Pakistan heads to the polls on July 25th. I happen to be in the middle of a move, so I have not been posting much but a short note on the election is certainly due. Back in 2013 Pakistan had its first peaceful democratic transfer of power and it looked like some sort of democracy was finally taking root, with the military still exercising disproportionate influence but with an elected government running most of the country according to its own priorities. Unfortunately, the trend line has since reversed and done so in spectacular fashion. There are many theories about why this particular reversal happened, with some people blaming the party in power (the nominally right of center PMLN) and others the overweening ambitions of GHQ (*General Headquarters. The army). Whatever the triggers, it seems that at some point the army high command decided that it could not coexist with Mian Nawaz Sharif and his politically ambitious daughter (Maryam Nawaz Sharif) and for the last year and a half the army, primarily acting through its intelligence agencies (for the rough stuff) and ISPR (the PR wing of the army, now expanded into a vast public relations operation with a serving general in charge) has been on a crusade against the PMLN in general and Mian Nawaz Sharif (MNS) and his daughter in particular.
The operation has not gone according to plan; it seems clear that the army expected that MNS would give up the fight easily and the PMLN (a party once put together with the help of the army and including many professional turncoats) in any case will get the hint and push him out and replace him with his more cooperative younger brother (Mian Shahbaz Sharif, MSS). But MNS has refused to back down and most of the party has chosen to stand by him. The army has been forced to resort to more and more blatant attempts at political engineering but every escalation has been met by even more stubborn and public resistance from MNS, culminating in his return to the country after being sentenced to a long prison term in a corruption case where legal norms were openly flouted and the fairness of the judiciary was seriously compromised. Multiple national and international observers have already commented on the kind of tactics being used to corner the PMLN and to give an unfair advantage to Imran Khan’s PTI and I won’t go into those details (see links for more on that), but this level of blatant military intervention has also stiffened the resistance of the PMLN and seems to have energized their supporters. At the same time, the combination of 24/7 one-sided propaganda in the Pakistani media and the behind the scenes pressures applied by intelligence agencies has not been without effect, with several candidates disqualified, others induced to switch sides and all facing the possibility of more engineering on election day. The end result is that there is great uncertainty on the eve of the election. Polls generally indicate a close contest, but the unknown unknowns make any guess hazardous.
That said, it is the job of pundits to make predictions, so I will make mine. We will see how it turns out tomorrow.
- No single party will win a majority.
- IF voting is mostly fair then PMLN will still emerge as the single biggest national party, with a majority in the Punjab provincial assembly and single largest bloc in the National assembly (around 70 seats). This assumes a combination of two factors: the army being somewhat overconfident and allowing voting to proceed (in the expectation that PTI will win a plurality; this overconfidence is possible because the middle levels of the officer corps are genuine PTI supporters and in that echo-chamber it looks like a PTI win is coming) AND local factors (observers, party machinery, experience) making it hard to blatantly rig the election in Punjab.
- The army is too deeply committed to back off now, so even a plurality will not be enough to form the next government. Instead the army will cobble together PTI, various smaller parties and turncoats to create a non-PMLN government at the center.
- The resulting governments (provincial as well as national) will be ineffective and will lack legitimacy. The army believes (in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary) that a “remote-controlled” civilian government is the best way to run the country. They get to make all the crucial decisions while politicians are kept busy with patronage and corruption (all kept within reasonable bounds because “the army will be watching”). With PMLN and other “traitors” out of the way, the path to prosperity with Chinese characteristics will be wide open. In reality, the outcome will be a worthless dyarchy, with real power in GHQ the politicians main job will be finding ways to make money and to do so before GHQ changes the government. Meanwhile the army will come up with shortlists of “talented” people to run all the “National Security Sensitive” ministries and by some sort of magic all the talented people will turn out to be relatives and friends of senior generals, with a smattering of imported bankers and ex-IMF types to season the brew. The whole thing will more or less work as long as China is still investing in their most allied ally, but once the Han comrades start demanding repayment the shit will hit the fan. After negotiating bailouts with Beijing the army will eventually come up with a truly original idea: new elections. And I am not even ruling out the possibility that next time around all the invisibles (and the very visible ISPR) could be promoting Maryam Nawaz Sharif as the new savior (unlikely, yes, but not out of the question), where the cycle will begin again. And so it goes..
- For a few years there was a real hope that power will flow through routine democratic politics but since GHQ has shot down that balloon well and good, the next issue will inevitably be politics within the army. With the army chief and the ISI chief holding such power, these positions are inevitably going be the focus of national and international intrigue. We have already seen an ISI chief (Rizwan Akhtar) dismissed because he intrigued against the incoming chief. More such shenanigans are inevitable. The army’s problem is that it is not the communist party of China, it is a continuation of the British Indian army and is not designed to rule the country. That has not stopped them from doing so, but it means there are no formal (and absolutely no transparent) institutional mechanisms for handling internal and external politics. Naturally, such mechanisms have evolved to some extent, but they are inefficient and opaque and the person who happens to sit in the chief’s chair has overwhelming power in the system. Since promotion to senior ranks follows the “keep your mouth shut, except to agree with your seniors” formula, the holders of that office tend to be in the Raheel Sharif and Bajwa mode (mediocrities, mostly followers of the corps commander consensus, liable to be manipulated by those more intelligent than they are) there is low probability of wild adventures, but trapped within the PMA worldview and always aware of their own intellectual and moral inferiority (and hence likely to compound every stupidity to avoid being exposed) they are quite capable of gradually finding their way to stupendous disasters (see 1971 for details). The system is set up for failure.
- The people can still cause an upset on July 25th. There could be a PMLN wave that will overcome all engineering attempts and there could be a PTI sweep if the turnout is kept low and PMLN supporters stay home. We will find out tomorrow. But irrespective of the results, the army is unlikely to back down and the end result will still be a remote controlled government (whether one led by the PTI and therefore already integrated into ISPR or led by a defanged PMLN that has agreed to cooperate with GHQ).
- The real “unknown unknown” in this whole scenario is China. Historically we have always assumed that the US has its tentacles deep in Pakistani officialdom and by using their “agents of influence” as well as carrots (aid, bribery etc) and sticks (IMF, sanctions) they “manage” Pakistan even if they don’t fully control it. Now, with the US in relative decline and China ascendant (at least in Pakistan), the question becomes “how will China manage its client?”. And the short answer is, we have no clue. On general principles we know that Chinese officialdom is very professional and whoever is involved in managing Pakistan will have spent quality time learning about their ward and all decisions will be taken after “due diligence” and will not operate on the “Inshallah-Mashallah” frequency. But as with all things, “garbage in, garbage out”; what is their source of information and how good is their analysis? At least an amateur observer has no way of knowing this. Maybe they have figured it out, but we have no way of knowing. Plus the US is by no means out of the picture. Between these two and their local agents, we may be heading into unknown territory.
- I would love to be proven wrong, with Pakistan holding free and fair elections and the outcome leading to a stable democratic government which actually delivers for the people of Pakistan. But at this moment I would rate that as a rather remote possibility.