Pakistan held its general elections in 2018, to select its third successive democratic government, after almost a decade of military dictatorship under the Musharraf era.
Putting Things in Perspective
Before the 2018 polls, when the PML-N was in power, the PTI protested: it alleged poll rigging and election engineering. The 2018 polls brought the PTI, a party formed in 1996 into power. A party that had been on the sidelines for over two decades now held the reins of power. It is no surprise that on its own the PTI hardly ever had any political clout – it was brought into power by a process of election engineering orchestrated by those at the core of the state-within-the-state. The so-called electables were directed to join the PTI. Every other day a renowned politician would leave behind the corruption and crimes of the past and turn over a new leaf by joining the PTI. PTI was calling for accountability; all the electable politicians were joining it en masse – the very people the party was claiming to overthrow were becoming part of it. Each candidate was carefully hand-picked. Even a clearance was sought from the state-within-the-state. Even people like Sheikh Rasheed, for whom Imran famously said in a speech that he would never even appoint him as a peon, was brought on the team and has a seat on the Federal Cabinet as the Minister of Railways. It wasn’t too surprising that after extensive horse trading, the PTI was also able to appoint its own Chair of the upper house of Parliament even though it was in a minority.
You Become What You Hate
After coming into power, the Imran-lead PTI government started a vicious campaign of victimization of political rivals and election engineering. A process of selective accountability had already begun before the elections. Nawaz Shareef, the PML-N leader, his daughter and son-in-law had already been sentenced to prison. This judgment was so hastily made before the 2018 general elections, that after the elections the courts had to release the trio after the appeals were filed. Nawaz however remains in custody over other cases.
Shahbaz Shareef, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, and his son Hamza Shahbaz, the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly, were also dragged in. Asif Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur were eventually brought in as well. Other leaders of the opposition including former Federal Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique, Sindh Assembly’s Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani and others were imprisoned as well. The National Accountability Bureau is all but a tool in the hands of every incumbent government; in fact it was created during the Musharraf era to crack down on politicians.
The Federal Investigation Agency also arrested the President of PML-N’s youth wing over posting “hateful content” against the state on the internet. Ironically, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, the draconian law under which this arrest was made was passed by the Parliament when the PML-N was in power, against strong protests by the civil society who had warned of the strong possibility of this law to be used to stifle freedom of speech.
In addition to this the two Members of Parliament (MNAs) from FATA were accused of an armed assault at a military check-post by the Military’s mouthpiece and were later taken into custody by the Counter Terrorism Department. One of the key figures behind this political engineering, the incumbent law minister, gave an unsolicited advise to the National Assembly’s speaker, to not to issue production orders for the FATA MNAs.
The PTI government is actively engaging in pre-poll rigging. Two candidates from the former FATA region, were imprisoned by the PTI lead Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government under the Maintainance of Public Order Ordinance, 1960, another draconian law from the dictatorship era of Ayub Khan. The Election Commission took notice of this eventually and ordered their release.
“It has come in the notice of this Commission that one Mr Muhammad Arif (independent contesting candidate from PK-113, South Waziristan-I) and Mr Muhammad Iqbal (independent contesting candidate from PK-114, South Waziristan-II), have been arrested by the Deputy Commissioner, South Waziristan on 19th June, 2019 and 24th June, 2019, respectively, allegedly under Section 3 of the West Pakistan Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, 1960 (MPO) for one month and both the candidates have been sent to jails of Dera Ismail Khan and Haripur…”Election Commission of Pakistan
The Election Commission also noted that the arrests made after the announcement of the election schedule were “tantamount to pre-poll rigging”.
And just recently, Rana Sanaullah, former Home Minister of Punjab and the President of PML-N in Punjab, was arrested by the Anti-Narcotics Force. This reminds of an incident a few years back when a friend of mine was stopped by the police in North Nazimabad, Karachi who checked his license and registration, and after finding everything in order, asked for a large bribe. When my friend asked what that was for, the officer calmly replied that if my friend refused, they would “find” a large quantity of marijuana in a search of him and his car; since possession can even carry a death penalty, he had no other option but to bribe. It is even more shocking to see the PTI government or the establishment stoop so low to victimize political opponents and to force them to change their political affiliations.
Freedom of Speech? Shut Up!
The PTI government is also taking extreme measures to stifle freedom of speech. When Muhammad bin Salman was visiting Pakistan, some journalists changed their display pictures on social media to a picture of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by Saudi agents inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul since it is widely believed that MBS personally ordered the brutal murder. As a response to this benign protest, the Federal Investigation Agency opened an inquiry against the journalists for an alleged social media campaign against MBS.
