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Elections in Pakistan- the Mirage of Democracy


General elections are slated to take place in Pakistan on 8 February 2024 to choose the members of the 16th National Assembly. The two major political parties participating are the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Political History

Pakistan's political history is complex and marked by periods of democratic rule, military interventions, and transitions between civilian governments.

Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947, and since then, it has experienced a series of general elections. The first general elections were held in 1954, but the political landscape was tumultuous, marked by power struggles and military interventions. 

The country experienced its first martial law in 1958. General Ayub Khan took control after a coup in 1958. During his rule, limited political activities were allowed, and elections were held in 1962 under a controlled environment. However, growing discontent with Ayub Khan's regime eventually led to protests and his resignation in 1969. 

The 1970 general elections were significant, leading to the emergence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League as the majority party in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in West Pakistan. However, the failure to address regional disparities and political differences resulted in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh. 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the President of Pakistan in 1971, and in 1973, the country adopted a new constitution, marking the return to civilian rule. 

General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, citing corruption and mismanagement. Zia ruled until his death in 1988. During this period, elections were held in 1985, but they were non-party based and aimed at consolidating Zia's power. After Zia's death, the 1988 elections marked the return of civilian rule. 

Benazir Bhutto became the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country, serving as Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), also served as Prime Minister during this period. Both leaders faced challenges, including corruption allegations and dismissals from office. 

General Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999, leading to a period of military rule. Elections were eventually held in 2002, with Musharraf remaining in power until 2008.

Following Musharraf's resignation in 2008, Pakistan transitioned back to civilian rule. Elections were held, and the PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, formed the government. Subsequent elections in 2013 brought Nawaz Sharif back to power. However, his tenure was marred by corruption allegations, and he was disqualified in 2017. 

Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the 2018 elections, making him the Prime Minister.

Election Data

The area of Pakistan is around 881,913 square kilometers, slightly less than the combined areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra of India. The population of Pakistan is over 230 million around the combined population of Uttar Pradesh and National Capital Region (NCR), again of India. 

Punjab is located in the eastern part of the country, and is the most populous province. Lahore is its provincial capital. Sindh, situated in the southern part of Pakistan, has Karachi as its capital. It is an important economic and cultural hub. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province is in the northwestern part of the country and Peshawar serves as its capital. Balochistan in the southwestern part of Pakistan is the largest province by land area. Quetta is its provincial capital. Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, is a federally administered territory and serves as the seat of the federal government. Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) is the self-governing administrative region is located in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. Muzaffarabad is its capital. Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is situated in the northern part of Pakistan, and is an autonomous region. Gilgit serves as its capital. 

Each province and territory has its own government with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The political system is parliamentary, with a National Assembly at the federal level and provincial assemblies at the provincial level. The country operates under a federal structure, and each province has a certain degree of autonomy in managing its affairs within the framework of the constitution. 

Past Voter Turnout rates have ranged from around 40% to 56% in different elections. The official voter turnout for the 2018 general elections was around 56%. The voter turnout for the 2013 general elections was approximately 55%. In the 2008 general elections, the voter turnout was about 44%.

Military Interventions and Coups in Pakistan's Political Landscape

The intricate dynamics between the military and civilian authorities have long shaped the political trajectory of Pakistan. General Ayub Khan's ascension to power through a military coup in 1958 marked a turning point, as he suspended the constitution and dissolved the government. His rule, lasted until 1969, ushered political activities within military-defined parameters.

In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq orchestrated another coup, toppling Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto amidst civil unrest and election rigging allegations. Zia-ul-Haq imposed martial law, suspended the constitution, and executed Bhutto in 1979. The subsequent "partyless" democracy introduced in 1985, with no participation allowed from political parties, was a strategic move to exert military control over the political process. 

General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, citing corruption and mismanagement as justifications for the coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf's rule, lasting until 2008, featured a controversial 2002 referendum to extend his presidency and manipulated elections that favored the military. His resignation in 2008 paved the way for a return to civilian rule, with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani ensuring a smooth transition as the new Chief of Army Staff. 

Despite subsequent elections in 2013 and 2018 being officially civilian-led, debates surrounding military interference persisted. Allegations of behind-the-scenes manipulation and influence on certain political factions fueled controversy and speculation. The military's role in Pakistani politics remained a contentious topic, underscoring the ongoing struggle for a balance between civilian governance and military influence.

