Memories of a "Free and Fair" Election in Pakistan

Looking forward to next Monday’s elections in Pakistan, my thoughts go back to the 1970 elections, when I helped PTV cover the elections in “real time” and reported them directly to the population without any intermediaries. Neither the Election Commission nor the Inter Services Intelligence at that time had the nous to manage the results. In fact, the ISI had predicted that the populist Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would get a bare minimum of seats, as would the Bengali nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan. They predicted a hung parliament that would allow the military dictator General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan free rein to manipulate the system, to his liking. (Shades of what we are hearing these days!) Little did they know what the people of Pakistan would do. Hungry to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free manner since the 1956 elections (that were overturned by a military coup in 1958 and followed by direct or indirect military rule for 12 years), Pakistanis overturned all expectations and predictions.

Some 63 per cent of Pakistan cast their votes on December 7, 1970. The eastern wing chose Mujib, the west chose Bhutto. The East Pakistanis by rights could have ruled the country. But the west, the army, and Bhutto, would have none of that. Civil strife erupted. The military was caught in a bind. And to “save” Pakistan, Yahya let loose a reign of military terror in East Pakistan, in the end losing that province to an Indian invasion. Thus was born Bangladesh. Pakistan has never been the same since.

But those elections in 1970 were a huge shot of adrenalin for the electorate and for us in Pakistan Television news. I recall how we set up a system to gather results from each district and reported them to our central office. As they came in, we announced them from a special election studio in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with a wall-sized chart that listed progressive results for each party by province. We stayed on the air for 29 hours non-stop, sleeping in shifts and then getting on the air again. Shoaib Hashmi, an intellectual from Lahore,  and Ubaidullah Beg, the brilliant mind who was co-host of a popular twenty questions-type of program called Kasauti, anchored the Urdu reportage. I cut in with the English updates. We were on an emotional high, seeing the peoples’ right to select their leaders being exercised in a bold manner. And for the first time, the people of Pakistan believed what we told them from official PTV. They responded warmly.

To help pass the time, I had brought in a book of elephant jokes. We began filling the gaps on air with those jokes. Even translated into Urdu they struck a chord with our audience. We had started getting letters, cards, and parcels with mini-elephants from or viewers while we were still in the midst of our marathon broadcast. They stayed up with us. We were in reporting heaven! I recall coming out of the studio in the middle of the night to see my friend Gareth Gwenlan, standing on the lawn of the TV station waiting for me. Gareth, later famous as the producer of Fawlty Towers and other top BBC shows, had been sent with another colleague to help train us in TV production by the BBC. He said he was watching the reporting of results from his home in distant Islamabad and could not stay away. “I had to be where the excitement was!” he said.

That night’s excitement was repeated with the provincial elections ten days later when we were on the air for another 17 hours non-stop. But it did not last too long after that, as the country slipped into chaos and confusion and street protests led to open rebellion in East Pakistan and then an unnecessary war with India that Pakistan lost. The country wept as our once proud but badly led and misused army surrendered in the Race Course Ground in Dacca on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was never going to be the same again.

Subsequent elections never produced the same vitality and huge turnouts. Even the election after the death of another military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power had a turnout of only 40 percent. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won his so-called landslide in 1997, only 35 per cent of Pakistanis went to the polls. The heavily circumscribed election of 2002 under President Pervez Musharraf was said to have brought out 41 per cent but that figure may be open to doubt.

On Monday, February 18, 2008 when Pakistan goes to the polls again, the turnout may well be below 30 per cent, as threats of terrorism scare the population from coming out in large numbers. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto took the excitement out of this election for many Pakistanis. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the races also detracts from the validity of the process. Musharraf’s falling popularity among Pakistanis at large will be reflected in the turnout and the results this time around. He may well lose in the long run. He has promised a “free, fair, and safe” elections. But the real losers on Election Day will be the people of Pakistan, deprived of participating in a truly unfettered election.

Private TV channels will do their best to cover the voting. But the threat of controls and sanctions weighs heavily on their operations. PTV will do what is expected of it, toe the official line. Word of mouth, what Franz Fanon called “the native telephone”, will prevail in the end. No amount of government controls or threats can silence that. No matter what the announced party results are on February 19th, in the end the people of Pakistan will win. I hope it is not too long in coming.

