Ahead of elections, Pakistan’s democracy stands badly damaged

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan pray for Khan after the Supreme Court ruled that his arrest was illegal, in Peshawar, Pakistan, May 11, 2023. Reuters/Fayaz Aziz
Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan pray for Khan after the Supreme Court ruled that his arrest was illegal, in Peshawar, Pakistan, May 11, 2023. (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general elections next February, a familiar pattern is repeating itself. Ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan sits in jail with 180 legal cases registered against him. Former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has returned from exile with the military’s backing, despite having been convicted and disqualified from running for office for life just a few years ago. The ground is now being prepared for his electoral run as the favored candidate of the establishment (a euphemism for Pakistan’s powerful army).

This is par for the course in Pakistan. In the run-up to the 2018 election which elected Khan prime minister for the first time, the tables were reversed: Sharif was mired in legal troubles, and Khan was the favored candidate.

But what is different this time around is the ferocity with which the state has gone after Khan and his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), almost entirely hollowing it out. After Khan was ousted from power via a vote of no-confidence in April 2022, he directly confronted the military, which he blamed, along with the United States, for his ouster (the underlying reason was, in fact, a falling-out with the military). That unprecedented confrontation devolved into a zero-sum existential fight that, to little surprise, Pakistan’s military is winning. In the process, Pakistan’s democracy stands badly damaged; there is little hope that the next election will be free or fair, if it is held in February at all.

Khan’s legal troubles and the dismantling of PTI

Khan, who remains the country’s most popular politician, has been in jail since August after he was arrested for inappropriately using state gifts (in the Toshakhana, or official gifts case). Although his sentence in that case was suspended a few weeks later, he has been kept under judicial remand for another case, the cipher case. Khan has alleged that the cipher (or diplomatic cable) in question, sent by the Pakistani ambassador to Washington regarding a meeting with a State Department official last spring, was evidence of a U.S. conspiracy to oust him from office.

The Pakistani state has argued that Khan improperly handled that cipher and kept it in his possession, violating the Official Secrets Act (which itself was hurriedly amended this August). Former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a senior leader of Khan’s PTI, is also being held for the cipher case, and the state is using it to sideline Khan completely. The case is proceeding under a jail trial.

Khan was first arrested on May 9, setting off widespread protests, some of which targeted military installations and turned violent. He was released days later, but May 9, termed a “black day” by the Pakistani state, ended up provoking a harsh military crackdown on Khan’s party. Thousands of PTI members, including many young women, were rounded up and arrested.

The state said it would conduct military trials for some May 9 protesters; the Supreme Court knocked that down, but some protesters are still being held in military jails. A prominent pro-Khan journalist went “missing” for several months. Senior PTI leaders faced intense pressure to leave the party and publicly denounce Khan and the events of May 9 — a judge even publicly directed a party official to hold a press conference to that effect as soon as he was released on bail. Nearly all caved in. Those who haven’t done so, like Qureshi, are in jail.

The civil-military scales, always unbalanced, tip further

The coalition that took over after Khan’s ouster in April 2022, an alliance of parties that called itself the Pakistan Democratic Movement, ironically (given its name) presided over a stunning backsliding of the country’s democracy and an expansion of the military’s powers over its 16-month tenure. Its prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif (Nawaz’s brother), was someone who has long been deemed pliant by the establishment.

The process began with the crackdown on Khan and PTI but became broader in scope, with a “slew of hastily passed legislation” that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan deemed “draconian in scope” in the final weeks of the parliamentary term.

Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act was amended to give vast powers to its powerful intelligence agency to conduct raids on the mere suspicion of an offense; the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act of 2023 criminalized criticism of the military and allowed the army to participate in “national development and advancement of national or strategic interest.” The legislation was bulldozed through parliament without debate; Pakistan’s president, Arif Alvi, says he did not sign the bills. The civilian coalition government essentially functioned as an accessory to the military as it passed this legislation.

Given the military’s expanded powers, the army chief has been made a member of the newly created Special Investment Facilitation Council, which is in charge of inviting foreign investment and boosting economic growth. And the Official Secrets Act is being used in the cipher case against Khan.

Since August, a caretaker government has been in charge in the run-up to elections; it is widely seen as appointed by and answerable to the army.

Nawaz 4.0?

After years in London, Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in October with the military’s apparent behind-the-scenes support. Sharif, who had been serving time in prison on a graft conviction, left for London in 2019 to seek medical help and didn’t return to Pakistan. He had fallen out with the military in 2016 while serving as prime minister, and he took on an anti-establishment stance while in exile. That fell by the wayside as his brother Shehbaz became prime minister in April 2022, and it has been shed completely now, as he approaches the upcoming election with the military’s backing.

Perhaps the surest signal of that backing was the fact that upon landing in Pakistan he delivered a speech at a location that bears great political significance in the country, the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. Khan’s political success began with a rally held at the same venue with the establishment’s support in 2011.

While the ground is seemingly being prepared for Sharif’s return as prime minister — his convictions are predictably being overturned by the courts, and politicians from various parties are switching over to his party — it is less clear how he would perform in a free and fair election. Shehbaz’s government was unpopular during his 16-month term — and it was widely seen as being run by Nawaz from London.

The electorate has changed since Nawaz’s last election as prime minister in 2013; more precisely, a significant proportion of voters in his political base of Punjab have moved on from his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, to supporting Khan’s PTI. Pakistan’s demographics have also changed — and increasingly younger, urban, middle-class voters have connected better with Khan than with Pakistan’s original mainstream parties.

An election, free or fair?

Given the extent of pre-poll political engineering that has occurred, there is little hope that Pakistan’s next election will be free or fair. The other question is whether the election will be held on February 8, as has been announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan. The general election has already been delayed once; per the constitution, it was due to be held by November, three months after the parliament’s term expired in August, but it was delayed to allow for redistricting. Two provincial assembly elections that were due to be held by April this year have not been held at all — they have had caretaker governments since early 2023.

The sense in Pakistan is that the election will be held once the establishment has finished sidelining Khan and can be assured that an election will yield its desired outcome of a Sharif victory. The question is whether it can guarantee that (absent election day rigging).

We know that Pakistani voters in rural areas tend to vote for prominent “electables” who can provide patronage — and many of those electables have abandoned Khan’s PTI. Yet the committed PTI voter may vote for whoever runs on a PTI ticket, even without Khan at the helm. Will that prove enough to elect PTI? Or will the establishment quash voter preferences on election day as well? Either way, Pakistan’s democracy is at its lowest ebb since 2008, which marked the end of the last period of military rule under Pervez Musharraf. It is unclear if it will be dismantled even further.

Democratic backsliding and Washington’s silence

Pakistan’s military, which sees itself as the most competent institution in the country, is now at its most powerful position since 2008, holding all decisionmaking reins — including that of political kingmaker — without holding overt power. It is the continuation of an approach that yields short-term stability but has ultimately led to long-term stagnation for Pakistan.

Washington has so far been conspicuously quiet on Pakistan’s democratic backsliding — notable given the importance the Biden administration claims to place on democracy around the world, yet unsurprising given the lack of attention the White House has given Pakistan over the last three years.

Khan’s pointing fingers toward the United States for his ouster hasn’t helped his case, and the Pakistani Army has always been the United States’ preferred partner in the country, over its civilian governments (to the detriment of Pakistan’s democracy). If elections are delayed again, or if election day interference does occur, it will be incumbent upon the Biden administration to finally speak up — but that may prove too little, too late.