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Pakistan Army's shadow looms large amid claims of rigged election

The 1970 elections were historic for several reasons. They were free and fair, perhaps the only such elections in Pakistan.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 23:17 IST

"Everywhere else in the world elections help solve problems; In Pakistan, they seem to create them". While the late Henry Kissinger made this prescient comment in the context of the 1970 elections in Pakistan, it is equally relevant fifty years later.

The 1970 elections were historic for several reasons. They were free and fair, perhaps the only such elections in Pakistan. That they were so was not because Gen Yahya Khan had any love for democracy. On the contrary, it was because intelligence reports indicated a hung assembly allowing Yahya Khan to dominate politics without any rigging. In the event, the reports were woefully off the mark and the free and fair elections led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The lesson that the Army drew was never again to have free and fair elections; instead resort to political engineering to ensure a verdict that enabled it to guide the ‘bloody civilians’ and did not lead to another break-up. 

Every election in Pakistan since then has been rigged, some more than others. Till the recent elections, the one of 2018 that catapulted Imran Khan into power were considered to be the most rigged. 

The two positives of the recent elections were that despite months of scepticism, they were actually held when scheduled and they were, by and large, peaceful. The positives end there. The outcome was inconclusive, the mandate fractured with allegations of rigging and electoral fraud. 

The divided mandate and a hung parliament made a coalition government inevitable, but its formation a formidable task. Following hectic political bargaining, a coalition government of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party, stitched together by the Army, has taken shape. Such a government is unlikely to be stable. For one thing, the tarnished election results will undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the government. Then, the coalition, made up of disparate parties, is likely to pull in different directions. How long it will last is anybody’s guess, though having cobbled it up, the army would like to ensure that it stays together for at least a year or two lest its collapse opens the door for Imran Khan. 

The incoming government will have to deal with several daunting challenges, the most important being the economy which is in critical care. Negotiating a new programme with the IMF will be the first order of business since the existing stand-by arrangement (SBA) will end in March. This is an urgent requirement to enable Pakistan to meet its heavy foreign debt liabilities. Unless the IMF agrees to bail it out, Pakistan’s finances could collapse leading to a default on its international payments and its attendant consequences. A coalition government whose legitimacy is questioned will, however, find it difficult to undertake the wide-ranging structural economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs and the IMF will dictate to pull itself out of the morass it is in.  

While an IMF package is inevitable, both the PMLN and the PPP know what damage the tough IMF conditionalities would do to their support base. If they are not to face a serious backlash from the public, they will have to think and act out of the box. Business as usual would risk pushing them to obscurity. 

Imran Khan is unlikely to take the rigged elections lying down. His supporters, who have already hit the streets protesting against rigging, will no doubt intensify them as soon as the National and Provincial assemblies are constituted and governments formed. Despite being behind bars, Imran Khan’s ability to rouse his supporters to protest is well known and they could paralyse government functioning, both on the street and in the Assemblies. 

In case the protests are disruptive and evidence of rigging in several constituencies comes to the fore, like the confession of the Rawalpindi commissioner, what then? The options could be recounting of votes that may result in PTI gaining strength while a fresh election is a possibility, but a remote one. 

Where does the election results leave the Army? Analysts have been quick to conclude that the results revealed the limits of the its 'political engineering' since the PTI independents emerged as the largest group. 

Led by Gen Asim Munir, the Army had clearly decided that they would not forget nor forgive the damage that Imran Khan and his supporters did on May 9, 2023, and would not let him go scot-free. The expectation of the Army was no doubt that denying the PTI its election symbol together with sidelining many of its leaders would decisively impact the verdict. 

That it didn’t would have surprised the Army. However, the Army has decades of institutional memory of how to secure the desired result. It carries out rigging at three levels. The first is pre-poll rigging where instead of a level playing field, the election process is tilted in favour of the party of choice. The second level is during polling when in selected constituencies candidates are made to lose or win. The third and final level is the post-poll engineering when some of those elected are made to shift loyalties. What matters ultimately is the end result – a weak coalition government that is dependent on the Army to keep it together. This is euphemistically described as ‘being on the same page’. The Army has certainly achieved that. What it has not achieved is eroding Imran Khan's popularity politically. 

Despite this, it is unlikely that the Army will take a back seat. Instead, its role in politics is likely to increase, given the dependence of the coalition on it. 

Though the elections are done and dusted, flawed as they were, once the dust settles, what should worry the people is that neither the civilians nor the Army seems to have a plan to extricate Pakistan from the edge of the abyss. As a scribe wrote in the Dawn: "It’s time to be worried. Really worried for Pakistan."

(Tilak Devasher is an author and Member, National Security Advisory Board. The views expressed here are personal).

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(Published 24 February 2024, 23:17 IST)

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