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EFSAS Commentary

EU Election Observation Mission and Oxford University release critical reports on Pakistan


The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) on 26 October issued its final report on the general elections held in Pakistan on 25 July. The report is a scathing attack on the way the elections were conducted, and is particularly critical of the disruptive and partisan roles played by the military establishment, the judiciary and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The military establishment’s efforts at mainstreaming terrorists through the electoral process received strong disapproval in the report. It is pertinent to mention that several of the issues brought out in the report had been highlighted in EFSAS’ election-related commentaries of 13-07-201820-07-2018 and 27-07-2018

The EU EOM report underlined that unlike previously deployed EU EOMs to Pakistan since 1997, the one this year “encountered significant challenges and difficulties before and during its deployment to Pakistan for the 25 July elections… that substantially affected EU EOMs standard modus operandi”. It brought out that “the ECP did not provide observers and journalists unimpeded access to critical stages of the pre- and post-election day period, including recounts”. Further, “the ECP made limited efforts to improve its transparency and accountability during the electoral period. The lack of regular communication with civil society and political parties, as well as timely information to voters on key stages of the electoral process, such as the failure to announce provisional results on time, increased the level of distrust between stakeholders and the ECP and damaged the institution’s reputation”

If this criticism of the ECP appears harsh, it actually pales in comparison to what the EU EOM had to say of the two institutions that have emerged as the de facto overlords of the Pakistani State - the military establishment and the judiciary. It pronounced that “the pre-electoral environment was marred by allegations of influence on the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs, including through its special suo moto jurisdiction. The apparent collusion of interests between the army and the judiciary was particularly instrumental in the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif, and his disqualification for life from holding public office. Numerous reports depicted the armed forces and security agencies pulling strings to persuade candidates of anti-establishment parties to switch allegiance or to run as independents, contributing to splitting the votes and influencing the results… Most interlocutors acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates… The judiciary was increasingly perceived as politicized, owing to numerous high-profile court cases involving the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) during the campaign”

The EU EOM report underlined that 370,000 army personnel were deployed on election day, which contrasted sharply with the figure of 70,000 in the last elections in 2013. The Pakistan Army has been claiming tremendous success in its Zarb-e-Azb anti-terror operation that was launched in mid-2014, after the last election, and the Radd-ul-Fasaad operation that commenced in February last year. As per media estimates, over 3,500 terrorists have been killed in these operations. This ought to have translated into a lower security requirement at this year’s elections, but apparently it was a factor other than providing security - the need to pre-dictate the results of the elections - that induced the establishment to send out five times the number of troops as in 2013. The EU EOM also pointed out sternly the irregular, odd and crude tactic of intimidation that was resorted to by the establishment through deployment of troops inside polling stations, not just outside as is the norm.  It stated, “The deployment of large numbers of soldiers, and their presence inside polling stations with expanded powers, can result in voter intimidation. Various EU EOM interlocutors raised concern over the role of the military inside polling stations, particularly their interventions during the vote count and transmission of the results. Others described the presence of the army inside polling stations as intimidating and that, in a few cases, it was the security official rather than the presiding officer who was in charge”. The EU EOM rightly concluded that civilian ownership of the electoral process had been totally negated. 

Appallingly the ECP, as revealed in the report, seemed to have been browbeaten into resorting to plain lies in defense of the establishment. It informed the EU EOM that “the decision to deploy army personnel outside and inside the polling stations was based on requests from political parties. Political parties, however, told the EU EOM that they agreed the army should be deployed only outside. The ECP did not give reasons why it deviated from its original plan of fielding security personnel only outside polling stations”

The long reach of the military establishment even engulfed the fourth estate and rendered it toothless. The EU EOM report rued that “undue restrictions on freedom of expression led to self-censorship across the media landscape and election coverage without non-partisan, journalistic scrutiny… Editorial policies were carefully calibrated to downplay issues relating to the army, state security structures and the judiciary. Concerted efforts to stifle the reporting environment were observed, and included intimidating phone calls to senior editors, the disruption and hindrance of the distribution of broadcast and print outlets, and harassment of individual journalists. In such an environment, severe self-censorship was the safest option to continue publication… Primarily it marred coverage of the PML-N and the PPP, obstructing voters from making a fully informed choice… The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) leader was by far the most quoted political figure across the media landscape, which was particularly beneficial in such a divisive campaign environment. In addition, media did not air interviews conducted with the Sharifs in London prior to their return to Pakistan, or PML-N, PPP, ANP (Awami National Party) and MMA (Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal) leaders’ accusations of the military engineering the elections. Media referred to the Lahore High Court ruling from 16 April 2018 that upheld the ban on “anti-judiciary speeches”, based on Articles 19 and 68 of the Constitution. Overall, a range of state actors took resolute measures well before the elections to control the public political narrative and to silence any debate that might challenge the role of the military or to promote the supremacy of a civilian-led government

Perhaps the most malignant aspect of the 2018 elections was the exertion by the establishment to mainstream extremists and terrorists through the ballot. This extremely dangerous trend was recognized and accorded due attention in the EU EOM report, “The Elections Act does not give a clear mechanism to prevent from contesting the elections parties with links to, for example, armed groups or those who promote violence or extremism… Of concern was the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organizations that have used, incited or advocated violence. The ECP included 925 extremist-linked candidates in the final candidate list. Several interlocutors and media reports commented on how the ECP implemented the scrutiny procedures on candidate nomination and accepted those candidates”.  

The EU EOM report also pointed out the discrimination suffered by minority groups such as the Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Hazaras and Shias, as well as the lack of neutrality among polling staff. On the results of the elections, the report revealed that “the count, transmission and tabulation of results lacked transparency, leaving room for allegations of electoral malpractices. The immediate post-election day environment was marred by allegations from the majority of political parties of widespread rigging and electoral malpractices influencing the electoral process, and demonstrations across the country”.  

