The much talked about democratic transition that was supposed to have started with the general elections in 2008 and continued through the general elections of 2013 has for all practical purposes died down. The so called soft creeping coup which was conceived by the deep state and midwifed by judiciary during the last few years has not only culminated in full fledged authoritarian control but has also acquired some hard dimensions as the polling day of the elections 2018 draws closer. Democratic freedoms have come under growing squeeze and freedom of expression has received the main brunt of the fascist type strangulation. Tv channels are put off the air and distribution of newspapers is blocked by using brute force as long as the concerned media groups aren’t ready to toe the line of authoritarian circles. Political engineering for achieving “ positive results “ in the forthcoming elections is in full swing. PML ( N) is at the receiving end of every types of manipulation. From judicial onslaught to weaponised religion and psychological warfare, every trick in the trade is being used to break the vote bank of the party. Lot of pressure is coming on the so called electable candidates to leave the party for joining the PTI (by now notorious for being the new king’s party). Those who do not oblige the movers and shakers of the deep state by remaining loyal to their party are effortlessly disqualified by NAB and judiciary. Accountability is becoming a farce while large scale pre election rigging is turning the electoral process into a mere selection by the deep state. If this post election rigging isn’t immediately stopped the process would have zero credibility.
The scariest thing in the latest political scenario is the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan for sourcing out of electoral process to security institutions. According to the recent decisions by ECP, army personnel will be responsible for secure transfer of ballot papers from the printing press to ECP. Similarly they will also be there to ensure the safe delivery of the aforementioned material to polling stations and collecting it back. In the past army personnel were deployed along side police and other civilian armed forces out side the sensitive polling stations. But this time round the army personnel will also be deployed inside polling stations. This development gives rise to two questions. One, Constitution was amended and laws were framed in recent years to strengthen ECP for holding free and fair elections. But under what law, rule or procedure ECP is sourcing out its functions to security institutions and does it not kill the very purpose of electoral reforms and strengthening of ECP? Two, from Zia-ul-Haq’s quest for positive results to Parvez Musharraf’s public confession about wheeling and dealing with political leaders on number of seats which were to be “ given” to them prove the role of security institutions in rigging the elections. If the past experience is anything to go by the sourcing out of coming election to security institutions will increase the possibility of rigging.
Interestingly, while level playing field is denied to the “undesirable “ political elements in general and PML ( N) in particular, doors are being opened for proscribed organisations and suspected terrorists to participate in the forthcoming elections. When ECP refused to allot election symbol to the Milli Muslim League ( a new name for JUD) , the outfit managed to remain in field for contesting elections by adopting a new identity. Just on the very day when the news about Pakistan making it to the grey-list under FATF emerged from Europe, Pakistan decided to unfreeze the assets of a previously proscribed organisation ASWJ and allowed it to take part in elections. This is certainly not a good news for both the fight against terrorism and future of democracy.
The most disappointing thing about present situation is the passive attitude of most of the political parties towards dwindling democratic freedoms. They are completely silent over latent attacks on media freedoms and political engineering for crushing of PML (N). Some of political leaders are silenced by the NAB files while others are promised a share in the future power pie. But they don’t realise that there can’t be a democratic system without democratic freedoms. As the recently held Senate election has demonstrated the deep state would ultimately prefer non political stooges ( in partisan sense) over even the most pliable political parties. If the political parties don’t overcome their political feuds to join hands for defending democratic freedoms , they will not only soon find themselves suffocated in an undeclared martial law but they wouldn’t be left with enough credibility to launch a movement for the restoration of democracy in the near future.
In the meanwhile all the major decisions on foreign policy, economy and national security don’t have even any semblance of civilian footprint. Pakistan is drifting into the middle eastern quagmire despite Parliament previous resolution against it and “ good Taliban “ have no problem in flourishing inside Pakistan. The country’s isolation is intensifying as the relationship with western powers is worsening and as China is teaming up with India for promoting regional connectivity and economic cooperation. One wonders how will the future civilian government be different in lack of power and control from the previous political government or the present care taker government?
The only silver lining in the otherwise bleak situation is the growing resistance in Punjab to the growing shadow of authoritarianism. The people of Punjab owe a sustained and determined struggle to history as they had not actively and systematically participated in the national liberation struggle against colonial rule in 20th century. Their struggle can attract support and solidarity from all other oppressed people of the other regions if the Punjabi political leadership broadens the charter of their demands to include the aspirations of all the disempowered segments of society. Political parties should go for mass mobilisation in coming weeks for not just winning seats in elections but also for defeating authoritarian onslaught.
By Afrasiab Khattak: The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.