzeb Farooqi of the anti-Shia group AWSJ, is contesting, as his boss, Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi, who was mysteriously taken off a Pakistan government anti-terrorist watchlist.
Hameed Haroon, CEO of the Dawn group, has alleged in an extraordinary interview to the BBC that the Army had built pressure on media groups, and not allowed his newspaper to be distributed in cantonments. Anti-military social media bloggers and activists have been disappearing mysteriously. Most recently, an Islamabad High Court judge alleged that the ISI had asked the Chief Justice of the court to keep Nawaz and his daughter Maryam in prison until the elections.
Director-General, Inter Services Public Relations Major General Asif Ghafoor, has denied the judge’s allegations, and asked the Supreme Court to investigate them. He said the military was only carrying out law and order duties mandated by the Election Commission, and had no “direct” role in the elections. Earlier this month, he had asked the media to consider the “country larger interest”, and displayed a chart featuring “anti-Pakistan” tweets by some media personalities — a statement that was read as a threat against those who did not subscribe to the Army’s line.
But what does the Army gain by stopping Nawaz’s party?
The Army’s pre-eminence is dependent on Pakistan remaining a security state. India is a key element in the Pakistan Army’s self-projection. Any politician who challenges the Army threatens its vast interests, including its ties with foreign militaries and governments, and its business interests.
Nawaz the politician was a child of the Zia establishment, but he has been at daggers drawn with the Army since 1997, when in his second term as Prime Minister, he asserted himself to choose General Pervez Musharraf as his Chief. The Army was not happy with his overtures to India and the Lahore Declaration, and he claims to have been kept out of the loop on Kargil.
Within months of becoming Prime Minister for a third time in 2013, Nawaz rattled the Army by putting Musharraf on trial for treason, and chose to brave the Army’s disapproval to attend the June 2014 inauguration of Narendra Modi. Subsequently, Sharif was himself rattled by the growing personality cult of his handpicked successor to Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Gen Raheel Sharif. Gen Sharif used Imran’s street protests in 2014 demanding Nawaz’s resignation to play the mediator, called for a “political solution” to the crisis, and also sending the message that the elected government should not mess with the Army. The December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army School that killed over 100 children tightened the General’s grip, and the decision to go after militants in Waziristan turned him into a hero. By 2016, serious differences had developed between the Prime Minister and the General.
The Army would hate to see the PML (N) win this election, or even be a strong opposition. Nawaz has now taken on the role that Benazir Bhutto and the PPP had once claimed — that of the anti-Establishment leader and party.
The Army, which describes its mission as safeguarding Pakistan’s ideological frontiers, has ruled directly for 30 years, and indirectly for the rest of the country’s history. It has always controlled national security and foreign policy.
In 2008, under Gen Kayani, the Army declared it was shedding the image it had come to acquire under Musharraf. It withdrew military officers from civilian postings, but reinvented itself to stay relevant as the “saviour” of the nation with an anti-Taliban operation in Swat. The Mumbai attacks were a turning point — the military managed to project an imminent military threat from India, and portrayed Pakistan as a victim of Indian aggression. It also beat back an early attempt by the PPP government to make the ISI answerable to civilian authority. Immediately after US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011, the military recovered from some of the humiliation through the “Memogate” episode, in which Pakistan’s then ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, stood accused of colluding with the US against the Army.
The Army’s role in the dismissal of elected governments through the 1990s is well documented. A 1996 case, now known as Meherangate, is still being heard by the Supreme Court in which the ISI paid millions of rupees to help the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a front led by Nawaz’s party, to win the election in 1990 against the PPP.
The Pakistan Army craves popularity in the same way that elected politicians do, but it has learnt from experience that running the government and being accountable for bijli, paani, sadak — and for other failures — is the shortest route to earning the wrath of the people. Musharraf discovered that in five years. Power without responsibility is much more convenient.