Benazir Bhutto’s Voice from Beyond

With the current election campaign coming to an end in Pakistan, the leading light of the opposition to President Pervez Musharraf has joined the discourse from beyond the grave and raised it to a higher level. Benazir Bhutto’s posthumously-released extended essay-cum-memoir Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West was released this week and likely will get a good reception in the West at which it is aimed. It bemoans the intellectual stasis in the Islamic world and calls for self-criticism among Muslims at large as the basis for a better understanding with the West. However, if past trends hold, it will be less read and understood in her native Pakistan and even less so in the Muslim World. Unfortunately, the oral tradition still prevails in Pakistan and in the heart of the Muslim world. And open discussion of profound issues in religion and politics has been displaced by drawing-room banter about conspiracy theories, the latest overseas trips, and acquisitions of the ostentatious trappings of wealth.

I visited Pakistan right after President Musharraf’s autobiography In the Line of Fire was released in 2006 and found over a period of two weeks that the book was being discussed at every lunch and dinner party I attended. But when asked, only four persons in those two weeks had actually read the entire book. The rest relied simply on excerpts or newspaper reports or what they had heard from others about it!

Bhutto’s book, like Musharraf’s, is an important addition to the paltry literature from Third World leaders on the issues facing their countries. Musharraf’s book, self-centered and slight, was in his own voice, probably because he dictated large segments of it after getting input from others. The Bhutto volume has relatively more heft but reeks of many hands.  It truly comes to life with her own words, dealing with the memories of Pakistan and of her arrival in Pakistan after her recent exile. And then there are the surprisingly candid pen portraits of many of the countries and leaders of the Muslim world, who do not come up to her exacting standards of democracy. Other parts remind us of plodding research assistance that yields a potted history of Pakistan and the emergence of the modern Islamic World, with copious quotations from other authors that drown out her own powerful views and voice. What could have become a major call for change in the Muslim World thus is reduced to an undergraduate essay in those parts. Those who follow Pakistan’s history will note the skipping over or rationalization of thorny issues such as the rise of the Taliban during her tenure as Prime Minister or charges of corruption or maladministration, with the practiced ease of a politician.

What makes the book important and interesting is the conflict that Bhutto’s own background and actions created for her as leader of a progressive and populist political party, while remaining at once a western-educated member of the feudal class, assigned to power by birthright. Yet, a strong nationalism and sense of destiny pervaded her thinking and led her to devote all her energies to returning to Pakistan and its benighted politics. I could see that steely determination when we last met in Washington just before she took off for Dubai en route to Pakistan. She lived and breathed Pakistan. And in the end she died for Pakistan. She understood full well that her return was fraught with danger. But she persisted and even after the first attack on her arrival procession on October 27, 2008 in Karachi, she was not fearful and continued with her public campaigning. That was the only way of ensuring that her people, her so-called vote bank, would be galvanized into action. Unlike Musharraf, who has sought safety behind multiple layers of security, she connected with the masses. And she paid the price for it.

Of all the current Pakistani leaders she recognized clearly, as she states in her book, that “extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness”. She was prepared to speak publicly about these issues. Whether she would have been able to change the situation in Pakistan or not, we will never know. The confluence of the forces of extremism and dictatorship, which she heavily criticizes in this book, may well have led to her horrific death.

The question now is whether the Pakistani electorate will listen to her voice from beyond this world and take back its country from the cancerous inroads of predatory politics that have debilitated Pakistan’s quest for democracy. This is at once her legacy and her dream for Pakistan. Who will fulfill it?

Will Musharraf “lose” these elections?

As the days wind down to the national and provincial assemblies elections in Pakistan on February 18, the one man on the political scene who is not in fact running faces the serious prospect that he may end up in the losing column. President Pervez Musharraf, sans his general’s uniform and the rank and power of Chief of Army Staff, appears increasingly to be the single most important issue on which Pakistanis citizens at large and the political parties that are hoping to make a comeback are focused. Having transformed Pakistan from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system in which he controls the levers of political power, he resorted late last year to extra-constitutional measures to have himself re-elected president and then shed his uniform. Later, he got his own compliant supreme court to ratify all his extra-legal measures. But, if current public opinion trends hold up, he may well lose his hold on the country.

The rising unhappiness with Musharraf has allowed the opposition Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to coalesce against him. Meanwhile numerous polls conducted by local and foreign agencies appear to signal a rising wave of disappointment with Musharraf’s regime, with more than two-thirds of Pakistanis calling for his immediate resignation.

