Don’t be fooled by elections—the military is still in charge in Pakistan

Potemkin democracy
June 18, 2018

Covering the general election in Pakistan in 2013 was an often disorienting experience. I spent the day alternating between speaking to people at polling stations and doing live interviews with international television channels. There was a marked disjunction: the anchors in London or New York wanted to know about the threat of terrorism that had cast a shadow over the campaign. But on the streets of the capital, all I saw was jubilation. Entire families were out, waving Pakistan flags and taking in the atmosphere. Young men tied bandanas of their party’s colours round their heads and danced in the middle of dual carriageways, blocking traffic. Queues of women snaked out of the female sections of gender-segregated polling stations.

The reason for this carnival-like atmosphere was simple—this was a milestone. It was Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition from one elected civilian government to another. This is a country that, since it was formed in 1947, has spent almost half its years under military dictatorship. Despite the terror threat that had made it hard for parties to hold rallies, and despite widespread corruption and weak state institutions, there was a outpouring of joy at exercising the democratic right of voting out one set of leaders and voting in another.

It is hard to imagine there will be a similar celebration when, in late July, Pakistan goes to the polls for what is theoretically its second democratic transition. While on paper, this streak of elections and continuous civilian rule might appear to demonstrate a transition to democracy, in practice the military establishment is cementing its control in all areas of public life.

Over the last few months, its campaign of intimidation and crackdown on dissent has intensified to a frightening degree. In June, a newspaper columnist and prominent critic of the military, Gul Bukhari, was abducted by armed men in the city of Lahore. She was temporarily detained and her driver was beaten. Another high-profile journalist, Taha Siddiqui, has had to flee to France. They are just two of the scores of journalists and bloggers who have been forcibly detained over the last year. Many more have been censored or threatened. The popular television station Geo News was taken off air, only coming back on after its bosses agreed to toe the line. The country’s most prestigious English language newspaper, Dawn, which has been defiant in the face of censorship, has had its distribution disrupted in major cities.

The military’s campaign of censorship centres on two things. The first is the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was elected to power in 2013. A vocal critic of the military, Sharif was ousted in July 2017 over a corruption scandal. Rather than following the usual pattern of ousted Pakistani leaders and retreating to exile, Sharif has behaved like an insurgent candidate, holding rallies and arguing that his ousting was engineered by the military and judiciary. There have been other remarkable examples of censorship, including the sound being switched off from a speech by Sharif broadcast live on television in April.

The second target of the clampdown is a grassroots movement by Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun population, which has suffered immensely from the army’s “war-on-terror” tactics. Pashtuns, who hail from the north-west of Pakistan close to the Afghanistan border, have been treated as a suspect population for many years. The movement, led by young people, has gathered tens of thousands to countrywide rallies to demand civil rights and call for answers about mass arrests and disappearances. They are operating under an almost complete mainstream media blackout.

Against this backdrop, where the mere expression of dissent exposes individuals and groups to extraordinary pressure and personal risk, it is difficult to celebrate the elections as a democratic transition. The military clearly has the upper hand over the democratically-elected civilian government; any favourable mention of the current party of government—Sharif ’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz—is effectively off limits.

When Sharif was ousted, he was replaced as prime minister by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, but in practice Sharif has remained the de facto head of the PML-N and is the current favourite to win the 2018 election. Behind them in the polls is former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf party. Khan, a populist and nationalist, recently said “I will carry the army with me.”

Pakistan’s democracy has always been fledgling. During the 2013 election, the heightened threat from terror groups restricted free speech on certain subjects, and for those political parties that advocated a more secular, liberal approach. But another main talking point at the time was the increased power of the media—which had changed from being entirely controlled pre-2001, to becoming a strong fourth estate that could hold power to account. Some speculated that the effectiveness of the media had prevented a full military takeover. It is telling that five years later, the military is taking such obvious steps to control that newly potent space. As the military tightens its grip and seeks to silence those who question its authority, the public space for dissent is shrinking all the time.