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Army wins Pakistan’s elections

Pakistan’s elections have been run and won … by the Pakistan Armed Forces. The adage that it takes more than elections to have  democracy is ringing true in what many are calling Pakistan’s ‘silent coup’.

Former test cricketer and serial political candidate Imran Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ,or PTI) was on track to win the largest share of of seats in the national parliament and do well in the four provincial elections. But his open support for the armed forces and their both open and covert support for him will ensure they continue as the pre-eminent state institution.

More than 100 million Pakistani’s were eligible to cast a vote in the troubled elections, which for just the second time in Pakistan’s history has seen a transition from one (nominally) civilian government to another. The incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of jailed prime minister Nawaz Sharif was widely expected to provide strong resistance to the military-backed PTI, but fall short of a plurality in the elections.

More than 200 people have been killed in election-related violence, including three candidates.  Much of the violence has been in the province of Balochistan, in which there is a separatist movement and an extensive Islamist insurgency. Campaign offices have also been ransacked while the news media has been suppressed.

Just before the elections, ousted prime minister Sharif returned from exile, only to be immediately jailed on a corruption conviction in absentia. Pakistan’s judiciary, which jailed Sharif,, has been accused of being partisan.

Khan’s PTI has campaigned on a moderate Muslim pro-welfare, anti-corruption ticket, which has been standard fare for in-coming Pakistani governments. Sharif himself campaign on such a ticket during the last elections, as had successful Pakistani political leaders before him.

While Khan has advocated in favor of reform, he also has come out strongly in favor of Pakistan’s army, saying they are essential to maintaining the security of the state. Army spokesmen have similar commented favorably on Khan’s PTI as the best choice for government.

The conventional view is that Pakistan needs to have a disproportionately strong armed forces to deter the possibility of war with India. Since partition and independence in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought four wars and several border skirmishes.

While most of these conflicts have focused on the disputed Jammu-Kashmir region, in 1971 India invaded Pakistan in support of East Pakistan’s independence as Bangladesh. The Pakistani army also quells internal dissent, although it has been implicated in supporting extremist Islamist groups operating in Afghanistan and India.

This has not, however, explained the military on three occasions taking power from civilian leaders, and only tolerating them under its tutelage.  

While Khan’s PTI has fared poorly in past elections, his chances this time around have been boosted – at the army’s urging – by defections from the ruling PML-N, and the Pakistan People’s Party of former Prime Ministers Zulfikar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. That is, politicians who have been previously tainted by corrupt associations make up much of Khan’s PTI.

The army has also been noted for forbidding non-state media outlets from reporting on the campaign and pressuring state news media not to report negatively on Khan’s PTI but to concentrate on Sharif’s conviction for corruption in July, in the lead up to the elections.

Pakistan will come out of these elections with a civilian led government, very likely led by Imran Khan and his PTI. However, the all-powerful army will continue to dominate the state and direct its policies on engagement with China, its role in semi-covert role in Afghanistan and Jammu-Kashmir, and on its extensive and growing military budget.