As Pakistan prepares for its general election on February 8, the military’s traditional shadow casts a dark shadow over the proceedings, despite retired Pakistani army general Qamar Javed Bajwa’s promise that the army would refrain from participating democratic elections in future.
General Bajwa assurance appears to have evaporated. As Pakistan prepares for its February 8 general election, the military’s traditional shadow hangs over the proceedings.
Observers have expressed worries about the fairness of the polls, with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan denied its election symbol, several of its officials — including Khan — imprisoned, and numerous others hiding. The party’s members must run as independent candidates.
Journalists have spoken about the military’s censorship, particularly in reporting on Khan and the PTI. And there isn’t much of the celebratory energy that usually comes with the campaign season.
At the heart of this subdued political climate is the military’s profound impact on politics, which has seen it rule Pakistan directly for more than three decades while holding the levers of power from behind the scenes for the majority of the country’s 77 years of independence.
It’s a stranglehold that has resulted in a democracy in which no prime minister has ever served for more than five years, but three out of four military dictators have ruled for more than nine years.
As Pakistan votes in its 12th general election, one question dominates, according to senior politicians and analysts: Can the country of 241 million people correct the civilian-military imbalance that has many detractors calling the latest vote a farce?
According to Asad Umar, a former federal minister and retired politician who was once linked with the PTI, the military’s dominance over the country’s institutions stems from the war against India in 1948, just a year after independence.
Then, just a decade later, the army head, General Ayub Khan, grabbed power in a coup and declared martial law for the first time in the country. Since then, the military has routinely gotten more funding than any other government agency.
Pakistan, being a nascent nation, faced economic challenges in its early years. Only the military was immune, providing it an unrivalled advantage in society.
The general election was originally set for November, but was postponed after the Election Commission of Pakistan stated that additional time was required to draw up the boundaries of new constituencies following the 2023 census.
And while 2013 was the first peaceful transition of power between two elected governments in Pakistan, several seasoned figures blamed politicians for being “too eager” to cooperate with the military.
The 2013 elections saw the passing of the government baton from the PPP to the PMLN, as well as the rise of the PTI, lead by the charismatic Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar, philanthropist, and burgeoning political power who rode a wave of popularity with his accountability mantra.
The PTI’s support grew during the next five years as Imran Khan targeted corruption inside the PMLN, while the schism between the military and the government widened.
When Imran Khan won in 2018, critics claimed he was handpicked by the military to replace Sharif, who was first disqualified from the premiership in 2017 for not being “honest and truthful” and was sentenced to jail on corruption charges in July 2018, just days before the elections. His daughter was also arrested, and his party faced a crackdown.
However, tensions between Imran Khan and the military escalated over time. He and his government were driven from office in April 2022 following a legislative vote of no confidence, which Khan claims was orchestrated by the military as part of a US-led conspiracy, charges that both Washington and the army dispute.
Imran Khan and his party have endured a level of persecution unprecedented in many prior rounds of the political roulette that defines the military’s relationship with civilian politicians.
Khan has survived an assassination attempt and has been in prison since August on charges of corruption and disclosing state secrets, which he claims are politically motivated.
Khan and his party have also faced a crackdown by state authorities since May 9, when the PTI leader was arrested in an Islamabad court.
Despite his release from jail in less than 48 hours, his fans went on a rampage across the country, rioting and assaulting government buildings and military facilities.
On Tuesday, a Pakistani court sentenced Imran Khan to ten years in prison for allegedly leaking state secrets, the heaviest sentence the popular former prime minister and cricket superstar has ever gotten and one delivered just days before a general election.
The special court convicted Khan, 71, of making public the contents of a secret cable from Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington to the Islamabad government, according to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. In the same case, former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi received a 10-year term.
Khan was previously convicted to three years in a corruption case in August, ruling him out of the Feb. 8 election.
The court will most likely deliver a written decision within a day or two. Khan’s PTI party announced that it would contest the ruling.
Khan aide Zulfikar Bukhari told Reuters that the legal team was not given the opportunity to represent Khan or cross-examine witnesses. The proceedings took place in Rawalpindi’s maximum-security Adiala jail.
Another of Khan’s lawyers, Ali Zafar, told ARY television that given the conditions of the trial and sentencing, the chances of the case being overturned on appeal were “100%”.
Bukhari described Khan’s conviction as a ploy to undercut his support. “People will now make sure they come out and vote in larger numbers,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Khan’s legal team had hoped to get him released from jail, where he has been since August of last year, but the recent conviction makes that difficult, even while the charges are fought in a higher court.