Present Elections

PML-N traditionally strong in the province of Punjab, which is the most populous province in Pakistan. The party has a significant following among Punjabi-speaking people and has historically performed well in urban and rural areas of Punjab. Nawaz Sharif, the party's leader, has a strong political presence in Punjab and has served as the Chief Minister of Punjab multiple times.

PPP historically is strong in the province of Sindh, particularly among the Sindhi-speaking population. The party has a strong support base in rural Sindh, but it also has a presence in urban areas, including Karachi. The PPP has a historical connection with the Bhutto family, and this family connection has contributed to the party's popularity in certain areas.

In December 2023, Imran Khan (founded PTI in 1996), was disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for a five-year period from holding any public office, following the Toshakhana case verdict. He was found guilty of corrupt practices under Section 167 of the Elections Act, 2017. Currently, he is incarcerated at Adiala Jail, and PTI has been stripped of its political symbol by the Election Commission of Pakistan and thus barred from contesting elections. Despite the setback, Khan maintains that he enjoys substantial public support and alleges discrimination due to his adoption of an anti-military stance. PTI gained support from a diverse range of demographics. Initially, it attracted a significant following among the urban middle class and educated youth. Imran Khan's appeal as a charismatic and popular figure, along with his focus on anti-corruption and good governance, resonated with many people who were disillusioned with the existing political parties. Over time, PTI has expanded its support base to include a broader spectrum of voters, reaching into both urban and rural areas. It has garnered support from various segments of the population, including professionals, young voters, and individuals who were dissatisfied with the mainstream political parties.

Opting for Conflict at the Expense of Progress

The present Chief of Army Staff, General Syed Asim Munir, has held this position since November 29, 2022. Asim Munir has been a polarizing figure, with some applauding his actions such as cracking down on dollar hoarding and smuggling, contributing to the setting up of the Special Investment Facilitation Council, and strengthening the Pakistani rupee. However, he has been accused of intervening in civil politics and suppressing the PTI political movement led by Imran Khan. He allegedly used military courts for civilians following the arrest of Imran Khan on corruption allegations.

In May 2023, demonstrators in Pakistan breached the compounds of army commanders in Lahore and Rawalpindi following the arrest of Imran Khan. Supporters of the former prime minister forcefully entered the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Corps Commander's residence in Lahore after his dramatic arrest in a corruption case. Before his arrest, Imran Khan alleged that the Army was responsible for threats against his life and asserted that military leaders were orchestrating ongoing plots against him. Khan, who initially gained leadership in 2018 with the backing of the Army, was removed from office in 2022 after losing that support.

The existing military-dominated structure raises concerns about the potential for free and fair elections. The establishment has a longstanding practice of manipulating the electoral landscape to achieve its desired outcome. This manipulation may involve shaping the candidate pool, coercing or corrupting politicians, directly intervening in the electoral process, or utilizing other means to influence the results.

The military's involvement in political matters, including the alleged suppression of political movements and intervention in civilian politics, raises concerns about the potential impact on the democratic process and the possibility of free and fair elections. Pakistan has consistently allocated a substantial share of its GDP to military spending, hindering its potential for economic development. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) remains limited, while the frequent shifts in government disrupt long-term economic planning. In the context of the Indian subcontinent, the region grapples with rapid population growth, intensifying the strain on resources and posing obstacles to the provision of essential services like education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. The substantial financial commitment to the military in Pakistan diverts vital resources from crucial sectors, including education, healthcare, and infrastructure. 

Who's set to conquer in the General Elections in Pakistan on 08 February 2024?

Well, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), guided by the ever-resilient comeback maestro Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), commanded by the charismatic Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, are locked in a fierce showdown.

What is the secret ingredient to victory? 

The military's blessing, of course! It's not just about votes; it's about who can impress the toughest critics in town – the armed forces! Get ready for the ultimate battle of endorsements and epaulettes!

To be continued...


Published by

Amit Sharma

Proprietor @ ASSA | Leadership, Security Management and Vigilance

Pakistan's 2024 elections are shaping up to be a critical battleground, with concerns about military influence and civil unrest. The dominant parties, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Peoples Party, face off amid allegations of suppression and disqualification. Economic challenges loom with substantial military spending, raising fears of electoral manipulation. As the country navigates its complex political history, success may hinge on securing the military's blessing.

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