Pakistan’s General Election Is a Generals’

Since the Country’s Founding, the Military Has Ruled Over Civilian Affairs—This Vote Won’t Change That

This Thursday, February 8th, Pakistanis head to the polls. But lawyer Fahad Mehsood explains why, regardless who wins, nothing will change in the country as long as the military retains its grip on state affairs. Pakistan’s former Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa (right) handing over a ceremonial baton to successor Gen. Asim Munir in 2022. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Maybe it’s best to ask if Pakistan’s 2024 election is to be called a general election, or a generals’ election.

As a lawyer and rule of law consultant for different development and non-government organizations, I think that despite the country’s robust court system, its elections exert rule by generals’ rule—not law.

Since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, rarely has an election result here truly conveyed the people’s will. The establishment—comprising of military higher-ups and the occasional inclusion of a few top officials from the civil bureaucracy—has already stolen the people’s mandate to elect national leadership this Thursday.

In Pakistan, the scramble for power among the political parties is like an invitation for bids from the Army. Political parties in Pakistan have internalized that appeasing the military is the only sure way to access power corridors. That means the winning party is always the one that allows the Army the most power over civilian affairs. This ensures a dark reality in which the Army continues to tighten its grip on state affairs at the expense of common livelihood and marginalized regions in the country in a devastating feedback loop.

This time around, the Army under the command of General Asim Munir has thrown its backing to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party headed by Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. It’s a rekindling of their romance; the last breakup between the military and the party resulted in Sharif’s imprisonment in July 2018. After seeking court permission to travel abroad on medical grounds, Sharif chose the cold of London over that of prison bars, never completing his sentence and returning to Pakistan only after he was confident that everything could be managed in his favor. He is now expected to win this week’s election with military backing.

But PML-N, a center-right party, isn’t the most popular party in Pakistan. That distinction arguably goes to the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party led by Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, who was removed from office via a vote of no confidence in April 2022. Together with PML-N, the Army is trying every trick up its sleeves to keep PTI out of the polls. There have been wide-scale arbitrary arrests of ordinary PTI workers and top leaders, including Khan himself. The Supreme Court upheld a controversial decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan depriving PTI of its electoral ballot symbol (a cricket bat, since Khan is a lauded cricketer known for helming the team that won the 1992 Cricket World Cup). Intelligence agencies have attacked PTI candidates, coerced them to leave PTI, and tried to stop them from submitting their nomination papers to participate in the polling process. Those are just a few instances of pre-poll rigging that have already marred the credibility of the upcoming polls.

Despite the country’s robust court system, its elections exert rule by generals’ rule—not law.

The major parties—PML-N, PTI, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)—all see themselves as Pakistan’s savior. But how can one believe them?

Many of the mainstream political parties’ leaders are influential industrialists, businesspersons, and landowners. They contest elections only to further their economic interests. Monetary concessions in the forms of rebates, zero percent taxes, and huge subsidies to the agriculture, industrial, and manufacturing sectors these politicians lead have left the economy in tatters. The common man comes at the bottom of the government’s priority list when it formulates economic policies. Regulations are tilted always in favor of the elite.

Economic stability is far from sight. Inflation and unemployment are the highest they’ve been since 1973. Experts are forecasting a deepening economic crisis, as Islamabad has to pay off $77.5 billion in external debt, mostly to Saudi Arabia, private creditors, and Chinese financial institutions, by June 2026. Some economists fear that the government may default. The incoming government, in the meantime, will need another boost from international lenders to churn the economy. That will result in even higher inflation, industry shutdowns, and massive unemployment.

The political landscape of Pakistan is even more complicated. This election, the mainstream parties will battle in the urban centers of Sindh, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). None are focusing on the periphery areas of Balochistan and the newly merged areas in KP where the military is the de facto administrative force. Why? Is it just that there are too few seats for them to bother? Or is it that any party that attempts to address the forceful abductions, and extra-judicial killings of dissenters in these remote areas, like Turbat and Waziristan, will eventually invite the wrath of the military? The Army, reluctant to give up on the influence and control that it has gained over the years, thinks its control over these areas is necessary for keeping Pakistan intact and to have a greater say in the formulation of Islamabad’s foreign policy.

The marginalization of the Baloch and Pashtun belt—where these two ethnic groups make up the majority—poses serious threats to Pakistan’s political foundations. The army controls the Balochistan province and gross human rights abuses in these regions over the last two decades have given birth to militancy and political agitation, including the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in 2018. But instead of pushing back by considering what is wrong with its policies, the establishment has succumbed to nationalistic paranoia, its favorite fodder, and often amps up the abuse. The arrest of Manzoor Pashteen, PTM’s leader, in December 2023, and the manhandling of participants of the Baloch Yakjehti Mahaz, a female-led protest movement by Baloch people against the Army’s rule of Balochistan and the forceful abductions and extra-judicial killings of Baloch dissidents, by Islamabad police are exemplary of this. None of the political parties have offered any plan in their manifestos to address political fault lines which, if left unchecked, could result in the implosion of the country.

Rule of law is the only solution to the political challenges confronting Pakistan. It is my firm belief that rule of law, in Pakistan’s context, means having an uncompromising stance on the “Fundamental Rights” granted to citizens under the Constitution. This includes upholding the right to a fair trial and protecting people from arbitrary detentions, forceful disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the hands of law enforcement. If the judiciary ferociously upholds these rights for all the citizens, only then will the establishment respect rule of law and think twice before committing violence against ordinary people. Unfortunately, the courts have repeatedly failed to fulfill their responsibility thus far.

For a long time, I used to persuade my friends and colleagues not to settle abroad, and to play their part in taking the country forward. I sincerely believed that earning a few thousand dollars less in Pakistan was better than adding a few bucks to one’s pocket and leaving one’s homeland. My worldview has changed significantly over the past three years. Now I encourage people to shift to countries that offer them a decent lifestyle. The rot is so great that only a new social contract, perhaps in the form of a new Constitution, unambiguous in its language on the supremacy of rule of law and inviolability of human rights between the state and citizens, can fix it.

Will the next government deliver, and hold rule of law supreme and human rights inviolable?

Probably not. This election will not change anything for good.

Fahad Mehsood is a lawyer and development consultant. He was a member of the editorial team of The Nation from 2017 to 2021.
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