In a recent press conference in Islamabad, the Chairman of PTI Imran Khan coined the phrase “democratic dictatorship.” The phrase was pertaining to the current electoral system and political party set up in Pakistan. The phrase struck a chord with me as it is one I myself have been using for a long time to describe the Electoral Commission set up, electoral system governance vis-a-vis the recent Genera Election results which were held on 11 May 2013 to elect the members of the 14th National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Elections were held in all four provinces of Pakistan, Islamabad’s federal capital territory and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The remaining two territories of Pakistan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, were ineligible to vote due to their disputed status.
The 2013 General Election results were tarnished with allegations of systematic vote rigging, corruption and malpractice. According to the Electoral Commission of Pakistan, 86.9 million Pakistanis were registered to vote. Overall, the voter turn-out was 55.02%; the highest since 1970 and 1977 which was on a par with voter turn outs in many Western democracies.
Before the votes had been fully counted, many news channels in Pakistan were announcing that PML (N) had emerged as the largest party. In fact, PML (N) had fell short of acquiring a majority and needed the support of 19 independent candidates who transferred their allegiance to PML-(N) to secure the majority needed to form a government. The results of the election were that PML-(N) acquired 166 seats, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) 42 seats and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) 35 seats. The remaining 99 seats were acquired by multiple smaller and fringe parties. The results did shock the vast majority of Pakistanis as there was a huge popularity surge and drive “tsunami” amongst the youth and many media news channels that suggested that PTI would run PML-(N) very close in terms of winning the election.
The allegations of electoral malpractice, vote rigging and favouritism led to nationwide anti-government marches in 2014 orchestrated in particular by the leader of PTI -Imran Khan and Pakistan Awamee Tehreek (PAT) Dr. Tahir ul Qadri who wished to orchestrate root and branch reforms of the national and provincial assemblies set up, devolution of powers, reaffirming the tenets of the constitution of Pakistan and prime on their wish list was the quest for electoral reforms. With the threat of political and social unrest high on the horizon where the two cited leaders were demanding the resignations of the sitting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Governor of Punjab Shabaz Shareef, their wishes did not come to fruition as the sitting government through astute track 2 diplomacy vis-à-vis the Pakistan Army and power brokers in America were able to stifle any threat of the sitting government being deposed. The anti-government demonstrations which were primarily centred in Islamabad came to an abrupt holt as a result of the tragic Peshawar Attack by militants on an Army Public School on 16 December 2014 claiming the lives of 141 innocent victims.
As a result of the anti-government demonstrations, an Inquiry Commission was set up to investigate the PTI allegations that the 2013 elections were rigged and hence the sitting PM Nawaz Sharif does not have the constitutional legitimacy to be the leader of the nation. The Terms of Reference (TOR) for the Inquiry Commission investigation were not framed in a way to result in a dramatic change of the status quo if it was concluded that the elections were rigged due to the political brokering between the representatives of PTI and PML (N) before the commission was set up.
The three-judge Inquiry Commission rejected PTI allegations of organised rigging during the elections. In its 237-page report, the commission stated that despite some lapses in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) “THE 2013 general elections were in large part organised and conducted fairly and in accordance with the law.”
Whilst acknowledging that the PTI were not unjustified in their demands to have an independent body inquire into allegations and suspicions regarding the 2013 general elections, the commission concluded that any plan or design to manipulate or influence the election systematically could not be proven by any of the parties to the proceedings and nor was this evident from the evidences produced before the commission. The commission also rebutted allegations that there was a plan/ design to influence the outcome of the elections. The commission concluded by stating that:
“When the entire contest of the elections are considered along with the meaning of overall basis, despite some lapses by the ECP it cannot be said on the evidence before the commission that on an overall basis, the elections were not a true and fair reflection of the mandate given by the electorate” TOR 3 (C)
Political analysts would argue that in a ripe democracy like Pakistan that has grappled with periods of civil and military rule, one cannot expect elections to be squeaky clean and an element of malpractice will always be there. Others would argue that the conclusions reached by the commission demonstrates that there were lapses and malpractice in operation during the 2013 general elections and this is simply not acceptable. The notion that whether the malpractice was sufficient to sway the outcome of the overall result is academic as the principle of malpractice was proven to be in operation during the 2013 general election and whether this is “minimal” or “overall” is redundant as the nation cannot afford to have an Election Commission set up, structure and governance model that is willing to justify malpractice so long as it does not fit the definition of “overall” malpractice to sway the final result.
