Rigging elections has been a norm, but Imran Khan's coming beats history of the military-influenced democracy

Marvi Sirmed | Aug 6, 2018 | 5 min read


Rawalpindi: Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) secured a comfortable win in what is being termed as the ‘dirtiest elections’ in Pakistan’s recent history. But Khan’s long-awaited victory is now tainted with allegations of electoral fraud and pre-poll election engineering — with many pointing fingers at country’s powerful military establishment.

Though Pakistan Army’s spokesperson Gen Asif Ghafoor categorically denied any interference in the polling process at a press conference held ahead of the elections, his assertions were taken with a pinch of salt due to the country’s dark history of electoral manipulations and machinations by the military, alongside brazen manifestations of political hobnobbing in past few months. However, the hue and cry over a stolen mandate is not something new in Pakistan’s political history.

Every general election has been marred by these allegations ever since Pakistan adopted adult franchise in 1970, and even before that. Pakistan’s hidden forces — often known by euphemisms like ‘aliens’ and ‘angels’ — have always been at the centre of these rigging and election fraud controversies. “The only difference is that in earlier times, the rigging tactics were rather simple and artless,” says I A Rehman, spokesperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a veteran journalist. “The recent election demonstrates how the methods have become more sophisticated and how masterfully they have improvised them,” he adds.

Rigged polls have a history

Contrary to the general belief that Pakistan had her only free and fair elections in 1970, senior journalist M Ziauddin recounts how the military establishment tried to rig even those elections by manufacturing a political alliance of extreme right-wing religious groups against Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman in East Pakistan. He adds that similar tactics were employed in West Pakistan against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through a severely anti-Bhutto media campaign. “Through right-wing print media, Bhutto was portrayed as a godless communist and a playboy,” he points out.

“Despite the establishment’s manipulations through the alliance, anti-Mujeeb propaganda in media, and at some places storming the polling stations in East Pakistan, the public mood had become so aggressive against the antics of the establishment that Mujeeb’s Awami League got a clean sweep in the East,” says Ziauddin.

In 1977, however, it was the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-led government which steered the main machinery at work for rigging the elections. Maulana Kausar Niazi, Bhutto’s close associate, writes in his book, Aur Line Kat Gai, that he was taken aback after seeing the results wherein his party got an unexpected two-thirds majority. “However, Bhutto didn’t need that kind of rigging because almost all the keen observers of politics at that time were of the opinion that PPP would have won anyway. The widely used tactic then was polling bogus votes,” notes Rehman.

Begum Salma Ahmed, 87, who was an active PPP worker in Lahore in those days, told this correspondent how PPP voters were encouraged by the polling staff to poll as many votes as possible. “I remember seeing even young children polling votes in dozens per head,” she recollects.

Even after Muhammad Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law, the strategy behind stealing elections remained more or less the same, with a little improvement towards the end. “In 1985, Zia decided to hold elections on non-party basis because he knew PPP and other nationalist parties might actually sweep the elections,” says Ziauddin. “He introduced the culture of patronage networks by influential individuals, mainly feudal lords and big industrialists. He also lured many politicians from the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD)—the powerful resistance movement against his martial law. This set the permanent trend of electoral manipulation through breaking away stalwarts of political parties.”

2018 elections 'dirtiest' ever

Throughout the 1990s, when both the PPP and the Muslim League were playing musical chairs for the office of the Prime Minister, the establishment continued its manipulations through subterfuges like registering bogus votes, rejecting candidates’ nomination on flimsy grounds, using state machinery to coerce or lure voters, tampering ballot boxes and ballot papers, and harassing opposition candidates by misusing laws through selective and unfair application. The main ally of a manipulative establishment in all these elections was religious right-wing of all sectarian shades. Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the USA, aptly calls this arrangement as the Mullah-Military alliance.

Same methods were employed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Breaking smaller groups of stalwarts from main political parties, making so-called ‘forward blocs’, carrying out political arrests and imprisonments, getting rivals embroiled in criminal and corruption cases, manipulating electoral rolls, bogus votes, ballot box tampering, and media campaigns against those who do not fall in line were some of manoeuvres through which the-then establishment got its way.

The rigging of 2018 election, however, takes the cake. Talking to this correspondent, Rehman shares the reason why he brands these elections as the dirtiest ones so far. “Many politicians complained of being pressurised to leave their parties (mainly Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s PPP) using the skeletons in their cupboards. Secondly, the entire campaign was full of foul language and extremely disgusting mud-slinging on political rivals.”

The engineering of this election started with the gerrymandering through the delimitation of constituencies, which was based on the census that again, was influenced by the military, explains Ziauddin. “Political alliances were created out of proscribed militant organisations, just so the vote bank of PMLN could be cut into small pieces. Entire dissertations could be written on the meticulously planned pre-poll engineering of the recent election that involved not only the coercion of politicians and bureaucrats, but also the worst possible intimidation and censorship of media against PMLN and in favor of PTI,” he says.

This is the emergence of a new model of controlled democracy wherein military establishment doesn’t need to be in the office and take all the blame for strategic blunders that Pakistan is destined to make if the key policies continue. After all, controlling someone who gets the office due to your largesse, is always easy than controlling someone who comes to the office through genuinely won elections.

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