Keeping Imran Khan out will make Pakistan’s electoral process entirely dubious

Keeping Imran Khan out will make Pakistan’s electoral process entirely dubious

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The shadow of uncertainty over elections in Pakistan is finally withering. The prime minister has made it clear that his government will cease in mid-August. It’s now left to the ruling coalition to decide whether to dissolve the National Assembly earlier or to wait for its term to end on August 13. It now seems certain that the country will go to polls either in October or in November depending on when the dissolution takes place.

Until a few weeks ago, it looked improbable that general elections would be held before the end of this year, with the country facing the prospect of an economic meltdown and defaulting on its external debt repayment. But with the IMF deal coming through, Pakistan has been given some much-needed breathing space.

However, the run up to the polls does not seem promising in the prevailing political tension. There is no indication yet of the political parties gearing up for the hustings. The usual electioneering that should have started by now with just weeks left for the dissolution of the National Assembly, is absent.

Meanwhile, the allegations of political engineering have rendered the entire electoral process controversial. The fairness of the polls has already become questionable with the move to dismantle the main opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan in an effort to obtain a ‘positive outcome.’

While pre-poll rigging is not unusual in Pakistan’s political history, it is much more blatant this time. The PTI’s disintegration in the face of state oppression and the formation of a new king’s party backed by the security establishment has made a mockery of the whole electoral process.

While pre-poll rigging is not unusual in Pakistan’s political history, it is much more blatant this time.

Zahid Hussain

If that wasn’t enough, the government now seeks to put 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’ on the back of a confidential document. Khan is already facing more than a hundred cases ranging from murder to terrorism and corruption in various parts of the country.

A conviction will bar the former prime minister from taking part in the elections. The government is also considering banning the PTI altogether. That would make the entire electoral process dubious. Despite the forced exodus of a large number of senior party members, there is no indication yet of Khan’s popular support diminishing.

Despite his restricted movement and the ban on telecasting his statements, he is fighting back. The party can still give a tough time to the ruling parties in a fair and free election. What is most disturbing is the reported agreement between the leaders of the two ruling parties PPP and PML(N) on the composition of the interim administration.

This is contrary to the constitutional provision which says that the caretaker administration should be neutral and be named with consultations between the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition.  It may be true that the current leader of the opposition in a truncated National Assembly has hardly any credibility, but the rules still have to be followed. The whole episode also raises questions about the fairness of the coming election, with a handpicked interim set-up of doubtful neutrality. Elections under a partisan caretaker administration would de-legitimize the entire electoral process.

It is a sad commentary on our so-called democratic system, and it seems the political leadership has not learnt any lessons from history. The ongoing political confrontation and the use of coercive power by the state could lead to further political instability. The entire power structure has been shaken, with deep cracks emerging within the ranks of the power elites.

The lack of a firm commitment from the government to hold fair and free elections will only add to the uncertainty and manipulated elections could completely destabilize the country.  The future of an already shaky democratic process hangs in the balance, raising fears of its complete derailment. The country is fast moving towards a state of disarray, with the virtual collapse of the rule of law while it lurches from crisis to crisis.

The events of the past one year have already dealt a huge blow to democracy, and any further derailment of the process will be disastrous for the country’s unity and development. A non-representative system emerging from a tainted electoral process can never bring long-term political and economic stability. A government with a popular mandate is the only solution.

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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