Dictators or Perceptions
Conventionally, within the Pakistani political set up and media discourse the concept of ruling by dictatorship is ascribed to a ruler who is leading the military and at times military/ civilian strata all in one combined office. Hence, the phrase “military dictators” is ascribed to the tenure of Zia ul Haq (1977-1988) and more recently Pervez Musharraf (1999-2001-Chairman Joints Chiefs and Chief of Army Staff- 2002-2002-President of Pakistan) who both ruled Pakistan by assuming their legitimacy within the military hierarchy via the title of Army Chief and thereafter getting it rubber stamped or approved via the wider constitutional options that are available to endorse their remaining tenure as heads of state.
The perception of dictatorial rule via the auspices of the Pakistan Army Chief is a very pertinent one. All be it, when Pervez Musharraf was in office as Army Chief and later President too, he would argue that he embarked on a reform programme of “enlightened moderation” that laid the foundations for Pakistan to open up via a democratic pathway across many platforms such as the expansion of the media in Pakistan from the conventional state backed PTV to the hundreds of private channels that are available now to challenge and or support the sitting government’s positions. There were opportunities for regular question and answer sessions with the media and senior civic society-stakeholders on current policies which would all tie in to the values that are cherished in a democratic society. Despite the initiatives that Pervez Musharraf may have embarked on to open up Pakistan at an economic and political level, initially at the inception of his tenure in office via what is coined as a military coup in 1999; Pakistan had been removed from the Commonwealth of Nations as the impression in the West was the he is a military dictator. Later during his reign, Pervez Musharraf was able to regain the confidence of the international community by Pakistan being re-instated as part of the Commonwealth of nations.
Democrats or Dictators- the two Sharif’s
Coming to the current constitutional and political set up in Pakistan, the current Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has immense popularity amongst the masses in particular for his robust campaign to stifle out terrorist groups and their co-conspirators within Pakistan via initiatives such as the national accountability drive and military campaigns in Pakistan’s tribal areas and regional provinces. Whereas, PM Nawaz Sharif who has astutely been navigating his way towards completing what would be a record two consecutive full parliamentary civilian rule terms for Pakistan with Asif Zardari completing the first full term under the PPP, PM Nawaz Sharif’s popularity and esteem amongst the masses is not held in the same regard as General Raheel Sharif. He is perceived to be an autocratic leader in the way he leads his party and the nation too and his legacy in terms of civil-military relations up until now has not been a good one.
Although ruling a nation, is not in essence about a popularity contest all be it in the current 24/7 media focus it helps, it is about placing the interest of the nation and its people first above individual ulterior aspirations and hence ascribing to the true Burkean representative democracy model.
The current Pakistan Election Commission and governance set up to run national elections demands fundamental reform to stifle the now proven allegations of parties like PTI that electoral malpractices are ripe. The deficiencies and inefficiencies of bodies like the Election Commission allows room for influential political and economic power brokers to apply leverage to sway outcomes and results which is not constitutionally acceptable.
Pakistan’s neighbour India, acquired independence in the same year 1947 but it’s Election Commission is not maligned to the level the Pakistani Election Commission is. Until there is a root and branch reform of Pakistan’s Election Commission and governance of elections so that it operates based on the core tenets of the Pakistan constitution, the assertion that Imran Khan made “democratic dictators” will for many remain vindicated. The notion that the current set up is not giving you democracy in the true form, but facilitating a mechanism that provides a pseudo-democratic apparatus which allows room for key power brokers to then manipulate, orchestrate via its structures to back a preferred candidate/ party and achieve a desired outcome to suite and appease the power brokers and or political masters domestically and internationally. For this assertion to be removed, Pakistan will have to move on the pathway of electoral reform and transparency. For this to transpire, it requires immense political and social will from the key stakeholders and until now it has been lacking or stifled before such a campaign can raise its head above the political parapet.
By Kaleem Hussain
The writer has a background in law, economics & government studies from Warwick University & Warwick Business School, UK. He is a Young Diplomats Forum Member & frequently writes on contemporary domestic and International affairs. He tweets @KaleemHussain20.