One of the most interesting electoral processes anywhere in the world is underway in Pakistan. Even by Pakistan standards, it gets murkier by the day. The latest is the remark by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court at an event hosted by the Rawalpindi Bar Association on Saturday. Siddiqui squarely accused the Army Chief and Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI of interference in the legal process decrying that the agencies had no business to intervene in the affairs of other departments. The details of the scathing attack on the army and the ISI reveal more than just an emotional outburst. However, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar appeared unimpressed and actually attempted to counter Justice Siddiqui’s allegations by stating that the judiciary was under no pressure. There is a history of Siddiqui having raised the accusatory finger earlier too, which has led to a misconduct reference. Apparently, Pakistan’s ISPR has demanded that an inquiry be conducted in the judge’s allegations. There could be some worry because Siddiqui made a specific reference to the ISI attempting to ensure that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Sharif’s arrest would not come up for hearing before the 25 July election.
It’s interesting to find a chink in Pakistan’s judiciary after the media has also attempted to strongly resist interference by the army and ISI. The popular news channel Geo TV, a subsidiary of the Jang group, went off the air for two weeks to make an apparent protest against interference and re-emerged with the promise to self-censor. The News, a print-based publication of the same group, has been censored and pressurised not to carry pieces by two popular writers, Babar Sattar and Mosharaf Zaidi. Both had written about a protest movement led by thousands of ethnic Pashtuns from the tribal areas against military operations and abductions. The Pakistan Army chief has called the movement, now in its third month, "engineered" pointing a finger at India and Afghanistan.
Pakistani politician Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, 18 July, 2018. Pakistan will hold general election onJuly 25. AP
The army is obviously perturbed that its carefully crafted mission with the Pakistan higher judiciary to remove any chances of a Nawaz return to the political scene, has some unrealised resistance. With the media and the higher judiciary both under its complete control, the Pakistan Army was sitting pretty awaiting the results of the 25 July national election. From all indicators, there is no need for the Pakistan Army to await the results which have been engineered by it. It appears well known internationally that the results have been neatly packaged awaiting release, only the election process has to be undergone. To suddenly find an aberration in the mechanism, which has been in the making for long, should worry the Pakistan Army. The choreography thus far appeared quite flawless. The worry must also come from the fact that thus far there have been many commentaries in the international media on the nature of build-up to Pakistan’s national elections but no observation by any official international body, institution or nation about all that is happening internally in Pakistan. It's well-known that Pakistan has taken little note of the observations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which has placed it officially on the greylist on terror funding and other support to terror organisations.
In fact, as many as four well known hardline Islamist groups are contesting the election. Among these is Hafiz Sayeed’s (of the Jamaat ud Dawa or Lashkar-e-Taiba fame) Milli Muslim League (MML) which was not accorded official status of a political party by Pakistan’s Election Commission and is riding atop an organisation called the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, which has remained under the radar but has sanction as a political party. The three others are Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) the party whose proscription was lifted on the very day of the FATF decree, and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) led by Fazlur Rehman which has been a registered party since 2002.
The Pakistan Army, which has worked with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the Bhuttos and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in the past, has over the passage of time experienced both parties getting restive of the army’s controls.
It’s for that reason that it is orchestrating the potential election of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to perpetuate the army’s control over politics in Pakistan. Imran with his newfound Islamist orientation and long-held ambition considers this his best ever chance. The media and the higher judiciary had to be silenced for this experiment, an effort which has successfully been on for some time. The refusal to give Hafiz’s MML an official political status is part of a projection to retain positive international perception about the Pakistan Election Commission. Yet, as it usually happens with all planning of the Pakistan Army, it remains short of long-term vision. The presence of international election observers (including from India) is something ominous which has not been fully factored into the scheme of things. That is worrying the Pakistan Army, and it should. Justice Siddiqui’s diatribe against the agencies may just be the chink in the armour that may commence some snowballing protests and expose the grand plans. The media may find its true voice and someone else from the judiciary may join in to make it a chorus. Hence the army’s statement issued by ISPR — "In order to safeguard the sanctity and credibility of the state institutions, Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan has been requested to initiate the appropriate process to ascertain the veracity of the allegations (by Siddiqui) and take actions accordingly." The statement is loaded to influence the international community and election observers that the army is open and transparent while seeking impartial redress of the allegations of Justice Siddiqui.
The elections of 25 July 2018 by themselves are unlikely to act as the cutoff date to stop further developments in the interesting situation that is emerging in Pakistan. While the civil society is extremely weak and unlikely to get its act together to protest the murder of democracy, there are institutions which could yet rise and be counted. It is up to the international community to take serious note of the developments which will fuel further the empowerment of radical elements in Pakistan even as the FATF and election observers look on.