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Islamist Politics and Controlled Elections in Pakistan

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Islamist Politics and Controlled Elections in Pakistan
Satish Kumar*

Elections in Pakistan on May 11 are imbued with significance much beyond the mere fact that they are being held after the National Assembly has for the first time completed its full term. While that is an important milestone in Pakistan’s political history given its record of military interventions and discontinuous democracy, the last five years have also seen a deep penetration of Islamist ideas and actors in the society and politics of Pakistan.
    By no stretch of imagination can these elections be regarded as free and fair. So much has been the impact of the hardline Islamists on the entire process of elections that even the Supreme Court and the army seem to have been swayed by it. The end result may very well be that most of the candidates who would be elected to the assemblies at the center and the provinces will be supporters of the Sharia based Islamic rule even if they carry the badge of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) or Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), and of course Jamiat–ul-Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) and similar other parties. What we might witness therefore will be the first major step towards capture of state power by Islamists by means which appear to be democratic but actually are not.
    Why is it these elections cannot be regarded as free and fair. The most significant fact is that in the entire process of these elections from the scrutiny of nomination papers to the holding of election rallies, the invisible hand of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was always felt. It was shocking to see the nomination papers of candidates being rejected merely on the ground that they were not well versed in the teachings of Islam and were not practising Islam in their personal lives. Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution mention these requirements among the qualifications of intending candidates. But these were not enforced in 2008 or the previous elections.
    In this respect, the comment of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on April 6 is telling: “The completely arbitrary barring of candidates by returning officers at this scale cannot be without instructions…. This deliberate and planned abuse of the process appears to be a bid to complete Zia-ul-Haq’s agenda to accommodate extremism into mainstream politics and to thrust theocratic rule down people’s throats.”
    It seems the Supreme Court of Pakistan too allowed itself to come under the pressure of Islamists while performing its role of “watching” the election process. Barrister Zafrullah Khan, a very senior advocate of the Supreme Court said on April 7: “There was a constant pressure of the Supreme Court on the RO’s to grill politicians on the basis of articles 62 and 63 of the constitution which has led to this aggressive questioning.”
    But the brazenly visible hand of the TTP in the election process was manifest in the form of open proclamations by them that they will attack the candidates and election rallies of a certain set of parties which they have chosen to describe as “secular”. These parties include the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). If the TTP has to achieve its objective of capturing state power to establish a Sharia-based rule, these “secular” parties will stand in the way whereas PML-N, PTI and most others can be easily coopted.
    Workers of ANP have been constantly under attack in the last five years. 750 of them were killed by the militants in this period. The top leadership of the party feels crippled by threats to their lives and loss of workers. The TTP attacks on MQM have claimed more than 70 lives since April 11, including two candidates. The May 2 bomb blast on their Karachi office was the 42nd such attack. The top leadership of the PPP is virtually dysfunctional as far as electioneering is concerned. April 4, the martyrdom day of Zukfikar Ali Bhutto was billed to be the occasion for a massive rally at Garhi Khuda Baksh. Zardari and Bilawal decided to cancel it for security reasons and instead held a closed door midnight meeting at which the media persons were the main audience.
     Islamist clouds on the Pakistan horizon can be easily seen if we examine the reasons why the militants are reigning supreme. The first reason is that neither the civilian caretaker government nor the army is preventing the militants from what they want to do. The Interior Ministry said that the attacks were being patronised from Afghanistan. The army has been quietly watching the incapacitation of the “secular” parties. A section in the army seems to be sympathetic to the militants’ goals.
     The second reason is that other mainstream parties are not condemning these attacks at all. Nawaz Sharif has been criticized for being soft on the militants. When asked to comment on these attacks, he said, “It is very unfortunate. I have extended my sympathies to the victims.” Maulana Fazlur Rehman of JUI-F said that terrorism should be tackled through political means, not use of force. Imran Khan has condoned these attacks by keeping quiet.
    Why is it these elections might prove to be the first step in the slow march towards an Islamist rule in Pakistan. A look at the election manifestoes of major political parties would throw some light. Given the fact that anti-state militancy was the most serious internal security threat in the last five years, one would have expected these parties to spell out their strategies to wipe out militancy if they come to power. The PML (N) manifesto merely says that “neither militancy nor terrorism can be countered by mere use of force”. Giving it a long haul, it says that what is needed is “a well thought out, comprehensive and sustainable plan”. The PTI manifesto merely talks of eliminating terrorism without linking it to religious extremism and without saying ‘how’.
    It is only the PPP manifesto which promises to “build political consensus for a comprehensive strategy to de-radicalise society and deny space to terrorists, and implement a series of coordinated measures to guarantee that extremism is wiped out once and for all”. But the PPP has not been provided a level playing field to contest elections.
     In the last few weeks the three major components of power structure that is likely to emerge after the elections, namely Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf and the army of Pakistan have been found to be pandering to the wishes of the Taliban leadership. Nawaz Sharif’s softness towards the Taliban has been mentioned earlier. Imran Khan, while addressing a rally in Mianwali on April 30, said he would unite the entire nation in the name of Allah. On May 2, he reiterated that he would make Pakistan a real Islamic welfare state. The army chief General Kayani addressing the military academy at Kakul said on April 21 that Pakistan is Islam and Islam is Pakistan. Islam he said is the unifying force in Pakistan.
     These developments need to be looked at in the larger geopolitical context. In post-2014 Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are likely to play a dominant role. The Pakistan army and ISI have invested a lot in supporting the Afghan Taliban in the last ten years. Now that the victory is near, it would be useful for Pakistani establishment to have an elected government which would fully support and sustain its Afghanistan strategy. A pro-Taliban government in Pakistan and a Taliban dominated government in Afghanistan will not be a scenario good for India. Whether it will be good for Pakistan remains to be seen.

*The author is Editor, India’s National Security Annual Review and former Professor of Diplomacy at JNU, New Delhi.



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India's National Security
Annual Review 2018
Edited by Satish Kumar

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