Furthermore, while Article 66 of the Constitution states that there shall be (unrestricted) freedom of speech in the Parliament, the PTI appointed Speaker of the lower house of Parliament, has “banned” the use of word selected from use in Parliament in connection with the opposition calling Imran Khan a Selected Prime Minister.
Press? What Press?
Similarly, when people were protesting the enforced disappearances of their loved ones by organizing a sit-in outside the residence of President Arif Alvi in Karachi, there was a virtual media black-out: no media outlet was allowed to cover the protest. Such draconian censorship of the press in unprecedented. Those peaceful protesters were arrested by the police and false cases of rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, waging or attempting to wage war or abetting the waging of war against Pakistan, and criminal conspiracy were registered against the protesters. The President was silent.
Similarly, last night Asif Ali Zardari’s interview with Hamid Mir, which was being conducted in the Parliament House was pulled off-air. The anchor without specifying who was behind it stated that Pakistan is no more a free country. Not just that, a subsequent interview of the anchor was also pulled off-air. In response to this Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) the state’s media regulator stated that it had nothing to do with the censorship.
Not just Democracy but Justice too
On February 6, 2019, a Supreme Court bench gave its verdict on the 2017 Faizabad sit-in organized by the TLP. During this sit-in, a uniformed Pakistan Army general was seen distributing cash to the anti-government protesters. The judgment, authored by Justice Qazi Faez Isa, a fiercely independent, upright and credible judge, criticized the armed forces and the intelligence agencies for acting outside the scope of the statutory authority. This brought Justice Isa into the cross-hairs. Justice Isa is expected to be the Chief Justice of Pakistan at the time of the 2023 general elections and thus came to be seen as a hurdle in political engineering at the time of the elections.
In what looks like an apparent attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary and to remove Justice Qazi Faez Isa from office, President Arif Alvi moved two references to the Supreme Judicial Council to remove Supreme Court’s Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Sindh High Court’s Justice Karim Khan Agha. This was followed by selective leaks to the press to undermine the judges’ credibility. It later emerged that the references the President filed were sent to him by the law minister Farogh Naseem.
Lawyers all over the country have come out and protested against this move: there is a firm belief among the lawyers, judges and other intellectuals of the country that this move is nothing but an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary and muzzle independent judges. The Lawyers’ Movement back in 2007 lead to the ousting of Musharraf from power after he tried to undermine the judiciary and remove the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Even as the lawyers and the Bar Councils and Bar Associations stood against these blatant steps to demolish the hard-won independence of the judiciary in the name of accountability, Farogh Naseem the law minister, a former lawyer, invited state counsels to his residence and had them issue a statement saying they stood for accountability across the board and that judges should not be able to escape accountability.
The Pakistan Bar Council, the provincial Bar Councils and the lawyers are still protesting and standing in support of Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Karim Khan Agha to foil these attempts.
Either the PTI government is directly responsible for all these steps to cause a travesty of democracy, or they are mere rubber stamps for the establishment which has selected Imran Khan as the Prime Minister and brought the PTI into power.
What would Complete Accountability Look Like?
During the protests and sit-in in Islamabad which was lead by Imran Khan, the PTI workers clashed with the police outside the Parliament, in Imran’s own words, to make Nawaz Shareef run away.
Pakistan Secretariat, the seat of the federal bureaucracy and the offices of PTV, the state broadcaster, were attacked. PTV’s offices were ransacked and vandalized by the protesters. Cases, which included the charge of terrorism, were registered and the accused included Imran Khan and Arif Alvi, the PTI leaders leading the protests. Some time later, a recording of a phone call between Arif Alvi and Imran Khan was leaked into the press, Arif Alvi was heard telling Imran Khan of the ongoing ransacking and vandalism of the PTV offices, and Imran Khan expressed pleasure over it, saying that they had to increase the pressure to make sure Nawaz Shareef resigned. These two are the key accused in the case, however one holds the office of the Prime Minister and the other the office of the President. The case is not being proceeded as Arif Alvi enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution while he hold the office of President.
While “accountability” proceedings against political opponents and even judges are in full swing, similar proceedings against members of the PTI-lead federal cabinet are not being proceeded, and the clear beneficiaries of this selective accountability are not just the PM himself, but the Defense Minister and a number of other ministers and advisers.
Ironic, isn’t it? Two men facing trial for terrorism trying to imprison political rivals on allegations of corruption and removing judges over their tax returns.