Pakistan’s surreal election

.. by Michael Kugelman

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Years from now, Pakistan’s 2024 election—which happens Thursday—will be looked back on as a grim reminder that history can be both tragedy and farce at the same time.

First, the farce. Pakistani officials are going out of their way to depict as wholly normal an election with a wildly distorted playing field, thanks to a relentless crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, one of the largest and most popular in the country.

Authorities promise free, transparent, and peaceful elections. They’re hosting more than 100 foreign election observers and offering an “open door policy” for international election monitors. They speak of the 260 million ballot papers that have been printed—that’s 2,170 tons of paper for those keeping score at home—and delivered, by road and air, to the country’s 859 voting constituencies. “Now,” proclaimed Anwar ul Haq Kakar, head of the caretaker government charged with preparing the country for elections, on Tuesday, “it is the turn of the people of Pakistan to exercise their democratic right to vote.”

But the franchise of Pakistan’s 128 million eligible voters needs a big asterisk. The PTI isn’t banned, but court rulings have deprived the party of its cricket-bat electoral symbol, a major blow in a nation with a 40% percent illiteracy rate, and it can only field candidates as independents. Meanwhile, many top party leaders have been jailed, or pressured to switch parties or quit politics altogether. Others have gone underground. Khan has been imprisoned since August and was given three prison sentences, totaling 24 years, in the last week alone. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of PTI supporters have been jailed. Authorities have broken up street rallies they’ve tried to hold, and internet services have been disrupted when they convene activities online.

With PTI having been severely cut down to size, there’s little intrigue about the electoral outcome. The center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is heavily favored to form the next government. But herein lies another aspect of the electoral farce. PML-N is led by Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former Prime Minister, and a top candidate to be Pakistan’s next premier. He’s also widely believed to be a preferred candidate of Pakistan’s powerful military. When Sharif, saddled with serious corruption charges, returned to Pakistan from four years of self-imposed exile in London last October, he magically avoided arrest and had many of his charges melt away. That can’t happen without military support.

But Sharif is no true friend of the military. Like many top Pakistani politicians, he rose to prominence with its backing, only to fall out with it multiple times during his previous periods in power. If the military pushes for Sharif to head the next government, it could be setting itself up for a fresh battle with a leader who has often refused to be the pliant premier that it prefers. That seems a strange, and potentially destabilizing, move for a military that’s emphasized the importance of prioritizing economic recovery in a country plagued with major foreign debt and a 24% inflation rate.

But then again, the military once viewed Khan as a favorite son, before falling out with him in catastrophic fashion in a dispute over the appointment of the head of the country’s intelligence agency. Khan became a Frankenstein’s monster for the military. But now it’s seemingly once again betting on the wrong horse, banking on Sharif’s extensive experience to help the country right its economic ship. That’s even as his past record, marked by sharp disagreements with the army—which in one case led to his removal in a coup and in another resulted in his disqualification from public office—suggests stormy seas ahead for civil-military relations. More political turmoil could imperil the economic stabilization that Pakistan so desperately needs.

And this brings us to Pakistan’s election as tragedy. It’s a sadly apt term, and not just because of the deadly election related-violence in recent days, including two attacks in Balochistan province on Wednesday that killed at least 22 people. The country is experiencing one of its darkest periods in decades. There’s the resurgent terrorism, severe economic stress, worsening border tensions with Iran and Afghanistan, increasingly destructive climate change effects as seen during thee catastrophic floods of 2022, and, not surprisingly, record levels of public skepticism about the government’s capacity to fix all these problems. There’s never been a more critical moment for a credible election. And yet, it will likely be more farcical than free and fair.

In this Pakistani tragedy, there are no heroes. Not the military and its allied political parties that have waged repressive campaigns against the PTI. Not the courts that have caved in to their pressure. And for that matter not Khan, who could have kept a low profile after his ouster and simply focused on preparing for elections, rather than making incendiary statements against the military and baselessly accusing the U.S., a critical Pakistani trade partner, of helping orchestrate his ouster. To be sure, that’s not in Khan’s nature. But his decision to indulge a personal vendetta and escalate his confrontation with the military is part of the reason why Pakistan is in the precarious political position it is today.

To its credit, the PTI has refused to give up. It’s fielding independent candidates, and using all manner of tactics—social media messaging, video screens hooked up in the middle of town squares, even AI-driven jailhouse speeches from Khan—to get people to vote. And yet, it’s investing so much energy and resources into an effort that—barring an electoral miracle—is seemingly destined to fail, which will only sharpen the grievances of an already-angry PTI base. And that, much like the election that the PTI so badly wants to win, is both tragedy and farce.  ..  Source

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