The Pakistan establishment has invented an entirely new way of electoral rigging. This is likely to raise the interest of those other countries of doubtful electoral reputations. This unique way of influencing elections can be called a ‘psychological rigging’ of sorts, which in simple words means using all institutions available to ensure that a particular party is publicly hanged, drawn and quartered at least a year before elections actually happen.
The beauty of this is that it does not directly involve the army or its various arms in anyway. It does involve some severe arm twisting of the media, but as the khaki philosophers are likely to say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Recently, election observers of the European Union cautiously admitted that interlocutors “acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates”. The observers themselves could just as well have just taken a news summary of the last two years and reached the same conclusions.
A targeted campaign
From the time Imran Khan launched his “tsunami” march starting August 2014 on alleged election rigging in the 2013 elections – which he had earlier accepted as fair, the now Pakistan prime minister has been under consistent pressure. Though this could be still be classed as politicking, it seems Khan and his party received a longer rope than anyone else ever did in terms of their virtually storming Islamabad. At that time, senior politician Javed Hashmi, who resigned from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, went on record to publicly accused Imran Khan of receiving a go ahead from the establishment to march on the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s residence in 2014, nearly precipitating a political crisis.
The second phase of the ‘psychological rigging’ was even more interesting. When the money laundering scandal of Panamagate broke out, the first petitions on the issue by the PTI and the Jamaat-e-Islami, were rejected as “frivolous” by the Supreme Court. Yet, months later the court not only accepted the case, but finally went on the pronounce a judgement that will have the legal fraternity squirming in their chairs for years.
The court then went even further with an oversight role in the National Accountability Court hearings, which finally led to not only the removal of the prime minister, but also a decision to bar him from ever holding any public office because he was not ‘ameen’. In a South Asia brimming over with corrupt businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, police and probably just about everyone else, that is as ridiculous as it gets.
But that was not all. The whole trial, and the nine volumes (not the tenth) were put out into the public to be discussed and analysed in the media and elsewhere. The huge wealth of the Sharifs – whether properly or improperly amassed – was there for all to see. That was a master stroke in a country where any government report is usually covered up with some much of bureaucratese as to make it completely unavailable.
The third phase of rigging followed from that. This was the systematic browbeating of the media. Individual and courageous journalists like Taha Siddiqui were beaten up and forced to leave the country. Journalist Gul Bukhari was kidnapped and held for several hours. Distribution of one of the oldest newspapers in the country the “ Dawn’ was disrupted after it published an interview with Nawaz Sharif (May 2018) where he virtually accused the military of shielding militants who had carried out the Mumbai attack.
Earlier on April 1, Geo TV was taken off the air, and remained so for a month until talks between the establishment and the network’s chiefs was reported to have made a clear red line which the channel would not cross. Pakistani columnists critical of the witch hunt or the military, found their articles rejected, and had to resort to publishing them on Twitter. Worse was to follow. A senior military official identified several columnists and political personalities as enemies of national security . This was followed thereafter by a concerted attack on these people on social media.
Pakistan watchers can testify to the fact that the election campaign was almost entirely fought on internal issues with foreign policy almost absent in TV discussions or on the corner political meetings. A study of party manifestos also indicated that few parties paid much attention even to India and the Kashmir issue, with this occupying no more than a few lines, in contrast to reams of details on power, infrastructure and welfare.
Yet a week prior to elections, scholars like Ashok Behuria from the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, noticed that the visual prime time media was focusing increasingly on India related issues. This included Sharif’s alleged money laundering of $4.9 billion in India – this despite a categorical rejection by the State Bank of Pakistan of any such outflow – the raking up of the alleged spying case of Kubushan Jadhav, the visit of Indian tycoon Sajjan Jindal to Pakistan a year earlier in what was alleged to be a “secret mission” , and a series of accusations that India was behind the election violence in the country.
In sum, Nawaz Sharif was made out to have betrayed Pakistan and its people. Such a targeted campaign, without any immediate event justifying such a tirade, would inevitably had had a considerable effect on voters, particularly those in the undecided category – who according to reliable Pakistani polls stood at about 13 per cent.
As of the time of writing, the process of government formation also seems to be getting some not so subtle dis-prods. Former President Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur were summoned again in a Rs 35 billion money laundering case by the Federal Investigation Agency, just a day after the election results had been fully announced. The threat of possible incarceration will inevitably affect any decisions on creating a “democratic alliance” with the PML-N that had been in the air earlier.
In sum, the rigging has been systematically done, with almost military precision, over a period of time to get the desired result. Elections themselves are notoriously difficult to rig – particularly when there are not just foreign observers, but a multitude of media sources hawk eyed for any sign of interference. Rigging of an election was not an easy exercise even when the military was in power.
In 2002, General Pervez Musharraf tried to install a government under the PML-Quaid led by Shujaat Hussain to legitimise his take over. That exercise was a disaster, and did more harm to the military government than otherwise.
The military has, however, more than learnt its lessons. There is hardly any direct khaki role evident in the present exercise, and the army was hardly to be seen anywhere barring on election day. Admittedly, the huge wealth amassed by mainstream, politicians helped the military immeasurably in creating its “corruption” narrative.
Even those outside the country were shocked at the extent of the Sharif fortune. Generating sympathy for a “victim” who was so fabulously wealthy would have been difficult even in Pakistan. It may be argued that by getting the entrenched and corrupt political elite out, the military may have actually done a great service to the country. That view requires that Imran Khan actually live up to his promises and throw out all those corrupt “electables” whom he has brought into his party. But that’s not going to happen at anytime. As the real philosophers would say, “Alea Jacta Est”, or the die is cast. Time for the next political war.
Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS.