NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 4

Election challenges

The Election Commission of Pakistan has announced its intention to soon release the schedule for the upcoming national elections slated for February 8, 2023. However, numerous obstacles appear to stand in the way of holding general polls on the announced date.

The federal caretaker government, led by Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, has expressed readiness to conduct elections on February 8. The challenge lies in translating these intentions into fulfilling the constitutional mandate for timely, free, fair, and transparent national elections. Several impediments hinder not only the conduct of free, fair, and transparent elections but any elections at all. One major obstacle is the initiation of litigation by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regarding purported ‘errors’ in the recently completed delimitation of electoral districts (constituencies) by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), including former Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and Nisar Khurao, have criticized the PML-N for raising “non-issues” at a crucial time for national elections. The PPP leaders have accused the PML-N of “running from the polls.” It seems that the PML-N is avoiding elections, possibly due to its inability to garner substantial support despite the return of former three-time but convicted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has received legal and administrative facilitation and emerged unscathed from all cases of financial corruption.

The PML-N’s challenge lies in its desire for government without having significant public support in Pakistan. Despite its historical ability to manipulate elections since the late 1990s, the party is now confronted with a powerful social media landscape. The mainstream media, once under the influence of the PML-N, has lost its strength in the wake of unprecedented events in Pakistan over the past year. While the PML-N managed the mainstream media effectively in the past, it is now the primary target of the potent and influential social media. If the PML-N is hesitant to participate in elections, it may have valid reasons, considering the substantial challenges posed by its diminished popularity and the transformative influence of social media.

However, the PML-N’s reluctance to face elections stands as a crucial obstacle to free, fair, and transparent elections. The party and the Sharif family wield significant influence in the power corridors and institutions that matter most in Pakistan.

Terrorist attacks, particularly across the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, represent another significant impediment to the prospect of free, fair, and transparent elections or any national polls at all. In this context, a key ally of the PML-N, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl faction (JUI-F), has recently raised the alarm about the situation.

Undoubtedly, there have been approximately 400 terrorist attacks, mostly orchestrated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), since January 1 of this year, resulting in the tragic martyrdom of over 200 security forces personnel, predominantly police officers. However, dismissing the possibility of holding polls due to terrorist threats seems implausible. The precedent set by the national elections in 2008 and 2013, conducted amidst heightened terrorist activities, including the 2007 assassination of PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto, demonstrates that elections can be held even in challenging security environments. Presently, the security situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the rest of Pakistan is comparatively better than it was in 2007-08. It suggests that the perceived terrorist threat is possibly being exaggerated by parties like JUI-F, with the apparent intention of evading elections. Similar to the PML-N, the JUI-F seems to have lost its political influence in KP, attributed to its self-serving politics and poor performance during the 16-month government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

It is crucial to recognize that delaying elections by emphasizing the terrorist threat or actual attacks would be a grave mistake. Terrorism thrives in conditions of political vacuum and instability, and the current profound political chaos, uncertainty, and divisions in Pakistan contribute to this situation. A genuinely representative government and leadership, achievable only through free, fair, and transparent elections, could address this issue. The situation in Pakistan is so dire that even a partially transparent election would not suffice. Therefore, the terrorist threat must not be overstated, as every Pakistani, especially those in KP, is well aware of this threat. The majority of Pakistanis are politically charged and eagerly anticipate Election Day, despite potential security concerns. If terrorism is used as a pretext to postpone elections, the repercussions could be more severe for the country than terrorism itself.

The issue of a level playing field was initially raised by PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz. The party contends that the conviction and arrest of its founder, Nawaz Sharif, in 2017, and subsequent disqualification by the Supreme Court in the Panama Leaks case, were unjustified. The PML-N argues that unless the country’s establishment, including the judiciary, facilitates Sharif’s return from self-exile and dismisses all cases against him, no level playing field can be established. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif’s wishes have been fulfilled, yet the party now seeks to attain governmental power without a significant political base. The question remains whether the PML-N will be handed the reins of government without proper elections or through questionable means. The PPP, a key ally of the PML-N in the last 16 months, has raised concerns about PML-N’s tactics to seize power. The PPP, confident in retaining its political stronghold in Sindh province, anticipates forming a coalition government with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as the next prime minister. However, the PPP’s strategy and reliance on non-political forces to secure power appear challenging and problematic.

Amidst this backdrop, timely, free, fair, and transparent elections, acknowledged by both the political spectrum and international observers, remain the viable path forward for Pakistan. Failure to hold such elections would exacerbate the already convoluted political crisis, leading to consequences that history may never forgive. It is essential for sanity to prevail in making decisions that will shape Pakistan’s future.