Of the issues that have helped focus the negative sentiments against him are inflation, which is rampant and rising, and lack of security. An unseemly public spat between the Finance Minister and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan that acts as the guardian of the monetary policy on measures to control inflation has added to the public’s confusion. On the security front, the government has lost ground continuously since last year, ceding territory not only in the badlands of the North West Frontier Province to the homegrown neo-Taliban but also in the heartland of that province and elsewhere.

Even the Interior Ministry acknowledges that of the 64,175 polling stations are being set up for Monday’s elections almost one-third 19,380 have been declared ‘sensitive’, that is dangerous and demanding the presence of police, paramilitary rangers, and even the army to provide security. Of these, the number of ‘most sensitive polling stations’ stands at 8,928 — 3,787 in Punjab, 1,575 in Sindh, 1,094 in the NWFP, 1,350 in Balochistan and 1,122 in FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that abut Afghanistan).

The Interior Ministry spokesman, according to a report in DAWN newspaper, deemed some areas in the NWFP, Balochistan, FATA, and Sindh as ‘high-risk’. They are Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir, Malakand Agency, Hangu and Tank and Bannu in the NWFP; South Waziristan Agency, North Waziristan Agency, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, FR Kohat, Darra Adam Khel and Bannu in FATA; parts of the riverine belt known as Kacha Area in Sindh; and Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Killa Abdullah in Balochistan. These are probably the areas where the regular army will be deployed, to provide security but not to help conduct the polling, a point that the new army chief has underlined repeatedly.

To add to the public deep concern about safety, there has been a rise in terrorist actions against the Pakistan army at its very heart, in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to Islamabad where the army headquarters re located. There is broad agreement that these attacks have been prompted by Islamist militants angered by Musharraf’s take-over of the Red Mosque in a bitter shoot-out last year in the heart of Islamabad. So, he has now become the lightning rod for attack on the armed forces. Further, elections rallies of the mainstream Awami National Party have been hit with suicide bombings in the NWFP.

Musharraf must have been unhappy to read about the meetings held by his erstwhile political ally Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Q group (known widely as the King’s Party because it supported Musharraf) with the religious leader of the Red Mosque militants, who is in prison. Hussain is reported to have suggested that he would try to get him released but failed to make a deal with the incarcerated Mullah. Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the PML Q, Mushahid Hussain (not related to his party chief), appeared to distance himself from Musharraf’s policies by suggesting that the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan, be freed.

If the pre-rigging that is being widely alleged does not take hold and derail the electoral process on February 18, and instead people cast their ballots freely on the basis of the deteriorating economic situation and inflation on the one hand and the lack of security on the other, Musharraf may end up being the biggest loser when the results are announced. Under that scenario, the opposition parties may garner enough seats to overturn many of his fiats of dubious legal validity of the recent past. This time around, he may not have the coercive power of the army behind him, an army whose new chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been signaling a shift in its internal priorities from political involvement to professionalism. Musharraf may thus find himself isolated and abandoned by his supporters. If the PML Q manages to eke out a win then street protests may erupt across the country, adding to the violence from terrorism

The prospects for change loom large on the Pakistani political scene in the weeks ahead.

Posted on The Huffington Post, 14 February 2008

Questions that need an answer in Pakistan

In an election campaign marred by charges of pre-rigging and legal irregularities by President Pervez Musharraf in the dismissal of the Chief Justice and other judges and his own re-election, and the horrific death of a resurgent and popular former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as a result of terrorist action, the people of Pakistan have not had an opportunity to hear much about the real issues confronting the country today. The campaign has been marked by rhetoric, bombastic promises, or calls for revenge.

Most politicians are running against each other or against Musharraf and not on platforms that differentiate them from the rest. The  vague party manifestoes that are crafted in back rooms somewhere end up being filed and forgotten. And the fear of terrorist actions, such as the bombing over this weekend of a non-religious party’s meeting in Charsadda in the North West Frontier Province, has reduced the number of large meetings and processions that have traditionally helped muster support for individual parties in this vast country.

Before Pakistanis go to the vote on February 18, they deserve answers to some questions from their political leaders, the high command of the army, and the United States government.


