The significance of Pakistan’s elections later this year lies in the fact that this will only be the second time a democratic transition of power will occur in the country. The first peaceful transition was in 2013, when Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) handed the reins of government over to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Prior to 2008, no democratic government had completed its five years in office.
The fragility of democracy in Pakistan owes much to its history – a diverse population, an overly centralized authority, fear of neighboring India, and excessive reliance on the military. The transition that took place in 2013 was doubly remarkable considering the economic crises gripping the country. Since 2013, Pakistan has been in the throes of a severe fiscal and current account deficit, with reserves barely enough to cover two months of imports. The incumbent government’s struggles are only further compounded by a vigorous form of judicial activism and by the landmark Supreme Court verdict in the Panama Papers case in July 2017 that disqualified then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The court ruled in the case that Sharif had been dishonest for not revealing the United Arab Emirates work permit he held. This dissimulation, the court argued, violated Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution—which stipulate that a person has to be “truthful” and “trustworthy” to be a part of Pakistan’s parliament. Ironically, the infamous military dictator Zia-ul-Haq inserted these clauses into the constitution, and Nawaz Sharif had never actually withdrawn any salary based on that work permit.
The verdict in the Panama Papers case is just one element of the judicial activism currently gripping Pakistan. Since 2007, Pakistan’s judiciary has been increasingly active in influencing decisions of public policy even to the point of encroaching on what should be the parliament’s area of work.
This clash of institutions is in fact endemic to Pakistan’s democracy and highlights the potential pitfalls that could mar the elections. The greatest threat to democratic rule in Pakistan has historically emerged from state institutions such as the military that have always made their presence felt on Pakistan’s political landscape.
This influence has taken both direct and indirect forms, with direct influence in the form of military coups that overthrew democratic rule in 1958, 1977, and 1999. Today, however, public opinion seems to have turned against direct military rule and now acts as a significant bulwark against a possible military takeover.
The military’s indirect influence on the electoral process, however, remains a potential threat. This indirect influence stems from the present paradigm of Pakistan’s politics where several local and national level parties vie for seats in the National Assembly. This panoply of contesting parties usually results in no single party gaining enough votes to form the government. Local parties and independent legislators, therefore, carry significant influence primarily because larger parties use them to form government. It is these candidates and local parties that the military has historically manipulated to influence electoral outcomes in the country.
Pakistan’s history, in fact, is replete with examples of the military doing just that. The most blatant of these incidents was the Mehran Bank Scandal that rocked Pakistan in the early 1990s. The scandal involved the army chief of staff and the head of the intelligence agency secretly channelling funds to politicians through the now defunct Mehran Bank.
These funds were then used to create the conservative coalition Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), which stood in opposition to Benazir Bhutto and prevented her re-election in the 1990 elections. The IJI won those elections by a large margin and was thus able to form the government.
Political maneuvring on the eve of any election in Pakistan, therefore, suggests the army’s involvement. It thus does not bode well for the upcoming elections that similar political scheming has emerged as political loyalties begin to shift. Most of this maneuvring has been aimed at weakening the PML-N’s hold on power.
A few months ago, for instance, several PML-N legislators in the province of Balochistan inexplicably left the party. The PML-N which initially governed the province was forced to relinquish the post of chief minister to a party with far fewer seats in the provincial assembly. Similarly, PML-N parliamentarians hailing from South Punjab also broke away from the PML-N and have formed an independent splinter group. These machinations mere months before election season are an attempt to marginalize the PML-N and wreak havoc in its ranks. It is only a matter of time before the uncertainty surrounding the PML-N in Balochistan and southern Punjab spreads throughout the party as legislators ponder their chances of winning the elections on a PML-N ticket.
Establishing the army’s culpability in these developments, however, is difficult because of the surreptitious nature of these events. Yet the army stands to gain the most from a weakened PML-N. After coming to power in 2013, the current government has locked horns with the army over key issues such as relations with India, overseeing the military operation against the Taliban in northwest Pakistan, and the annual defense budget. Thus, if the army is successful in side-lining the PML-N and in bringing to power a party that relies on the military’s patronage, it will better be able to influence domestic and foreign policy.
Other Undemocratic Influences
Pakistan’s democracy, thus, continues to be haunted by the ominous presence of undemocratic forces and outside influence. The electoral process, moreover, is also plagued by problems that challenge the veracity of electoral outcomes. Pakistan only recently adopted electoral reforms, and parliament was unable to place a cap on campaign spending. The Election Commission of Pakistan—the body responsible for overseeing the elections—also suffers from a dearth of trained staff that can be influenced by political actors.
Another significant challenge in the upcoming elections is the narrow political spectrum and the complete lack of left-wing progressive parties taking part in the election. The two main contenders—the PML-N and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are conservative parties that adhere to a neoliberal model of development. There is currently no party promoting reforms that could help Pakistan ameliorate the staggering levels of poverty in the country. This narrowing of the political spectrum has in fact become characteristic of Pakistan’s political culture since Zia-ul-Haq’s authoritarian rule in the 1980s and his firm belief in an ideology that blended religious conservatism with neoliberal planning.
Despite the presence of challenges like the role of the military, a lack of electoral reforms, low levels of literacy, and the marginalization of left-wing movements, Pakistan’s obstinate adherence to democracy is a testament to the country’s resilience and belief in the power of elections. A smooth transition of power, thus, will be a major step in cementing democracy in Pakistan.
Abrahim Shah holds Bachelor’s degrees in economics and history from Cornell University