Pakistan: The Triumph Of Ballets Over Bullets – OpEd


As polls closed following Pakistan’s parliamentary election on February 8, major media networks began election-night coverage with prominent TV anchors and pundits discussing voter turnout and the timeline for expected results.

When it came time to offer his analysis, one of Pakistan’s most popular TV hosts, Hamid Mir, launched an unexpected tirade against the entire electoral process. He refused to call the proceedings of the day an “election,” railed against the suspension of mobile services (which caused massive disruption to voters as they cast their ballots), and questioned the relevance of discussing voter turnout when the outcome of the election was predetermined.

This was a stunning moment on live television at a time when Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus had systematically suppressed all forms of dissent. Somebody had dared to vocalize what millions of Pakistanis in the country and in the diaspora already knew about the deeply flawed electoral process.

Mir was perhaps referring to pre-election rigging against Pakistan’s most popular political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, as the night wore on, the military and intelligence establishment in collaboration with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) tried to pull off the greatest post-electoral heist in Pakistan’s recent history.

As soon as the media began reporting that PTI-backed candidates were defeating former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (favored by the military) and other leading candidates in his party, the ECP abruptly withheld and delayed the announcement of results in key constituencies. Several hours later, Pakistanis woke up to an entirely new reality. PTI candidates who had been winning by wide margins and had documentation to prove it, found themselves defeated according to the ECP.  Despite “losing” dozens of seats in the process, which they are currently challenging in the courts, PTI-backed candidates still won the highest number of seats in parliament.

Put simply, PTI supporters in Pakistan staged nothing short of a civilian coup against the Pakistani military.

Rather than continue to support the discredited military establishment bent on subverting the will of the people, the Biden administration would do well to support the democratic aspirations of millions of Pakistanis.

Pre-Election Rigging  

As the date for parliamentary elections approached, the PTI was stripped of its electoral symbol, and party candidates were forced to contest as independents. The party chairman and former Prime Minister Imran Khan was convicted on three separate counts and sentenced to a total of 31 years. PTI candidates and their families were targeted, harassed, and assaulted, and many were forced to campaign in hiding.

Voter suppression was rife. People did not know until very late where they would vote, and at times voters within a single family were assigned polling stations hundreds of miles apart. The day before the election, citing security concerns, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that polls would close early, further restricting voter access.

And yet, despite massive pre-poll rigging and voter intimidation, supporters of the PTI came out in droves. Tens of millions exercised their electoral rights and delivered a stunning upset.

Rather than continue to support the military at the expense of democratic processes in Pakistan, the U.S. government would do well to understand the implications of this unprecedented moment in Pakistan’s history.

The Pakistani election demonstrated that despite long periods of direct and indirect military rule in the country, the people of Pakistan continue to have faith in the democratic process. It made clear that the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies can no longer manipulate electoral processes and outcomes in the face of overwhelming people power. It revealed that the military’s attempts to control the narrative by muzzling the media and targeting journalists no longer work with a population that is technologically adept and social-media savvy. It showed that the military’s iron grip is slipping.

Once a venerated institution in Pakistan, the military is now viewed with contempt by millions of Pakistanis in the country and in the diaspora, who blame it for Imran Khan’s ouster. They are now increasingly aware of the insidious role the military leadership played in various chapters of Pakistan’s history: its genocidal actions in 1971 against the Bengalis of East Pakistan, its cultivation of militant groups to advance domestic and foreign policy objectives, its involvement in the enforced disappearances of Pakistani citizens, its collaboration with the CIA in the so-called War on Terror, and its repeated violations of Pakistan’s constitution.

U.S.-Pakistan Relations

It is no longer sustainable for the U.S. government to continue its support of the Pakistani military and risk its long-term relationship with a population of 240 million, two-thirds of which is under 30.

Successive U.S. administrations have relied on the Pakistani military to advance their strategic interests and actively worked to undermine “aggressively neutral” civilian leaders like Imran Khan, who tried to craft independent foreign policies.

It is why the Biden administration remained conspicuously silent in the face of brutal state repression against Imran Khan’s supporters following his ouster two years ago. This indifference continued in the run-up to the election even after widespread reports of pre-poll rigging.

Disillusioned by the administration’s lack of support, many in the Pakistani-American community turned to their elected representatives to garner bipartisan support for House Resolution 901, which called for free and fair elections in Pakistan. They managed to get more than 70 members of Congress to co-sponsor the resolution.

Since the election, and at the behest of Pakistani-American constituents, many of these representatives tweeted their alarm at the massive rigging that took place on election day. Some called on Pakistani authorities to respect the will of the people, while others called for an investigation into the election amid charges of widespread fraud.

This is a critical moment in Pakistan’s history and for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Amid growing anti-Americanism in the nuclear-armed country, the Biden administration has an opportunity to reset its relations with the people of Pakistan. As is being urged by some members of Congress, the administration should stand in solidarity with the Pakistani people and publicly refuse to recognize the results of Pakistan’s election until all irregularities are resolved. Anything short of that will imperil stability in the country as well as in the region. It will also make a mockery of Biden’s rhetoric regarding democratic principles and the rule of law.

This articl was published by FPIF

Mehlaqa Samdani

Mehlaqa Samdani is founder and director of the Community Alliance for Peace, an advocacy organization that seeks to impact policy and public opinion on matters related to South Asia and the Middle East.

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