• What specific policies would you adopt to reduce and remove terrorism from the North West Frontier and the rest of Pakistan?
• How would you ensure that Pakistan’s economy continues to grow and inflation is kept under control?
• Do you support a free market economy or greater governmental regulations and controls?
• Do you support the imposition of Shariah Law in place of the current legal system or parallel to it? If the latter, where would you draw the line separating the two systems?
• Do you believe the Kashmir dispute with India should be settled peacefully or with force? Would you set a deadline for reaching an accord on Kashmir?
• Do you, like Bangladesh, support reverting to the Warrant of Precedence circa 1947 that established relative civil-military rankings and civilian supremacy?
• Would you reinstate the judiciary and remove control over the private mass media by restricting the regulatory power of PEMRA, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority?

The Army High Command

• Will you re-enter the political arena if the elections do not produce a clear winner or produce a stable political outcome?
• Should the army have a constitutional role in the country’s governance? Why?
• Would you accept a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute with India?
• Do you support the integration of the Federally Administered Tribal Area with Pakistan proper and the merger of the Frontier Corps with the Pakistan Army? If not, why?
• Do you accept the political supremacy of the elected representatives of the people over the armed forces, even if you disagree with particular policies of a civilian government?
• Would you accept a reduction of the perks and privileges of senior army officers (e.g. land at reduced costs) in return for market-oriented salaries?
• Do we need a conventional army at its current size to fight external enemies or do you see more of a need for fighting internal insurgencies in the future? Is this a false choice?

The United States

• Is the United States a friend of the people of Pakistan or of its rulers? Why does it even make this choice?
• Is the US committed to staying in Afghanistan with adequate troops till the insurgency is wiped out or will it leave in a hurry again?
• Why does the US accept India’s nuclear program and not accept Pakistan as a nuclear power that has adequately protected its nuclear assets?
• Why doesn’t the US trust Pakistan’s leaders?

Clear and concise answers to these questions will help the people of Pakistan make the right choices for the long term. Otherwise, the issues facing the country will not be discussed openly, and power politics, internally and internationally, will continue to dominate decision making  thus producing more tumult and uncertainty.

Posted on The Huffington Post, 13 February 2008

Pakistan’s Army and the Upcoming Elections

Just days short of the Pakistani elections in an electoral season that has been marked by turmoil and violence and a rising trajectory of terrorist violence against the civilian population as well as the Pakistan army, uncertainty prevails. There are fears that the elections will be marred by violence. That the electorate will stay away and the turnout could be even lower than the traditionally low turnouts in previous national elections. And that the pre-rigging that has been charged may lead to troubles that will bring in the army again. Is this a relasitic scenario? May be not.

Two broad outcomes could emerge from rigging the elections:

  • A win for the Pakistan Muslim League Q, the so-called King’s Party that favors President Pervez Musharraf; and
  • A hung parliament in which no single party has a large enough bloc of seats to be able to form a viable government, giving the President free rein for political engineering.

Where does the army fit into this election scenario? The Pakistan army is not helping conduct these elections. The new army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has announced unequivocally that the army will not be undertaking any of the election day functions that are properly the role of the civil administration and the judiciary. At the request of the provincial authorities, the army will help ensure law and order during the election process. The key element here will be whether the army’s presence is seen or presented by some as affecting the voters to go one way or the other. Again, the new army chief has clarified that the army will not involve itself in politics and has even imposed a ban on army officers meeting politicians, including the president, now a retired army officer and therefore technically a civilian.

But there are always underlying fears that the army’s influence will be felt at the ballot box. Frequently, in the past, governments have used the military or the Inter Services Intelligence to help monitor or affect elections or even to set up opposition parties to governments or impending governments of persons whom they considered less than desirable. This was done either directly or through surrogates. Most recently, in the 2002 polls, according to a member of the inner circle of the ruling establishment, there was a hands-on involvement via the army’s nine Corps Commanders first in the preceding 2001 Local Bodies polls that selected District Nazims or administrators and later through the intelligence services in 2002. It is alleged that the army’s intelligence played a role in the selection of candidates and then post-poll in changing some results of the polls overnight, between the ending of the polling and the announcement of the results.

What then should we expect after these elections? Pakistan still remains a country in deep crisis, with a huge cloud of terror ever present. Its politics is bitterly divided and filled with threats of retribution. The unsolved assassination of Benazir Bhutto looms large over the political landscape. Distrust of the government pervades public and political discourse. And whatever the results, there will be suspicions that the Presidency and the so-called establishment will try to affect the outcomes. Therefore, the possibility of greater tumult remains.