Calling into question the credibility of the elections, the report noted that post the elections “concerted efforts to label the elections as ‘free and fair’ were evident in news stories. State actors continued to exert pressure on news editors, who in turn resorted to self-censorship. A multitude of reports on electoral malpractices circulated on social media, but no investigation followed… The most popular, liberal-leaning TV channels, GEO News and AaJ TV, were reportedly coerced to instruct anchors to divert election night debate away from irregularities and to not challenge the military’s role”

The EU EOM report is an acerbic indictment of the election process in Pakistan and serves as a reminder of the bitter and grim reality that the military establishment continues to retain its vice-like grip over Pakistan. Elections, which were earlier considered a dispensable irritant by the establishment, are now its back-door route to fabricated legitimacy. The military establishment has mastered the art of pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community. This rings as true when it projects a pre-chosen and anointed Prime Minister as a democratically elected leader as it does when it vociferously remonstrates even a suggestion that it is neck-deep in the murky business of propping up and playing around with terrorist outfits to retain and further its own relevance. The EU EOM report, commendably, brings out exactly this. 

It comes as no surprise that the report and its 30 cogent recommendations are being treated with the same disdain by the establishment as similar counsel to respect civilian supremacy or desist from supporting terror have earlier been. Doubtlessly nudged by intimidating phone calls to senior editors”, the Pakistani media has projected the EU EOM report as a celebration of the democratic spirit of the July elections. It has, thereby, incontrovertibly established who, irrespective of Imran Khan being sworn in as Prime Minister, remains in control over the real strings of power in Pakistan. 

A second deleterious report that brings out the threat that Pakistan presents to the world has been released recently by the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts (CRIC) at Oxford University and the international think tank Strategic Foresight Group (SFG). Titled ‘Humanity at Risk - Global Terror Threat Indicant (GTTI)’, this report, based on analysis of “the combative strengths and penchant for nuclear material” of terrorist groups proscribed by the United Nations and at least four individual countries, presents a tool to help anticipate the source of worldwide threats to global security. It also factors in the extremely relevant aspect of the support these terrorist groups get from states, intelligence agencies and criminal networks, and cites the example of Al Qaeda, “The birth of Al-Qaida was in Pakistan and then Pakistan influenced Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden had a safe haven in a huge compound near the Pakistani military establishment in Abbottabad”. The report defines active state support to terror as a situation in which the state helps form the terrorist group within its borders, directs the activities of such groups in other states, provides funds, equipment and arms to the groups, and creates a safe haven within its territory for a group to operate with impunity. Pakistan ticks all the elements of this definition. 

The report included a GTTI Scale, which is a function of the product of combatant strength and nuclear intent, to assess the threat posed by each of the 31 major terrorist organizations active across the world. It similarly identified countries on a comparative scale in terms of their support to terrorist outfits. The stated purpose of GTTI Scale was “to indicate the groups and supporting countries that need to be watched in future if the growth of terrorism is to be contained”.

Based on its analysis, the report concluded that although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appeared as the most lethal force till recently, it was now on the wane. It added, “In the long run, the Al-Qaida network, including its partners such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-i-Mohammed in Pakistan and Al-Qaida branches in the Maghreb region in North Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere may prove to be resilient”

As for countries, the report found that “If we look at the most dangerous terrorist groups, based on hard facts and statistics, we find that Pakistan hosts or aids majority of them. Also, there are a significant number of groups based in Afghanistan, which operate with the support of Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan is responsible for 3 times the terror risk to humanity that Syria poses, or more than 5 times the risk that Libya poses, and 7 times the risk that Iraq poses”. It contends that “in Pakistan, an interdependent relationship between state institutions and terrorist groups has grown over the years, in a manner much more transparent than the safe house in Abbottabad. The risk of the capture of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups cannot be ruled out in the long run, unless all infrastructure of terror is demolished, and the psychology of terror is addressed constructively. Pakistan has specific grievances with India and Afghanistan. But to infest its entire neighbourhood with terrorism allowing it to spread across the world through ideology, manpower and dark net, not ruling out the risk of the capture of its state and strategic assets, is placing humanity at risk for narrow gains”

The report also draws attention to the fact that “If a state uses terrorist groups for its geo-political objectives, the consequences are not limited to its intended target areas. As the terrorist groups gain strength from state support, they are able to use their man power and resources to spread their power to different parts of the world and to seek an edge over other terrorist groups”. It aptly concludes that “it is time for the international community to act in concert to demolish the infrastructure of terror”. 

The phenomenal threat that Pakistan poses to the world stems from a patchwork of inter-related factors. Pakistan’s myopic support to terrorist outfits of all hues, which significantly adds to their potential, scope, and geographical reach, takes on a seriously hazardous connotation when seen in the context of the spiraling deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the country. Concerns over the reportedly lax control over these tactical nuclear weapons and the fear of their falling into the hands of terrorists are regularly articulated by the international community. Compounding this is, as brought out in both the EU EOM and the Oxford University reports, the efforts of the military establishment to mainstream terrorists through the electoral process. A situation where one of the mainstreamed terrorists backed by the military establishment wrests charge of the country and its nuclear assets in a future election is not implausible. The consequences of such an eventuality could be unimaginably devastating not only for Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood, but also western countries that are viewed by Pakistan-based terrorist groups as legitimate targets. 

The international community needs to wake up to the dangers inherent in going about their business as usual with Pakistan, as has thus far been the case, and move beyond mere articulation of concerns. The full might of the international order needs to be brought to bear on Pakistan to compel it to abandon its support to terrorism. 

The price of failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem and procrastination in addressing it may be excruciatingly steep.