Opinion: How Pakistan Election Commission Has Become A Facade For The Deep State

Elections were held in Pakistan today. The prerequisite of free and fair elections in Pakistan lies with the institutions that have the onus to uphold democracy as per the people's mandate. However, Pakistan's case seems to be different. On paper, the structure of its Election Commission looks encouraging, with representation from retired judges of four of its state high courts. However, on the ground, the Election Commission of Pakistan is no different from the other biased institutions.

Pertinently, since the country's inception, it has been dominated by extra-democratic forces such as the military, bureaucracy, and Punjabi landlords. The situation is more or less similar in its 75 years of journey as a nation-state. With the help of Punjabi bigwigs, the military and bureaucratic institutions run the country.

A little insight into the Election Commission's structure highlights that along with a Chief Election Commissioner, four other election commissioners are from four provinces - Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, dominant power remains in the hands of the Chief Election Commissioner. The CEC of Pakistan generally comes from the Pakistan Administrative Service, which has its colonial lineage, making it one of the most influential and corrupt institutions in the country.

Pakistan's Current Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja has been handpicked by the country's powerful lobby. Born and raised in the Sargodha region of Punjab in a family of landlords and military officials, Raja's father was an Army official. Since his inception into the Pakistan Administrative Services in 1989, he has been appointed to crucial positions. He has served in key posts, including as petroleum secretary, railway secretary, secretary of aviation, and saffron secretary, in Pakistan's administration. After his retirement in 2020, he was appointed as the CEC.

Since then, there have been reports of misconduct by the CEC in various electoral processes. In mid-2022, Pakistan's Punjab assembly passed a resolution against the CEC, accusing him of partiality during the election process. PTI, the party of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, decided to go into legal battles with the CEC, and two provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed no-trust motions against the top election officer.

These visible tensions between the military bureaucracy and the PTI-ruled government caused the military to orchestrate Imran Khan's ouster in a well-planned conspiracy. Khan has been sentenced to jail in different corruption cases and is likely to stay in prison for trials in other cases till the election and probably thereafter, making him ineligible for the polls based on convictions and 'moral turpitude'. It is important to note that Khan is also facing shady trials, and the court recently ordered fresh and open trials in the cases against him.

In another turn of events, the Election Commission of Pakistan also stripped the PTI's electoral symbol - of a "bat" - last December. While the Peshawar High Court provided relief to Khan's party and restored its symbol, the Peshawar High Court's decision was annulled by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the original decision of the poll body about depriving PTI's iconic bat symbol was correct. People in the know of things say that the decision probably was forced upon the judiciary.

There is no doubt that PTI enjoys widespread support from the people of Pakistan. Losing its electoral symbol may cause the loss of some of its seats because the party plans to field its candidates as Independents. The PTI cadres know that losing the famous electoral symbol will have certain repercussions as it may confuse the people who connect the "bat" with ex-PM Imran Khan. Without a common symbol, the PTI is set to lose reserved seats in Pakistan's national and provincial assemblies, causing a loss of about 225 such seats

A little throwback into past elections reveals that the last free and fair elections in the country probably were held in 1970 when East Punjab's Awami League won. However, the mandate was not accepted by West Pakistan's military-political elites, causing a deep political crisis within the country that ultimately ended with the creation of Bangladesh.

Since then, none of Pakistan's elections have been called fair, and in 1977, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto held elections where allegations of rigging were prominent. It gave General Zia-ul-Haq a chance to topple the government, and he did so, leading to military rule in Pakistan for 11 years and the execution of Bhutto. Since the early 1990s till now, not much has changed in Pakistan except a prolonged military rule under General Pervez Musharraf. 

The two parties, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif) and Pakistan's People's Party (now led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari), have been in power with the military's blessings. These parties were considered largely corrupt and did not enjoy the legitimacy needed to govern the country. 

Imran Khan's Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which also came with the military's backing, enjoyed widespread support for a change. But, Imran Khan's stance about undue military-bureaucratic control over Pakistan's garrison state saw his planned ouster. After his ouster, the country erupted in nationwide protests, showing the legitimacy the previous Prime Minister enjoyed. 

It has been a historical trend that in Pakistan, power has been enjoyed by the over-privileged - a few who have been in power generation after generation. The case of the Election Commission of Pakistan is no different. 

The power within the institutions is generally vested in one person, and checks and balances on the post's accountability are not to the people of Pakistan but to the deep state that runs through the caucus of the military, Punjabi bigwigs, and corrupt bureaucracy.

Succumbing to Western pressure over the last decade, the Pakistani Army has not indulged in any coup attempts. But there is a tacit understanding among political elites that the Army will have the final say in the country's democracy, not people or politicians. Many observers call what the military is doing a clear case of "Election Engineering". 

However, it remains unclear what it will get by curtailing the people's right to vote for their favourite leaders by rigging the elections in favour of some. As protests erupted after Imran Khan's ouster, for the first time, its brunt has been faced by the military

Pakistan remains in a bad economic shape for decades with little sign of improvement. People's eroding trust in critical institutions such as the Election Commission and the armed forces will have a severe impact on Pakistan, which is walking on eggshells and is ready to implode any day.  

(Rajiv Tuli is an author and commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author