One of the potential paradoxes of the elections taking place in Pakistan today is that regardless of who is the winner the Army’s image and reputation seems to be a clear loser. Its intimidation of politicians and journalists and its enormous power to manipulate the electoral outcome has been recognised and adversely noted across the country. As scholar Ahmed Rashid puts it: “For the first time, not just the elite, but the public is aware of the Army’s major role. It’s now talked about at the village level.”
The story of the Pakistani military’s interference in the nation’s politics is not new. It stretches back to independence. However, the recent episode arguably began with the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister followed by his debarment from politics and leading to his arrest and imprisonment.
After the election was called, Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission reported that the military’s security agencies put pressure on Nawaz Sharif’s candidates to switch loyalties and return their tickets. Alongside the Pakistan People’s Party and Awami Party candidates, they have been harassed, their movements monitored and restricted and their electoral banners removed. The BBC says nearly 17,000 of his party members face criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules.
Working with the judiciary, which played a key role in eliminating Nawaz Sharif’s electoral prospects, the Army also ensured that extremist outfits under new aliases and identities could contest. Some 200 Lashkar-e-Tayyaba candidates are in the field. Ironically, they were given permission to stand just after Pakistan was placed on the watchlist of the Financial Action Task Force.
Today, as people cast their votes, some 371,000 troops will be deployed both outside and inside polling stations. They’ve been assigned magistrate powers to hold on-the-spot trials of anyone accused of breaking the laws and, thereafter, to sentence them. As Ahmed Rashid said: “The real power appears to rest with Pakistan’s military and the judiciary, which sees undiluted democracy as a threat.”
The Human Rights Commission chairman, Mehdi Hasan, calls this “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections”. He says “there are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy — with alarming implications for Pakistan’s transition to an effective democracy”.
Side by side with this sorry story is the disturbing saga of what has progressively happened to those parts of the Pakistani media that have the courage to speak out and criticise. The Human Rights Commission says they’ve been “subject to censorship, intimidation, harassment and abduction”. Hameed Haroon, the chief executive of Dawn, says: “Our hawkers are being stopped, they are being threatened, they have had their newspapers removed.” The group’s well-known news channel was shifted by Islamabad’s main cable network from the number 9 to number 28 slot. Consequently, many can no longer find or see it. In addition to losing viewership, it’s losing advertising revenue.
Munizae Jahangir, an Aaj TV anchor who travelled with Mr Sharif on his return from London, was threatened by security and intelligence operatives when she filmed the former PM being taken off the plane. “Do you want to see our hospitality?” one official said, according to London’s Sunday Times, as he took his gun out of his pocket.
“Self-censorship is the new norm”, according to Raza Rumi, editor of the Daily Times. He says its “unwritten, unstated ... all very subtle and carefully orchestrated”. Leading columnists have had their columns dropped; TV stations have introduced a 90-second delay to beep out anything sensitive. For the first time after 31 years of reporting on Pakistan, Sunday Times’ chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb was denied a visa.
Haroon, who is also president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, accused the Pakistani military in a BBC Hard Talk interview of an “unprecedented assault” on press freedom.
Last week, an Islamabad high court judge, Shaukat Siddiqui, publicly said the military’s ISI was putting pressure on the Chief Justice and other judges for favourable verdicts in different cases. “Today the judiciary and the media have come in the control of the ‘bandookwala’. Judiciary is not independent. Even the media is getting directions from the military. The media is not speaking the truth because it’s under pressure,” he said. Siddiqui claimed the ISI has formed judicial benches of its choice to get the desired results. He says it asked the Chief Justice to ensure Nawaz and Maryam Sharif were denied bail until the elections were over. He also claims the National Accountability Court, which is trying corruption cases, is required to report to the ISI every evening.
In the circumstances it’s hard to resist the conclusion of outspoken former senator Farhatullah Babar: “A creeping coup has taken place against the authority of the civilian government. It is different from the martial law of the past, with two resulting outcomes — the civilian government exists, but has no authority; press freedom exists, but journalists have no freedom.” Clearly discernible behind this is the iron hand of the military. Its velvet glove has worn very thin.