FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 36

Growing uncertainty about the fairness of upcoming elections

There are uncertainties galore about the next elections and the composition of the caretaker set-up to oversee the whole electoral process. Although Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said that his government will cease in mid-August, doubts hang heavy in the air about when the ruling coalition would decide whether to dissolve the National Assembly earlier or to wait for its term to end on August 13.

It is also not clear whether the polls will be held in October or November. Until a few weeks ago, it looked improbable that general elections would be held before the end of the year, with the country facing the prospect of an economic meltdown and default on its external debt repayment. But with the successful IMF deal, Pakistan has been given some breathing space to straighten out matters. However, it seems that the run up to the polls may not be smooth in the prevailing tense political situation. There is no indication yet of the political parties gearing up for the polls. The usual electioneering and rallies that should have started by now have not yet started.

As things stand now, various parties are hurling allegations of political engineering which will make the entire electoral process controversial. The fairness of the polls has already become questionable with the move to ban the main opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Expressing serious doubts about the prospects of the general elections this year, the opposition Grand Democratic Alliance last week demanded formation of an impartial caretaker set-up, deployment of judicial staff as returning officers, use of electronic voting machines in polls and a grand dialogue among all political stakeholders before “the growing crisis takes a monstrous turn”. For the opposition, the issues of finalisation of census and fresh delimitation of constituencies are important but they are yet to be resolved.

In the meantime, the government is trying to put Imran Khan on trial under the Official Secrets Act. An investigation has been ordered after an alleged statement by his former principal secretary accusing his former boss of using a cipher from Pakistan’s mission in the US to gain political mileage and to build an anti-establishment narrative. This is in addition to more than 150 cases ranging from murder to terrorism and corruption Imran Khan is facing in various parts of the country. If the government succeeds in its efforts to secure a conviction, it will bar the former prime minister from taking part in the elections. The government is also considering putting a ban on the PTI. That would make a mockery of the entire electoral process. The government is resorting to this ploy because despite the forced exit of a large number of senior party members, there is no indication yet of Imran Khan’s popular support waning.

According to political analysts, pre-poll rigging has taken place in the past but this time around it is brazen and blatant. The PTI’s disintegration being engineered by the government and the formation of a new king’s party has made the whole electoral process dubious. The launch of a new party, Istehkam-e-Pakistan, comprising mostly deserters from the PTI, is clearly designed to create a situation where voters will have no choice but to vote for the traditional parties, including the PPP and the PML-N. That will surely raise questions about the legitimacy and fairness of the polls. Interestingly, the latest Gallup-Pakistan survey found that only a quarter of Pakistanis have confidence in the fairness of the upcoming elections.

But politics in Pakistan is not conducted as per the universally recognized rules of the game. Given ceaseless allegations by senior leaders of the incumbent government that the May 9 violence was planned by the party and its high command, an election minus Khan and his party cannot be ruled out irrespective of how the voters and world public opinion react to the electoral result.

In this context, there is a growing worry among government circles about the voter turnout in the next election. A low turnout would raise serious question marks about the legitimacy of the elections and the winner’s mandate and right to govern. A low voter turnout would also mean a vote of no confidence in the electoral process and undermine the whole system which would not make for political stability being sought by the powers that be. In such a situation, economic stability will be a chimera, further eroding the support base of the incumbent government which is already a target of growing public discontent fuelled by uncontrolled inflation, especially rising food prices. The conclusion is simple. Manipulated elections and a compromised government emerging from it would not bring political and economic stability in the country.