Pakistan’s general election, coming up in a week, has been a torpid affair, unlike most previous Pakistani elections, which were lively and hotly contested. As I noted in a prior blog, the most popular politician in the country, Imran Khan, has been banned from competing, and his party has been severely hampered in its ability to win votes.
Today, Khan and his wife were each sentenced to fourteen years in jail for bribery. (He already faced a prior sentence of ten years for allegedly leaking state secrets, a sentence also handed down to his foreign minister.) If that sentence is carried out, it will take Khan out of politics for a very long time, perhaps forever, given that he is already seventy-one years old. To make matters worse, the military—by far the most powerful institution in the country—seems to have imposed censorship on Pakistani journalists covering aspects of the Khan case, his party, and anything related to Khan in general.
Khan’s biggest offense? Directly challenging the military, the biggest no-no in Pakistani politics. Though popular among many Pakistanis, a direct challenge to the military sealed Khan’s fate. And alas, his fate is not unusual. In Asia and worldwide, militaries have returned to meddling more directly in politics (although the Pakistani military never left)—a trend that includes rising coups in Africa, the growing militarization of politics in Asia and Latin America, and coups in Southeast Asia. It also demonstrates a continuing trend of democratic regression in South and Southeast Asia, which recently included Bangladesh’s unfair election and will probably include India’s election, which will likely be contested in highly unfair conditions to opposition parties.
The sentence against Khan will probably be a death blow for Khan and his party and has contributed to a sluggish public atmosphere around the election on February 8. As Al Jazeera reported, the result of the sentence means, “The verdict disqualifies Khan for ten years from holding public office, according to his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) … The PTI said its central offices in Islamabad have been cordoned off and sealed by police.”
In the past, Pakistan’s big civilian parties occasionally rallied together to push back against the military. But they do not appear interested in defending Khan—who swiped many of their voters in his rise to power—and instead seem willing to take advantage of Khan’s downfall to return to power, essentially accepting the military’s dominance. Longtime politician Nawaz Sharif, who was in jail during the 2018 election for corruption and then lived in exile for six years, has suddenly had all the charges against him dropped. His slate was wiped clean in time to return to Pakistan for the February 8 election. The losers, alas, are Pakistani citizens, who face unfair politics at a time when the country is struggling on so many levels—with energy crises, a poor economy, rising inflation, and many other woes.
The timing is highly suspicious and suggests that a deal has been cut between Sharif and the military, one that would allow his party to dominate the polls and enable Sharif to become a prime minister—but one pliant to the armed forces.