Pakistan’s Majority Defies its Military Establishment

As the jockeying to form the next government heats up, analysts are calling the election a mandate against the military.

Posted on 02/18/24
By Imtiaz Gul | Via East Asia Forum
The jailed former prime minister Imran Khan remains Pakistan’s most popular leader. (Photo via video stream)
On 8 February 2024, millions of Pakistanis emphatically responded through the vote in the general elections to months of repression and the systematic persecution of former prime minister Imran Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), turning out to vote against the country’s powerful military establishment.

The majority of Pakistan’s nearly 60 million voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the parties of the status quo led by ex-premier Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Initial estimates suggest that, collectively, PTI’s winning and losing candidates polled nearly 33 million votes, far more than its main rivals — Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party — put together.

According to the Election Commission, they ended up claiming 101 seats in the 266-member national legislature, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with 74 seats and the Pakistan People’s Party of former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari with 54 seats.

After the arrest of Imran Khan on 9 May 2023, association with PTI was brazenly criminalised — numerous, mostly phony, criminal cases against Khan and his cadres initiated, homes and businesses raided, and thousands arrested to deter followers from street protests.

Dozens of PTI leaders went underground to evade arrest. Scores succumbed to pressures and publicly dissociated themselves from the party. No street corner meetings were allowed, nor did the mainstream media give any substantial coverage to PTI activities. PTI candidates faced systemic obstructions, with many fighting for bail and appeals against adverse court decisions. Khan himself was convicted on three counts of corruption days before the polls.

The wobbly Election Commission topped the political repression by denying the PTI its iconic electoral symbol — the cricket bat — during campaigning. Protests went in vain, and the candidates had to contest seats as independents.

Khan’s party had been emasculated after he fell out of favour with the country’s military establishment and was ousted in April 2022. Both the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party apparently acquiesced in the military-led plan to get rid of Khan for his outspoken views on the United States.

The party’s roller-coaster ride and persecution translated into a stunning electoral victory, despite all odds.

‘On one side was the deep state, absurd verdicts from the courts, relentless police brutality, the re-laundered class of politicians that came to power in the phony elections under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1985, and their boomer cheerleaders in the press. On the other was some kid voting for baingan (an eggplant that a PTI candidate in Islamabad secured as an electoral symbol)’, wrote Asad Rahim, a columnist for the influential daily newspaper,Dawn.

Ironically, two factions carved out of PTI to marginalise it literally bit the dust. The Istehkam Pakistan Party, launched with big fanfare by an ex Khan associate — Jehangir Tarin only won two of the 266 lower house seats. Tarin himself lost on the two seats that he contested.

Outraged voters in the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where PTI served two terms between 2013–2023 in government literally decimated the other faction — PTI-Patriots — which secured just one of the 112 provincial assembly seats. Ex-chief minister Pervez Khattak, who had promised to wipe out Khan’s PTI in the province, was humiliated, losing all seven seats that he and his family contested.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province turned out to be the Waterloo for PTI’s rivals, including the military establishment. The party virtually swept the election there with over 85 per cent of its seats despite all the administrative and legal roadblocks it faced. PTI affiliated candidates also put up a strong contest against the PML-N in Punjab, the largest province in central Pakistan, securing the second largest number of seats in the provincial legislature.

As the jockeying to form the next government heats up, analysts are calling the election a mandate against the military.

The question now is whether military high command, undeniably a decisive factor in politics since the birth of the country in 1947, can digest the import of the PTI gains and move on.

Two days after polling day, General Asim Munir, the chief of army staff, issued a statement that has subsequently become the subject of speculation. ‘Elections and democracy are means to serve [the] people of Pakistan and not ends in themselves. Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people’, he said. Munir spoke of the need for ‘stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarisation which does not suit a progressive country of 250 million people’.

His advice accords with a slew of criticism of developments before, during and after the elections, including from two dozen US congressmen and UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron, as well as the Australian government.

Michael McCaul, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that ‘Any allegations of corruption or fraud must be fully investigated, and those responsible must be held accountable. The United States supports the right of the Pakistani people to a democratically elected government that respects the rule of law and human rights’.

Losing candidates are still knocking at the doors of courts and the Election Commission of Pakistan for justice against rigging. International media as well as foreign legislators, the UN Secretary General and governments are demanding investigations into the allegations of vote manipulation. But will the military high command be receptive to these demands? At least for now there are no visible signs it will.

Imtiaz Gul is Executive Director, Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.

Check Also

Rights Groups: Repression in Pakistan Worse 1 Year After Assault on Military Installations

Human rights defenders say political repression in Pakistan has increased in the year since supporters …

Pakistani Military Admits to Political Meddling, Wants Khan to Apologize

The implied admission of blatant political interference by Pakistani generals has plunged the South Asian nation further into turmoil, potentially eroding the facade of civilian governance altogether.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from ViewsWeek

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading