Pakistan goes to the polls

Pakistan Election 2024

Pakistan, the Muslim-majority country of 241 million, is about to vote in a civilian parliament on February 8. Sadly, its most popular democratic leader – Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan – will not be on this year’s ballot, because he is behind bars, serving a plethora of sentences that he and his supporters decry as “politically motivated” and “a conspiracy”.

They are right.

Unlike her neighbors to the east, Pakistan has evolved more into what experts call a ‘garrison’ state than a real democracy where people’s choices matter.

The same disruptive forces, i.e., the military and the civilian power clique in Punjab, that were responsible for splitting Pakistan in 1971 would continue to play a major role thereafter until Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party emerged as the single largest political party in 2018 general election. The PTI formed a coalition government enjoying wide public support that lasted until April 2022 when he was ousted through a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly. Khan claimed the US was behind his removal because he conducted an independent foreign policy and had friendly relations with China and Russia.

As Professor Jeff Sachs has rightly noted in his website, a principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy has been covert regime change, meaning a secret action by the U.S. government to bring down the government of another country. Imran Khan was deemed unfriendly by the Biden administration and had to vacate his seat.

“The U.S. desired to bring down the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the charismatic, talented, and hugely popular leader in Pakistan, renowned both for his world-leading cricket mastery and for his common touch with the people. His popularity, independence, and enormous talents make him a prime target of the U.S., which frets about popular leaders who don’t fall into line with U.S. policy,” writes Professor Sachs.

According to him, Imran Khan’s “sin” was to be too cooperative with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, while also seeking normal relations with the United States. The great mantra of U.S. foreign policy, and the activating principle of the CIA, has been that a foreign leader is “either with us or against us.” Leaders seeking neutrality dating back to Patrice Lumumba (Zaire), Norodom Sihanouk (Cambodia), Sheikh Mujib (Bangladesh), Viktor Yanukovych (Ukraine), and many others, have been toppled with the not-so-hidden-hand of the U.S. government.

Khan sealed his fate on March 6, 2023 when he held a large rally in northern Pakistan. At the rally, he rebuked the West, and especially 22 EU ambassadors, for pressuring him to condemn Russia at a vote in the United Nations. He also denounced NATO’s war against terror in next-door Afghanistan as having been utterly devastating to Pakistan, with no acknowledgment, respect, or appreciation for Pakistan’s suffering.

Khan told the cheering crowds, “EU ambassadors wrote a letter to us asking us to condemn and vote against Russia… What do you think of us? Are we your slaves … that whatever you say, we will do?” He added, “We are friends with Russia, and we are also friends with America; we are friends with China and with Europe; we are not in any camp. Pakistan would remain neutral and work with those trying to end the war in Ukraine.”

Just one day after Khan’s rally, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu met in Washington with Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan. Following the meeting, Ambassador Khan sent a secret cable (a “cypher”) back to Islamabad, which was then leaked to The Intercept by a Pakistani military official.

The cable recounts how Assistant Secretary Lu berated Prime Minister Khan for his neutral stance. The cable quotes Lu as saying that “people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.”

Lu then relayed the bottom line to Ambassador Khan. “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

And the rest is history! Five weeks later on April 10, with the U.S. blunt threat hanging over the powerful Pakistani military, and with the military’s hold over the Pakistani parliament, the Parliament ousted Khan in a no-confidence vote.

Within weeks, the new government followed with blatantly manufactured charges of corruption against Khan, to put him under arrest and prevent his return to power. In utterly Orwellian turn, when Khan made known the existence of the diplomatic cable that revealed America’s role in his ouster, the new government charged Khan with espionage.

Khan’s trial for allegedly leaking state secrets was conducted in camera inside a makeshift courtroom within a jail complex, with public and media banned. Khan’s own defense team were blocked from taking part, with the judge appointing two state-employed colleagues of the prosecution to represent Khan instead.

He has now been convicted on these “charges” to an unconscionable 10 years. He still faces an avalanche of charges, 180 by last count. The legal assault on Khan joins with a broader purge of his party, which has seen thousands of workers arrested, dozens of its leaders quit under duress, its famed cricket-bat logo banned, and constituency boundary lines redrawn to allegedly benefit its opponents. Khan’s name has been scrubbed from mainstream media and his own nomination papers rejected.

