Plight of the Pakistani Electorate: Wedged between attacks of the Islamic State and intimidation by the Military Establishment
The events in Pakistan over the last fortnight have tragically brought to the fore the harsh reality that elements constituting the country’s fragile democracy continue to weather the predicament of being under perpetual attack, literally speaking, both from the terrorists and the country’s military establishment. While the purported aims, objectives and methods adopted by the terrorists and the establishment for intimidating politicians and voters differ, the fact remains that an all-out onslaught on democracy has been launched in the run-up to the 25 July elections.
In a barbaric suicide attack on an election rally in Mastung in Balochistan province on 13 July, a suicide bomber killed at least 149 participants at the rally, including Siraj Raisani, the candidate of the Balochistan Awami Party in whose support the event had been organized. Hundreds of others were injured, of whom many are in a critical condition in hospitals in Mastung, Quetta and Karachi. Siraj, who was the brother of the former Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani, had in 2011 lost his teenage son Hakmal Raisani in a grenade attack. Officials of the Balochistan government averred after the deadly 13 July attack that they had been lax in providing security for the rally as they were unaware of it. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack. Aitzaz Ahmed Goraya, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of the Balochistan police, announced on 19 July that the man who had carried out the suicide bombing had been identified as Hafeez Nawaz, a resident of Mirpur Sakro village near Thatta town in the province.
Another violent attack on a political rally was carried out on the same day in Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in which four people were killed and 32 others injured. This bomb attack targeted the convoy of Akram Khan Durrani, the candidate of the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) coalition, near the venue of his election rally. Durrani, who is contesting against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, the chosen puppet of the establishment to become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, escaped unhurt.
Just three days earlier, on 10 July, another suicide bomber had successfully targeted a political rally in Peshawar, killing 20 people. This rally was organized by local supporters of Awami National Party (ANP) in favour of their candidate Haroon Bilour, who was also killed in the explosion. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for this attack. Sadly, Haroon’s father Bashir Bilour, who was a senior ANP leader, had in 2012 died in a similar suicide bombing in Peshawar.
The State Department of the United States strongly condemned the attacks, and its appropriate choice of words exhibited an incisive understanding of the situation on the ground wherein the very foundations of democracy are under severe threat. It stated: "These attacks are cowardly attempts to deprive the Pakistani people of their democratic rights. We will continue to stand with the people of Pakistan and the broader South Asia region in their fight against terrorism".
Pakistan’s ‘Dawn’ daily reported that the timing of the IS attack in Mastung coincided with a meeting in Islamabad of the intelligence chiefs of Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan that was aimed at addressing the mounting threat that the IS was posing to the South Asia region, especially to Afghanistan. The meeting was also reported by Russian news agency ‘TASS’ and by ‘The Voice of America’. ‘TASS’ quoted Sergei Ivanov, the spokesman of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service as saying that “The discussions focused on the dangers arising from a build-up of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. Last year, Iran’s Mehr News Agency had quoted Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s Intelligence Minister, as saying at a seminar on ‘Terrorism, Extremism and Regional Security in West Asia’ that “ISIS has lost land, but has not surrendered its arms, and is looking for land in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia in order to, in this way, revive the idea of the Islamic caliphate”. Both Russia and Iran, which contributed significantly to the demolition of the IS’ Middle-Eastern bastions, have a direct interest in preventing the re-emergence and spread of IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shia Iran shares long, porous borders with both countries. Russia is concerned over the significant presence that IS has established in northern Afghanistan, especially in the backdrop of the allegiance to the IS pledged by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2014. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enunciated his country’s concerns over the spread of IS to South Asia lucidly in February: “It boosts the risk of terrorists infiltrating into Central Asian countries from where they can enter the Russian Federation”, he said.
That such a meeting was held suggests that reports of IS bolstering its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan after being trounced in its stronghold in Syria and Iraq that have been appearing over the last few months are indeed credible. This IS influx has the potential to further destabilize the already grim security situation in the whole of the region that is already saddled with a plethora of terrorist outfits of all hues. The destruction and chaos that can be unleashed by the advent of foreign fighters is still fresh in the memory of those observers who witnessed it first hand in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s. The abruptly unemployed battle-accustomed and hardened terrorists from the anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan were diverted by their employers, the Pakistani military establishment, to bolster the ebbing returns that its Pakistani and Kashmiri recruits were giving it in Jammu and Kashmir. Such was the barbarity of these alien foreign fighters from as far afield as the Middle-East and North Africa, with no links or empathy with the region, that even the Pakistani and Kashmiri militant recruits of the Pakistani military establishment, who fought alongside them, quivered under their dominance and brutality. These fighters left a particularly unpleasant legacy, which the people of Jammu and Kashmir hope will never be re-played. This is especially so in the context of analysts postulating that some of the IS fighters displaced from the Middle East who have relocated to Afghanistan and Pakistan will eventually be constrained to branch out from there, and some will inevitably find their way into Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has also articulated similar concerns.
