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Military Might: Pakistan’s Continued Struggle with Democracy

Syeda Munnaza lives in Pakistan, in the bustling Lahore locality of Iqbal Town. There, she runs the Mehmod Hamid Welfare Memorial Society, a nonprofit that provides skills based employment training to locals, especially women and girls.

Munnaza’s house is divided on the political front: her three children, ranging in age from fifteen to twenty five, are huge fans of the new prime minister, Imran Khan. Munnaza herself is a loyal supporter of the former premier, Nawaz Sharif, and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN). Ask her about the July 2018 election, and she’ll tell you it was entirely rigged in favor of Khan.

Nawaz Sharif’s career has been a tumultuous one since he first appeared on Pakistan’s political scene in the 1990s; he has served as prime minister three times without ever completing a full term. Most recently, in July 2017, Sharif resigned from his post after being declared unfit for office by the Supreme Court due to corruption scandals. Subsequently, the country voted overwhelmingly for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and PTI’s Chairman, Imran Khan, became Prime Minister. Khan ran on anti-establishment and vehemently anti-corruption rhetoric.

Sarah Khan, a postgraduate associate at the Yale Macmillan Center and researcher on gender and politics in South Asia, told The Politic, “The demographic pool of PTI supporters tends to be more educated, more on the higher end of the income spectrum, and also younger…but what we’ve seen in 2018 is a broader support for the PTI.”

Fahd Humayun, a PhD candidate at Yale, studies political behavior and regimes. He says this broader national support stemmed from Khan’s ability to portray himself as “an anti-status quo force—someone to be reckoned with”—while also focusing on the same issues that Sharif “had traditionally focused on.”

Humayun added, “Imran Khan’s not a new addition on Pakistan’s political landscape. He’s been around since the 1990s.” What made him an appealing “outsider,” however, is that he was a viable third option to a public increasingly weary with the country’s two other major political parties, the PMLN and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

While many are hopeful that Prime Minister Khan will follow through on his pledge to deliver a “New Pakistan,” one with welfare programs, a thriving economy, and an improved reputation on the international stage, others remain skeptical.

In an interview with The Politic, Munnaza said, in Urdu, that her kids “find establishment politicians to be foolish, uneducated, [and] problematic.”

She remains unconvinced by their argument, saying she voted for the PMLN because of “all the work” Sharif has “done for the people” in Lahore; she cited renovations and technological upgrades at government hospitals and improvements to the city’s education system. Munnaza isn’t alone in feeling indebted to Sharif and his party; the PMLN won 61 in the National Assembly, out of a total 272—corruption scandals and all. They came in second to the PTI.

“[I] would never say that I am going to stick with Nawaz Sharif and his party no matter what. If Imran Khan…wanted to do anything [for us], or if he was capable of it, then we would welcome change. But the way by which he came to power was extremely wrong,” Munnaza said.

She says that in a country like Pakistan, where corruption is a widespread problem, she doesn’t understand why Sharif’s particular case was pursued so rigorously.

In 2017, Sharif was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court after the Panama Papers showed his family’s ties to undisclosed properties abroad and offshore accounts. Sharif and his daughter were convicted on corruption related charges and received lengthy prison sentences just weeks before the 2018 elections.

Munnaza is doubtful that democratic institutions alone were responsible for the corruption crackdown and suspects election interference.

Niloufer Siddiqui GRD ‘17 is an assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York-Albany and a researcher in political violence in Pakistan. Siddiqui said, “People will ask whether or not elections are free and fair in Pakistan. Polling day rigging is very unlikely. Nobody is changing people’s votes at the booth.” But “pre-poll rigging” is an issue.

Sarah Khan explains that pre-poll rigging is when the military engages in “controlling the environment and distribution of information that allows voters to make informed decisions.”

Siddiqui told The Politic, “All the cases that churned out against Nawaz Sharif are likely to have been influenced by the military. In fact, the tribunal that found him guilty had two military members [on it]…”

She added, “… a series of steps were taken that ensured that he would no longer be a key player. All of this happened within weeks of the election.”

Khan and his supporters have celebrated Sharif’s ousting and arrest as an indication of the start of a new era in Pakistani politics where powerful people will be held accountable.

The consensus among sources who spoke to The Politic is that Sharif lost favor with the military establishment by taking control over foreign policy. In 2013, he told an audience at the US Institute of Peace that trying to improve Pakistan’s relationship with India was one of his “favorite subjects.” In December 2015, Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Sharif’s private residence in Raiwind. This was the first time an Indian premier had visited Pakistan in more than a decade.

Siddiqui told The Politic that because foreign policy had historically been “under the military sphere of influence,” they felt Sharif had “overstepped.”

It is less clear, however, why the military chose to support Khan. His campaign centered around radically transforming most every aspect of governance–including Pakistan’s international relations. In December 2018, Prime Minister Khan told The Washington Post that Pakistan would not be the United States’ “hired gun” anymore.

Sarah Khan told The Politic, “It is…a bit of a puzzle as to why they would support Imran Khan, who is known to be perhaps stubborn or volatile…” On the other hand, she believes it makes sense that the military tried to support the “party that was already electorally viable,” something the PTI “very much was.”

Military intervention took on a few different forms, including restricting freedom of the press. For years, there has been pressure for Pakistani journalists to self-censor to please the military establishment.

During the 2018 campaign, Humayun says Khan received more TV time and more coverage by major national newspapers like Dawn News. In June 2018, Gul Bukhari, a columnist for The Nation and a prominent critic of the military, was abducted and held for four hours in a military cantonment in Lahore. She credits the public outcry on social media for her relatively prompt release.

Matiullah Jan, another critic of the military apparatus and former anchor on Waqt News, had his car’s windshield pelted with large rocks by motorcyclists in 2017. Jan called it a “pre-planned attack.”

Some also allege that the military called on popular politicians—or “electables”—from other parties to run under the PTI ticket. Lobbying for electables is a common strategic move in Pakistan to win in constituencies where voters show more loyalty to an individual than a party.

Siddiqui told The Politic, “My interviews with people that I know…seem to suggest that a lot of people were getting phone calls, again from the powers that be, to switch their support to the PTI.”

During the general elections, 46 electable candidates ran under the PTI ticket and 23 of them won their seats; most of the winners represent areas within the PMLN stronghold of Punjab. Khan said candidates joined the PTI because the other parties had failed to deliver.

It’s important to remember that Khan enjoyed a great deal of popular support from people like Munnaza’s children, who were inspired by his message of reform and progress.

Since 2013, his party has governed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) through a coalition with religious parties. In 2018, the PTI won a historic re-election and majority in the province, where incumbents are generally voted out. Siddiqui believes this “kind of indicates the PTI is doing something right.”

Now, as Prime Minister, Khan has to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic welfare state,” as he said he would, while dealing with the country’s perilous economic crisis. The crisis is driven by a national account deficit in the billions, making it virtually impossible for Khan to run the government without foreign loans from sources like Saudi Arabia and China. He has yet to reach a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Munnaza wants to see economic relief and political progress, even though she doubts Khan’s ability to enact real change; “The poor people here aren’t constructing homes, or driving cars, or sending their kids to prestigious schools; they are working hard just to buy their flour and sugar.”

Munnaza believes, at the end of the day, Sharif and Khan don’t matter. What matters is helping the country’s poor afford a dignified life. For the good of the people she works with, she’s praying for Khan’s success.