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EFSAS Commentary

2018 Pakistan Elections: 'With the Army and not against it'


The chronic duality of Pakistani politics once again exhibited how the civilian government is everlastingly meant to bow down to the establishment, conveying the message that the leader of Pakistan must rule ‘with the Army and not against it’. Despite the remarkably rare successive transition to democratic rule, the 2018 Pakistani elections could be described in various ways, but certainly not as democratic, fair or peaceful.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party, headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan won in the 2018 Pakistani general elections, seizing the highest number of parliamentary seats from its closest rivals the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Nevertheless, it would be untrue if one would describe Khan’s success a triumph - the pre-poll stage was contaminated with numerous political scandals, accusations, controversies and terrorist violence, highlighting the downright lack of transparency and accountability. Unsurprisingly, the recent elections once again proved that Pakistan’s democratic institutions are in a weak state and highly vulnerable to infiltration.

Although Khan has made a commitment to eradicate corruption in the country, especially since one of his major opponents, Nawaz Sharif, has been recently imprisoned on corruption charges stemming from the Panama Papers leaks, Khan himself has been widely accused of benefiting from a relationship with the military establishment. Furthermore, Khan should also be mindful of the fact that the former Prime Minister and head of the PML-N party, once had been a protégé of the military establishment himself. The Pakistani Army played a substantial role in the evolution of Nawaz Sharif’s political career; the very same institution, which is prosecuting him at the moment. This should make Khan, at least, contemplate on the possibility that every blue-eyed boy of the establishment comes with an expiry date. As Sharif inauspiciously discovered, and Khan will soon find out himself, the political power in Pakistan remains in the hands of the establishment; Prime Ministers govern only by name.

During Pakistan’s 71-year history, the military establishment has been directly ruling for half of the time and pulling the strings for the rest. Khan was chosen as the favourite man of the establishment since the leaders of the PML-N and PPP were considered difficult to manipulate in the recent years. Furthermore, presumably Imran Khan was deemed ideal for the post owing to the fact that he has a soft-corner for militant groups. For instance, Fazlur Rehman Khalil - a US-designated global terrorist with links to Al Qaeda, whose organizations, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Ansar-ul-Ummah were also placed on a global terrorist list - openly supported Imran.

That is not surprising since history illustrates how terrorism has become an indispensable instrument of Pakistan’s foreign policy: to nourish proxy wars with India; to keep Afghanistan unstable; to secure the Army’s stronghold; and to induce endless chaos in order to control its people and resources.

During the elections this was also visible from the mainstreaming of designated terrorists and their hard-line Islamist parties. Among them was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Pakistan's newest ultra-religious party, which is fiercely protecting the country’s blasphemy laws and calls for blasphemers to be put on a death sentence. The party began initially as a protest movement in 2016 against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who killed his boss, who was calling for a reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Another party is the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), found in 1985 under the name Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and influenced by the pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) party. The ASWJ was eventually banned for being the political wing of the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been associated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) and responsible for the killing of hundreds of Shiite Muslims, yet its members still managed to ascertain themselves and participated in the recent elections under the name of Pakistan Rah-e-Haq, or as independents.

The Milli Muslim League (MML), founded by Hafiz Saeed, Chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), also tried to run in the general elections, yet in a cardinal stratagem ahead of the elections, the US designated it as a global terrorist organization, which forced the Election Commission of Pakistan to reject its application. Alongside with MML, the US also added Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (TAJK) to its terrorist watchlist, arguing that it had also been acting as a front of LeT.

Nathan A. Sales, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the US Department of State, asserted that the intentions behind that strategic move was preventing LeT from accessing the necessary resources, which it requisites in order to continue carrying out its operations.

"Both MML and TAJK are LeT fronts created to circumvent the sanctions against it (LeT)...Friday's amendments take aim at LeT's efforts to circumvent sanctions and deceive the public about its true character. Make no mistake: whatever LeT chooses to call itself, it remains a violent terrorist group. The US supports all efforts to ensure that LeT does not have a political voice until it gives up violence as a tool of influence", he said.

Nevertheless, despite those efforts, a Reuters’ article argued that MML members still succeeded in registering themselves as candidates under the name of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, and campaigned with Saeed’s image on their posters and election materials, once again proving the group’s resilience and the support it enjoys from the establishment.

Regardless of the country’s public outcry against religious extremism, cases like these demonstrate how far from being fought back, extremists are being encouraged; or to be more precise – only those extremists, who are considered ‘strategic assets' of and for the ruling elite.

With regard to this selectiveness, Akhtar Mengal, a provincial lawmaker and former Chief Minister of Balochistan, has argued:

“The establishment", - referring to the military - “wants to wash them and dry clean them and push them into power".

Such political mainstreaming of extremists brings to surface Pakistan’s dangerous ‘good terrorist, bad terrorist’ game. During the ballot, the Army deployed 370,000 soldiers to prevent attacks from the terrorists branded as ‘bad’ and to remind voters who exactly is in charge with these elections. Yet, despite these strict measures, a bomb blast in Quetta, claimed by IS, took the lives of at least 31 people. In addition to that, one person died in a grenade attack in Khuzdar, and another was killed in a shooting in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Just two weeks ago on 13 July, a suicide attack on an election rally in Mastung in Balochistan province killed at least 149 people.

Imran Khan, who has little experience being a politician, finds himself in a political turmoil of terrorist violence, military oligarchy and continuous warfare. Although he has been engaged to a limited degree in national level politics, he has never previously maintained a cabinet position, let alone headed a national government. From lightweight politics, Khan has been thrown into the heavyweight category. His charm and charisma might have indeed assisted him, however leaders are judged by their leadership.

Leaving a mark in politics, the same way he did in cricket when he led Pakistan to victory in the World Cup in 1992, will be a Herculean task. It would require him to find a way to deliver on his promises and manoeuvre while not upsetting the military establishment; the same establishment which got him this far.

Or perhaps, too far.