We shall see By Najam Sethi

56

The Election Commission of Azad Jammu Kashmir has declared the Pakistan Tehreek i Insaf, with 25 out of 45 seats, as the winning party in the state’s elections that concluded last Sunday. The PPP is runner-up with 11 seats and the PMLN trails behind with just 6 seats. Most analysts had predicted a PTI win, not because it is the most popular party in the country (in fact, quite the opposite) but because, in line with past practice, the voter in AJK has invariably sided with the ruling party in Islamabad because he/she doesn’t want to waste his/her vote since AJK’s well-being is umbilically linked to the sitting government in Islamabad which controls its purse strings and to the Miltablishment which controls its administration.

Indeed, for similar reasons, we too had predicted a PTI government in Muzaffarabad. “The balance of power in AJK is weighted in favour of the Miltablishment and its selected PTI party and prime minister in Islamabad. The PPP’s alliance with them will ensure that in the worst case scenario they will still be able to form a coalition government.”

But we had qualified our forecast with serious observations. For starters, we had noted how the Election Commission of AJK was much too weak to ensure free and fair polling: “Two recent developments have cast a shadow on these elections. The first is the blatant transgression of electoral rules and codes of conduct by the PTI’s Minister for Kashmir and Gilgit Affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur. The fact that he is still canvassing despite orders by the Election Commission to leave the area confirms the weakness of the EC and suggests it will not be able to enforce its writ and conclude a clean and free election. The second is the withdrawal of the ISI’s Station Commander for AJK who is accused of trying to manipulate the elections to hoist a particular PTI-financial supporter as the next PM of AJK.”

In the event, we have been proven right even beyond our expectations. The margin of the PTI’s win and PMLN’s loss is quite unbelievable for a host of solid reasons.

Consider. First, the circumstantial evidence. Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s rallies were very impressive, Imran Khan’s were drab and Bilawal Bhutto left for the US midstream. The final results belie this eyewitness account.

Second, there are many videos on social media that point to rigging in one manner or another. In one, EC staffers are seen with bagsful of votes in their possession, complaining that the Returning Office has vanished without the full record. In another, a vehicle with soldiers in it flaunts a PTI flag. A clip from a TV show is most interesting. It shows Nabeel Gabol, a minister in the PPP government in Karachi, admitting candidly that “we were promised 16 seats but are happy with the 11 that we have got”! Asked who made such an extraordinary pledge, he grinned sheepishly and said “the voters, of course”, which sent the other participants in the panel reeling with embarrassed laughter. The PMLN is on record criticizing the EC AJK for withholding the results in many critical constituencies for over an hour, suggesting targeted fixing.

The data also imply a level of serious and targeted rigging. In this election, the PTI has won 25 seats on the basis of 32% of the vote while the PMLN got over 25% of the vote but only 6 seats. No less extraordinary is the fact that the PPP with only 18% of the vote was rewarded with 11 seats (for which Mr Gabol is rightly grateful!). One can hardly hold the “first past the post” system responsible for such an aberration!

In the last hours of the election campaign, both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam warned voters that the Miltablishment would try to steal the election much as it had done the general elections in 2018. “Guard your vote, defend it,” they exhorted, “If your vote has no sanctity, the country, the nation, the constitution are finished”. It seems, however, that the only response these exhortations received was from the Miltablishment that swept the decks and returned the PTI with a clear majority. If the PPP had been awarded its promised 16 seats, giving the PTI no more than 20, there would have been a coalition government in Muzaffarabad. Indeed, to add insult to injury, the Miltablishment has ensured a victory in the Sialkot bye-elections for the PTI which the PMLN had handsomely won in 2018.

This result has led to some serious debate about what lies in store for the country in general and the PMLN in particular. Is this a sign that the Miltablishment, far from retreating from a loss of credibility among Pakistanis and adopting a neutral stance in politics, has determined to go the whole hog with Imran Khan, come hell or high water, which means another rigged election in 2022-23 and another five years for Imran Khan? Does it mean that Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative of cozying up to the Miltablishment and Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of challenging it have both come a cropper?

To be sure, there is, as the cliché goes, many a slip between the cup and the lip. PMLN optimists are hoping that serious cracks will develop within the top Miltablishment leaders over personal ambitions that will undo the Holy Trinity that lords it over Pakistan and open up space for either Shahbaz or Nawaz Sharif. Others are praying that Imran Khan will make some critical mistake that destroys his “same page” camaraderie with the Miltablishment. Some believe that the crisis of state and society is so severe – failing economy, anger on the streets, international outcast status, rising tide of militant Islamism, cross border terrorism and great power regional rivalries – that only a return to consensual democratic civilian rule can pull the country out of the abyss and that it is only a matter of time before this logic is understood and acted upon by the Miltablishment.

Whatever the pros and cons of these speculations, prayers and hopes, one thing is now certain. Nawaz Sharif is more than ever convinced that his narrative will triumph in the end and a crisis of state and society will compel the Miltablishment to beat a historic retreat sooner or later. We shall see …

SOURCEThe Friday Times