Politically, here are some brief election scenarios and their effects:

  • The King’s Party, the PML Q, uses its local ties and links to the caretaker government to win big in the Punjab and garners enough support in other provinces to form a majority government with its allies, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz and even the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the center and perhaps in the provinces. Given no other options, the only course of action for the PML N of Nawaz Sharif and the PPP would then be to come out into the streets. A compliant judiciary under Musharraf’s chosen justices and extraordinary controls over the mass media would offer little choice of non-disruptive challenge or public protest to the aggrieved parties.
  • The PPP wins big in Sindh and carries a sizable number of seats in the Punjab, allowing it to form a government at the center and in Sindh and possibly Punjab (with a provincial coalition, involving, among others, the PML-N). In this scenario, it is highly unlikely that the PML Q will resort to street protests. But it would then use its current hold over the Senate to block the ability of the new government to legislate changes effectively.
  • The PML N manages to carry a large enough segment of the Punjab, through its own base or massive last-minute defections from the Q to form a government in the Punjab. It could then play a key role in blocking any legislative actions by a central government that it does not agree with.
  • No party wins a big enough share in the center, creating a hung parliament. This would allow President Musharraf a grand opportunity to engineer a government to his liking. Parties that failed to benefit from the President’s largesse would then have the option to either go along or to come out into the streets.
  • The PML N and PPP win large blocs in the provinces and the center and form a coalition of convenience in Islamabad, and then carry others with them to have a two-thirds majority in the parliament. This would be enough to reverse many of President Musharraf’s recent arbitrary changes to the constitution. But party rivalries may not allow such an arrangement to last too long.

Where would the army come into these scenarios? None of the current parties can be seen by the army as being extremist enough to warrant any direct or indirect intervention. Despite their rhetoric, all parties will want to settle their differences with the army in order to craft a stable base for themselves in power. Even the PML N may want to take a breather before it contemplates making any attempt to bring the army under civilian control or to bring the President back into the orbit of the 1973 constitution where Parliament has the upper hand.

However, the use of large and violent street demonstrations to protest blatant rigging may force the government to bring out the army in aid of civil power. When that happens, and especially if it involves use of military power in the streets of the Punjab, the outcomes are unpredictable. In 1977, three Brigadiers refused to bring troops out to quell demonstrations against the elder Bhutto. That in effect was a prelude to Martial Law and the coup of Zia ul Haq. If things get out of hand again, the army may well be forced to push for a change.

But the new army chief is constrained, because Musharraf appointed all the senior commanders before leaving his post as Chief of Army Staff, especially those in Military Intelligence (a Musharraf relative) and the ISI (Musharraf’s former Military Secretary). He has yet to appoint his own corps commanders, especially in Lahore, where the corps is headed by another former Military Secretary to Musharraf. Kayani has not yet been able to make major high-level personnel changes in army headquarters or in regional commands and corps.

Another possibility exists: the terror networks will intensify their attacks on the army as a surrogate for hitting President Musharraf. If the army rank and file feels that it is being targeted because of Musharraf, their unhappiness with the current president may bubble up through the ranks and force the senior commanders to consider cutting their ties to Musharraf. The army sees itself as a corporate entity that protects its own interests. If it sees any group or individual becoming a threat or a liability, it will cut its losses and distance itself from that entity or individual. Musharraf knows this and will do his best to forestall such a situation. He also knows that he does not have direct command over the army any longer. It is conceivable that he would depart if the corps commanders through the army chief said it was time for him to go.

What after that? I do not think the mood in the army today, especially among the rank and file, is for direct rule. At best it would want to revert to re-elections or a care taker government to give a respite to the political system to recover and restore stability. But, history tells us that circumstances change and if the threats are seen to be big and entrenched, even General Kayani may feel he has to take direct control. Given the stunting of democratic institutions in the country as a result of prolonged military and quasi-military rule, the army may feel it is the only institution that has the wherewithal to stop the rot.

The army is trying to keep regain its professional balance. The recent announcements from army headquarters augur well for a return to professional pursuits. Much remains for the army to reform itself and its relationship with the polity and economy of Pakistan. If General Kayani can keep the army out of politics, he may well be able to effect or facilitate the other changes that would restore balance to the civil-military relationship.

But the battles against internal foes will sap the Pakistan army’s energies and weaken its ability to resolve issues that are at heart political, social, and economic. Only the noise of democracy and the consent of the people to be governed in a particular fashion can help Pakistan retain its unity and solidarity as a federation.