Weeks before Pakistan’s general election on July 25, a tweet that went viral said: “The elections have taken place, only the polling remains.”
This is a sentiment popular among many Pakistanis, who are openly questioning whether the forthcoming polls will be free and fair. More lately, several video clips of politicians have emerged on social media, the most recent being that of a PML-N candidate who was reportedly asked by the Inter-Services Intelligence to not contest on a party ticket as he would be “adjusted” elsewhere.
“The level of army interference and political engineering is unprecedented,” says IA Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The media too has been a target, with Rehman saying that it has been silenced by the military through strong arm tactics. After silencing Pakistan’s largest media house, Jang Group, which was issued a list of topics not to touch upon, the most respected newspaper, Dawn, is in the firing line.
Dawn’s publisher announced recently that the newspaper, founded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Delhi, is being subjected to a campaign of “harassment, threats and coercion”, leading to the muzzling of freedom of press in Pakistan in the run-up to the elections and putting “democracy in danger”.
In an editorial, Dawn said the distribution of the newspaper for the past few months has been hit by daily disruptions in targeted cities and towns across Pakistan. Hawkers and sales agents are being subjected to harassment, threats and physical coercion and journalists too have been picked up by security officials.
Last month, the army openly berated social media activists at a news conference. They were identified and told to step in line or face the consequences. Chief military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor told journalists that the security establishment is keeping tabs on social media and monitoring “anti-state” accounts.
Former premier Nawaz Sharif, whose PML-N party has blamed sections of the military and judiciary for his ouster last year, has openly accused the ISI of pre-poll rigging. Hundreds of candidates from the PML-N have been either threatened or enticed to join Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party.
The number of those who have decamped and been issued seats by Khan is so high that the PTI’s own workers staged several protests at his house to express their anger. Former PTI founding member Fauzia Kasuri says, “Imran Khan’s party is the king’s party. The army is shoring it up for the next government.”
The army has also given its blessings to Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who has started to take suo moto notice of issues and conducted raids on government institutions and other organisations. “He has gone beyond his ambit and is becoming an embarrassment,” said a lawyer who did not want to be named.
The Karachi Bar Association wrote a letter to the chief justice this week to protest his insulting behaviour towards junior judges during an inspection of courts in Sindh.
The other organisation that has the military’s blessings is the anti-graft watchdog, National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has been used time and again to put politicians in line. “They have been told to behave or face NAB cases,” Islamabad-based journalist Abid Husain says.
According to some political analysts, the field is being set for a hung Parliament.
“No one party will emerge the winner,” says former minister and top PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal. He says a coalition government will be formed, with possibly Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister.
“The choice of prime minister is immaterial. What we will see is that the final arbitrator will be the army itself,” says another analyst. “It’s like being under martial law without having any of the bad name that goes with it for the army.”
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