In the aftermath of the IS attack in Mastung, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) summoned Dr. Suleman Ahmad, the Chief of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), for a briefing on the security threats to leaders and candidates of various political parties. Dr. Ahmad informed the ECP that there were substantial threats to leaders of almost all major political parties as well as to candidates for the elections. Appalled at this candid disclosure, the ECP directed the NACTA to bolster security across the country and create a peaceful environment for the elections. Omar Waraich, the deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International summed up the situation aptly: "The Pakistani authorities have a duty to protect the rights of all Pakistanis during this election period ─ their physical security and their ability to express their political views freely - regardless of which party they belong to”.
The failure of the Pakistani military establishment to ensure either, drew the ire of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). In a statement on 16 July the HRCP strongly denounced the fact that members of Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as well as of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) “have reported being harassed by law enforcement and security personnel during their campaign, their movements monitored or restricted without good reason and their election banners removed without cause”. The HRCP unambiguously stated that “blatant, aggressive and unabashed” attempts to manipulate the results of the forthcoming elections were afoot. It’s statement also flagged the establishment’s all-out efforts to coerce members of PML-N to “switch political loyalties” or step down. It expressed serious concern over the decision to deploy 370,000 security personnel inside and outside polling booths on election day, which it felt was a diabolical strategy to intimidate voters into casting their ballots in favour of establishment-backed candidates. HRCP member Hina Jilani rightly pointed out that the security personnel who ought to have been deployed in large numbers to protect pre-election campaigns by political parties, at which time considerable threats do exist as the recent terrorist attacks have demonstrated, were conspicuous by their absence. Jilani added: “These (terrorist) forces were supposed to be eliminated, but still they exist and can strike where they want”. She also expressed strong reservations about the establishment’s support to the “growing influence of radical religious forces”, and the participation of proscribed groups in the elections under changed names. The statement eloquently averred that: “The HRCP feels strongly that the political space ceded to banned outfits has emboldened militant groups”.
The PML-N, whose beleaguered leader Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan on 13 July along with his daughter and political heir apparent Maryam Nawaz and was immediately arrested, has been facing the brunt of the establishment’s wrath. Sharif’s open opposition to the establishment for its high-handed ways as well as the fact that the PML-N is the main impediment to the establishment’s vision of a pliant PTI government backed by Islamist parties at the helm in Pakistan are the reasons for this.
Sharif, by returning to Pakistan, has won a major battle in what promises to be a protracted war with the establishment. Prior to his departure from London, he stated that he is being sent to jail because he tried to free the people of Pakistan from the slavery imposed on them by the generals and judges. He vowed to continue his political struggle from behind the bars. Referring to the establishment, he had earlier said that "There was a time when we used to say a State within a State, now it's a State above the State". On board the aircraft enroute to Pakistan Sharif made a shrewd emotional plea to rouse his supporters. He said in a video released on Twitter by Maryam: “I know I have been sentenced to 10 years in jail and will be sent directly to prison. But I am making this sacrifice for the Pakistani people, for the future of this nation”. He told reporters that his fight with the establishment was “heading towards its peak”. PML-N Senator Musadik Malik, through his following comment, illustrated that the strategy appeared to be working: “They have a sense of history. It’s about courage, He’s calling them out, and if that means the guillotine, so be it”.
That the establishment has been forced onto the back-foot merely by Sharif’s brave and unexpected act of returning was evident in the paranoid manner in which it reacted to his return. Over ten thousand security personnel besieged Lahore on the eve of Sharif’s arrival and set up barricades across the city. Lorries and containers were used to cut off roads leading to the airport. Baton charges against PML-N members were resorted to by the security personnel. Access to the internet and mobile phone services were blocked. 378 PML-N leaders and workers were taken into custody after being falsely labelled “terrorist suspects and antisocial elements”. Expressways and national highways were blocked to prevent PML-N workers from other cities from reaching Lahore to join the tens of thousands that had taken to the streets there. Hundreds of PML-N workers were also arrested in other cities of Punjab province, including Faisalabad and Sialkot, and cases were registered against them. Meanwhile, a media blackout was enforced with media houses being warned of dire consequences if they covered Sharif’s return and the actions of his supporters on the streets. The aim of this huge, overbearing, and wasteful exercise of the establishment was merely to prevent Sharif’s supporters from reaching the airport to receive him. The truth is that Sharif would have been arrested on arrival at the airport whether or not his supporters were there to receive him. The establishment ended up revealing its total disregard for democratic norms and practices through its atrocities against peaceful political activists.
Not satisfied with the results it had achieved on 13 July, the establishment in a subsequent bizarre move opened criminal investigations against more than 50 PML-N leaders, including Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif and former Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi, under section 7 of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act. Another staggering 16,868 cases have been registered over the last six days against PML-N leaders and workers throughout the Punjab province. It is, therefore, not surprising that the HRCP concurs with “the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns”.
The multi-pronged attack on democracy in Pakistan has resulted in a crushing atmosphere of fear prevailing in the country. The terrorist outfits are threatening democracy through use of the tools of violence and intimation and are statedly aiming to create disorder and impose strict Islamic law. The military establishment, which in the order of things is mandated to defend democracy against these terrorist elements, is instead borrowing the very same tool of intimidation to dictate and manipulate the electoral process while all the time denying that it is doing so. In this milieu, the tragedy of the people of Pakistan is that their main avenue for expressing themselves, the democratic process, has been corrupted and contorted by those holding power behind the scenes, cloaked and hidden, for their own narrow vested interests.
That makes the outlook infinitely more murky and alarming.