The U.S. government has remained silent on this outrage. When asked at a press briefing last week about attempts to muzzle the PTI, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller cut the question short, saying he couldn’t comment on the specific report because “I haven’t seen it,” before saying “we want to see free and fair elections take place in Pakistan.”

Really? Whom is Miller trying to fool? The US has never been serious about democracy in its client, vassal, and ‘friendly’ states.

Pakistan’s military, widely referred to as the ‘establishment’ has been slavishly serving that role rather thanklessly since 9/11. It has always been Pakistan’s most powerful institution, playing the role of a kingmaker. It has ruled the country directly for more than three decades since its birth in 1947. It became an institution with de facto veto powers at its disposal to overrule other actors within society including elected governments. Simultaneously, it has been acquiring foreign patrons and donors willing to arm it as part of the Cold War competition (the United States), regional balance-of-power concerns (China), and ideological contestants for leadership over the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia, to contain Iranian influence).

Not surprisingly, no political party has ruled the country without being approved by this powerful ‘establishment’.

Thanks to the military support, the same corrupt political clique that had siphoned off billions of dollars is back in power in Pakistan. Lest one forgets, corruption was at its zenith between 1990 and 1999, better known as the Benazir Bhutto-Nawaz Sharif years. Four democratically elected governments were alternately dismissed as a result of charges of corruption and misuse of power. Such was the corruption under Benazir Bhutto that her husband Asif Ali Zardari was nicknamed ‘Mr 10 percent’ (for his alleged propensity to take his cut). The New York Times reported that between 1994 and 1998, a Swiss company reportedly paid millions of dollars to corporations controlled by Zardari and Bhutto. A West Asia gold dealer also reportedly gave Zardari a $10 million bribe after he was given a monopoly on gold imports in Pakistan, according to the report. When Sharif was re-elected as prime minister in 1998, he initiated legal proceedings against Bhutto and Zardari, accusing them of embezzling $60 million in Swiss bank accounts. The case was dubbed ‘Swissgate’ by the media. In 2017 Nawaz Sharif was ordered to step down as prime minister by the country’s Supreme Court, after revelations about his family’s finances emerged in the Panama Papers.

All those charges against those convicted criminals were dropped by the ‘establishment’ allowing them to return and participate on February 8 election.

Pakistan’s history has truly been a sad tale of doom and gloom. No prime minister in Pakistan has ever finished a five-year term, but three out of four military dictators were able to rule for more than nine years each.

Frankly speaking, Pakistan military general’s meddling in politics since the 1950s has brought nothing but division, disgrace and harm to her people who deserve better.

In 1971, one Pakistani Rupee was equivalent to 1.25 Indian Rupee. Today, one Indian Rupee is worth 3.34 Pakistani Rupee. That says a lot about Pakistan’s economy of the past half-a-century!

Since the turn of the millennium, per capita GDP in Pakistan has risen by an average of just 1% annually. In 2000, the average Pakistani was some 50% richer than his Indian counterpart; today, they are 25% poorer. Headline inflation rose to 29.7% year-over-year in December owing to tax hikes and a sharp fall in the currency. 

Pakistani politicians by and large have been very corrupt with very few and rare exceptions like Imran Khan. Truly, in the last six decades there has not been a more sincere Pakistani leader than Imran Khan who genuinely cares about the country and its people. Despite the pandemic and his spotty diplomatic trouble with the USA, growth under Imran Khan averaged at 6% for his last two years in office.

A Bloomberg survey in January 2024 showed Khan to be the top pick among some Pakistani finance professionals to run the country’s failing economy. With an approval rating of more than 80%, he remains the most loved politician in the country. Apparently, he is going to remain behind the bar for a long time, unless the military or the unpopular government is told by Washington to release him.

Irrespective of the outcomes of the general election, Pakistan’s future would continue to look bleak unless the coercive control of her US-controlled military establishment over politics is totally uprooted and both the military establishment and politicians, who serve their western masters, are shunned once and for all.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui is an anti-war and human rights activist

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