Polls close in Pakistan after vote marred by allegations of ‘silent coup’
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Pakistani voters cast ballots amid tight security Wednesday as an Islamic State group attack killed at least 30 people near a polling centre in Quetta and following an election campaign marred by rumours of a “silent coup”.
The July 2018 Pakistani general elections mark the often military-run, nuclear state’s third straight election of a civilian government. But it followed of the dirtiest, bloodiest campaign seasons in Pakistan’s fraught history, one that saw the military engage in unprecedented levels of manipulation, including muzzling the press, intimidating candidates deemed troublesome and blatantly supporting pliant political aspirants.
The stakes are high in Wednesday’s elections: Voters across the South Asian nation of 200 million people are electing members of the National Assembly – which will yield Pakistan’s new prime minister – as well as assembly members in the country’s four provinces.
The top three contenders for prime minister include a former cricketer favoured by the military, the 29-year-old scion of one of Pakistan’s leading political dynasties, and the brother of a jailed former prime minister who has run afoul of the country’s powerful military intelligence establishment.
The military’s favourite – dubbed the “ladla", or spoilt child, by his opponents – is Imran Khan, a former playboy cricketer-turned-austere Muslim, whose outreach to powerful Islamist figures have earned him the moniker “Taliban Khan”.
The candidate for the left-leaning PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose mother, Benazir Bhutto, and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, held the prime ministerial post until both ran afoul of the military, with deadly consequences.
The candidate of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) is Shehbaz Sharif, brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is serving a 10-year sentence on corruption charges.
While some analysts say the contest is still “up for grabs", Khan is considered the favourite. Most, however, agree that a victory for the former cricketer and longtime aspiring prime minister is unlikely to strengthen the country’s fragile democratic system or stabilise the world’s second-most-populous Muslim nation.
"Whatever way elections run, I see a lot of instability," Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst and author of "Military Inc.", about the Pakistani military’s massive financial holdings, told the Associated Press.
End of ‘hard coups’ ushers in ‘silent coup’ period
It’s a view mirrored by Moeed Yusuf of the Asia Center at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace. "This is quite a schizophrenic moment for Pakistan's democracy," Yusuf told the AP. "On the one hand, you have completing 10 years of uninterrupted democratic rule ... On the other hand, you've got all sorts of allegations of pre-poll rigging and manipulation."
A decade ago, democracy was restored to Pakistan following a tumultuous period of military rule. Two years later, parliament passed a constitutional amendment designed to curtail a direct takeover by the military. But while the 2010 amendment has made it virtually impossible for the security services to suspend the constitution and seize power, it has not stopped the military from interfering in the democratic process.
The military’s manipulation is widely viewed as an attempt to prevent Sharif’s PML-N from returning to power after the former prime minister tried to assert civilian control of the country’s security and foreign policy, notably a rapprochement with Pakistan’s neighbour and arch foe, India. Sharif’s accusation, made earlier this year, that the Pakistani army facilitated the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai, is widely believed to have crossed the line, one that a pliant Pakistani media blasted as “treasonous”.
Sharif was ousted last year after leaked documents from a Panama law firm revealed he and his family had undisclosed assets abroad. He was found guilty of corruption, banned from politics for life and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Earlier this month, Sharif returned from exile in London to Pakistan, where he was arrested. He is currently appealing his conviction.
While the military has denied any “engineering” on the 2018 campaign, evidence has proved otherwise, leading to condemnations of what Pakistanis call a “silent coup” from sometimes unlikely sources.
In a scathing indictment of the interference of the security services particularly on the judiciary, a senior High Court judge last week accused “the mighty agencies” of disrupting “the fibre of the country by establishing state over the state of Pakistan”. A written order by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui noted that, “persons (at) the helm of affairs of all institutions need to protect (their) hard earned independence and take remedial steps to stop the invasion by (the) personals of (a) particular institution and intelligence agencies”.
"The shadow of the military looming over the election amplifies the continued struggles of democracy in Pakistan," Michael Kugelman of the US-based Wilson Center told the AP. "Allegations of army meddling and the fact that troops will be deployed on mass levels on election day make it crystal clear that this election process is not entirely a civilian-led process."
Religion, as ever, in the mix
At the request of the Election Commission of Pakistan, the military is deploying 350,000 soldiers to polling stations nationwide in the largest election day deployment in the country’s history.
A day before polls opened, armed soldiers were stationed at polling stations in the capital, Islamabad, as election officials distributed ballot boxes and voting materials across the city.
The mammoth deployment, along with the Election Commission’s decision to grant military officers broad powers inside polling stations, has sparked fears of possible manipulation.
The campaign also has been rattled by a series of deadly militant attacks that have killed more than 175 people, including three candidates. An attack earlier this month in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province killed 149 people, including a parliamentary candidate. Another 300 people were wounded.
Baluchistan was again targeted on Wednesday when an explosion outside a crowded polling station in the provincial capital, Quetta, killed 31 people and wounded dozens more, according to a local hospital official. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast.
An unprecedented number of radical religious parties are also participating in the election, including some that have been banned but are running under new names. Candidates have been wooing well-known members of militant Sunni Muslim groups, drawing criticisms from rights activists.
"It is worrying how strategically religion is being used as a tool to come into power by a large number of candidates," Samar Minallah Khan, a human rights activist and documentary filmmaker, told the AP. "Political parties are paying homage to banned outfits, handing out party tickets to people who in the past have been putting lives of activists and minorities under threat through their television programmes, spewing hatred and violence. It seems the priority is to win, no matter what."
There are 85,307 polling stations across Pakistan, and more than 12,000 candidates are vying for 272 seats in parliament and 577 seats in four provincial assemblies.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)