‘Election engineering’: Is Pakistan’s February vote already rigged?

Even with Pakistan’s chequered electoral history, some analysts believe the coming vote might be among the most unfree yet.

Pakistan is set to hold its general election on February 8. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]
Pakistan is set to hold its general election on February 8 [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan — A former prime minister is in jail. Election authorities are busy stopping his party’s candidates from contesting. And another ex-premier, previously imprisoned and then in exile, is now back, with the cases against him dropped.

Less than a month before Pakistan holds its 12th general elections on February 8, concerns are mounting among analysts and sections of the political class that the coming vote might rank near the top of the list of most manipulated votes even in the country’s chequered democratic journey.

Critics point to the crackdown by state authorities against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its charismatic leader, Imran Khan, as evidence of widespread rigging that could deny the former prime minister and his party a shot at a fair contest.

Khan, who as cricket captain had led Pakistan to the 1992 World Cup win, has been in jail since August 2023, facing multiple charges including corruption, revealing state secrets, and over attacks on military facilities by his supporters. He has denied all the charges.

Large numbers of his party’s leaders have quit the PTI, seemingly under duress. Many of them are currently underground, seeking to avoid arrest, while others have defected and joined rival political parties.

Multiple electoral nominees from the PTI, including Khan himself, have seen their nomination papers rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the electoral watchdog. Khan was last month forced out of the chairmanship of his party due to his imprisonment. Gohar Ali Khan, a relatively unknown lawyer who joined the party less than three years ago, was named the new head. The PTI is also struggling to keep hold of its iconic symbol, a cricket bat, amid a legal battle with the ECP in the country’s Supreme Court.

“This time around the manner in which PTI and its cadres have been brutalised, it has not happened in the history of Pakistan,” Shayan Bashir, PTI’s information secretary in the state of Punjab, told Al Jazeera.

“Snatching of nomination papers, nomination of candidates in police reports, rejection of nominations on unprecedented scale, forcing PTI candidates to abandon the party under duress, all this evidence is available to show what the party has to endure,” Bashir added.

Fears of election manipulation are hardly new in the country of 240 million people. In fact, longtime observers of Pakistani politics and elections say that historically, most elections in the country have been tainted to various degrees.

In 1990, Pakistan President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the elected Pakistan People’s Party government of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Elections were held, and the PPP – widely popular at the time – lost to an alliance led by Nawaz Sharif, who would begin the first of three stints as prime minister in results that surprised many analysts. In 2012, the Pakistan Supreme Court described the 1990 vote as rigged.

But Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) were victims of what many believe was an unfair election, in 2018, after he had returned to power in 2013.

Sharif was removed from his premiership when he was disqualified for concealing his assets in April 2017, and merely days before the elections, along with his daughter Maryam, he was sentenced to jail for 10 years on corruption charges. Pakistani rights bodies and local election monitoring groups, as well as the international community including the United States and European Union, raised questions about the fairness and transparency of the polls in 2018.

“Irrespective of partisan positions, the 2018 election was pretty bad, which many people don’t accept,” Asma Faiz, an associate professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences told Al Jazeera.

Khan and his PTI emerged victorious in those elections amid raucous complaints of manipulation. Many analysts and Khan’s political rivals suggested that the Pakistani military was the kingmaker behind Khan’s rise, providing him the platform for success at the expense of his rivals.

Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has ruled the country directly for more than three decades of its independent history. Even when not directly in power, the military has been accused of heavily meddling in political affairs, an admission made by its former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in November 2022 during his farewell speech.

Three-time Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to country in November after four years in self-exile. [Rahat Dar/EPA]
Three-time Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to the country in November after four years in self-exile [Rahat Dar/EPA]

This time, some analysts believe, the military appears to have bet on Sharif, who returned to the country in November last year, and has seen courts quickly drop legal hurdles against his candidature.

Faiz, the academic, says that the current environment before the polls is “farcical”. “Parties have changed, leaders have changed, but the method and madness remain the same,” she added.

Tahir Mehdi, a Lahore-based political analyst, says it would be correct to describe the run-up to 2024 polls as fundamentally “as unfair as the previous one”.

“I will prefer to use the word ‘election engineering’ instead of rigging,” Mehdi told Al Jazeera.

Referring to the military establishment, Mehdi said they have now shifted their efforts to engineer things “before the polling day” as it has become extremely difficult to play around with the voting process itself.

“Comparing the upcoming and last elections, the pre-election period shows the same pattern of manipulation,” he said. “The major difference is that those old tactics are facing stronger resistance this time, and secondly the party at the wrong end of the establishment, the PTI, has been more successful in popularising its narrative of victimhood, compared to the PML-N.”

That “narrative” propelled Khan’s popularity – which had dropped to 32 percent per a local survey while he was in office – past 60 percent after he was removed from the premiership in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

Khan blamed a US-led conspiracy, in collusion with the Pakistani military, for removing him from power, and led demonstrations in the country demanding early elections.

Now with Khan in jail, his beleaguered party is engaged in a battle for survival.

The PTI’s Bashir denied that the party had itself been a beneficiary of election manipulation in 2018, adding that its success then was based on its years-long efforts and thanks to its “campaigning”.

However, Ammar Ali Jan, a historian and a left-wing politician who is contesting the polls with his Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP), argued that a deeper political and social shift is under way in Pakistan in 2024.

“The main issue is that the contradictions in the Pakistani state have intensified, which is giving rise to antagonism in society and institutions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Jan observed that political parties have traditionally played a “negative role”, by bailing out the establishment whenever opportunity arose.

“Earlier, the PTI was entirely on one page with them, and that was followed by the coalition government which came after PTI was ousted,” he said. “Political parties, whenever the establishment is on the back foot, see an opportunity to advance their own goals rather than strengthen democracy.”

That needs to change, Faiz said, calling for political parties to “hold themselves accountable”.

“There are always one or more political parties which are willing to cross the Rubicon and enter some kind of presumed understanding with the establishment. It is unfortunate because the parties refuse to talk to each other,” she said.

“Politics here has now become a zero-sum game.”

Source: Al Jazeera