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Report 137 / Asia

Elections, Democracy and Stability in Pakistan

President Musharraf faces the most serious challenge to almost eight years of military rule.

Executive Summary

President Musharraf faces the most serious challenge to almost eight years of military rule. Opposition has gathered momentum following his failed attempt to remove the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Moderate political parties, all segments of civil society and the public at large are vociferously demanding restoration of democracy and rule of law and the military’s withdrawal from politics. The choice is not whether a transition will come but whether it will be peaceful and orderly, through free and fair elections, or violent. Musharraf and the high command are tempted to retain their power at all costs. Several of their options – particularly emergency – could portend disaster. Rigged or stalled elections would destabilise Pakistan, with serious international security consequences. Especially the U.S., needs to recognise its own interests are no longer served by military rule (if they ever really were) and use its considerable leverage to persuade the generals to return to the barracks and accept a democratic transition through free and fair parliamentary, followed by presidential, elections this year.

Bent on gaining another presidential term and retaining the office of army chief, Musharraf wants the present national and provincial assemblies (collectively the presidential Electoral College), which are themselves the product of the rigged 2002 polls and end their own five-year terms this year, to re-elect him. Opposition parties, including the main civilian contenders, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N), reject that. They also rightly fear that elections for new assemblies, if held at all, are likely to be rigged.

However, Musharraf can no longer count on a pliant judiciary endorsing his re-election by the current, stacked assemblies, his retention of the dual offices of president and army chief or any other unconstitutional act. Another stolen election would be strongly resisted by the opposition parties and civil society and could possibly lead to a violent confrontation between the military and protestors.

A rigged election would also not serve international interests. Now, as before, Musharraf has little choice but to support the Islamist parties to counter his moderate opposition. The pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)’s help is essential to him, particularly in Balochistan, where the staunchly anti-military Baloch nationalist parties would likely win a free and fair poll. In the national parliament too, Musharraf would need the Islamists’ support to get renewed approval of his dual hats. If the Islamist parties gain five more years of power in Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), their militant allies – Pakistani, Afghan and transnational – will benefit, and the moderate parties, which still retain the support of the vast majority of the population, will lose.

With his military government fast losing all claims to public support and legitimacy, Musharraf could decide to compromise with the national-level moderate parties, reaching, for instance, a power-sharing accord with Bhutto’s PPP, which would likely win a free and fair election. Speculation about such a compromise was revived by their meeting in Abu Dhabi on 27 July. By agreeing to hold such an election and give up his army post in return for the PPP supporting him for president, he could retain some legitimacy and policy-making influence. Given the momentum of the pro-democracy movement, however, this option may no longer be viable. Even if Bhutto is still amenable, Sharif’s PML-N rejects any further role for Musharraf, in or out of uniform, and the Supreme Court might be reluctant to give him a pass on the two-year constitutional bar on a retired general standing for public office. 

Musharraf and the high command could still refuse to see the writing on the wall and impose a state of emergency, suspending democratic rights and freedoms postponing general elections for a year and in effect imposing absolute military rule. Citing the threat of heightened militancy as a pretext for the action, he could then use the emergency powers to postpone national elections. This would fuel pro-democracy protests and civil disobedience, forcing the military either to back down or resort to violence. Such repression would cause citizens, especially in those regions such as Balochistan that have already suffered from military excesses, to lose belief that political change can come through peaceful and democratic means.

In the face of such unattractive options, it is also possible that the generals would conclude that a democratic transition is their best course. This would require them to withdraw their support from Musharraf and agree to genuine elections. Whether they reach such a decision, however, depends importantly upon how the international community uses its considerable leverage with the high command.

It is vital, therefore, that the international community understand its interests are best served by a stable, democratically-governed Pakistan. Since the 11 September terror attacks, the U.S. has provided the bulk of $10 billion in aid to the military, believing that the military is their reliable partner and the only institution with the capacity to govern and to combat militants. On the contrary, by excluding moderate parties, military rule has fanned extremism; by alienating the smaller provinces and virtually blocking all institutions and channels of meaningful participation, it threatens to destabilise a country of 160 million people in a strategic and volatile neighborhood. By permitting the Taliban insurgents, aligned with jihadi political parties, to operate from Pakistani sanctuaries, it has endangered the fragile democracy in Afghanistan.

The U.S. should use its considerable influence to persuade the generals to give up power, offering political and material incentives if they do so and threatening sanctions if they thwart democratic change. A free, fair and transparent election this year is the first, necessary step in the peaceful political transition that is needed to bring Pakistan to moderate, democratic moorings.

Islamabad/Brussels, 31 July 2007

Commentary / Asia

Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy

The new government of Imran Khan is repressing opposition voices and yielding to parties propagating sectarianism. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to help Pakistan abide by its international commitments and keep supporting democratic governance.

On 30 October 2018, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Masih (also known as Aasia Bibi) on blasphemy charges, a hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent demonstrations countrywide demanding the verdict’s reversal. The protests ended after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government offered immunity to Labaik’s leadership and violent activists and permitted the movement to submit a review petition calling on the court to reinstate Bibi’s death penalty. The government’s actions appeared to relent to a group that propagates sectarian hatred and threatens the lives of religious and other minorities. Meanwhile, the military-sponsored “mainstreaming” of anti-India jihadists (notably the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which permits such groups to rebrand and enter politics without renouncing militancy, risks further fuelling intolerance and sectarianism. Mainstreaming could also entail international sanction, given that it contravenes Pakistan’s counter-terrorism commitments. Yet another challenge lies in persistent political tensions: having come to power after contested elections in July 2018, Khan’s government thus far has done little to bridge divisions between it and opposition parties. The government has targeted opposition leaders in politicised corruption trials, while security forces’ have cracked down on dissenting voices within civil society and the media.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Leverage Pakistan’s sensitivity to its international standing and aversion to isolation, urge Pakistan to prosecute Labaik leaders and activists, through fair trials and with due process, for threatening judges and public officials, attacking police and citizens, and destroying public and private properties during the November 2018 protests; at the same time, call for parliament to enact legislation to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws that threaten the security of marginalised communities;
     
  • Also call on the government to implement existing and enact additional laws that meet international human rights standards to ban jihadists from fundraising, recruiting, and conducting attacks within the country and in the region;
     
  • Continue to support democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan, including calling for due process in prosecution of cases against the opposition and press the government to protect individual freedoms. Warn Islamabad that its failure to respect freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Rising Religious Intolerance and Violence

On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. In response, religious groups, spearheaded by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, the political front of the Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent protests countrywide, attacking police officers and citizens and destroying public and private property. By invoking highly-provocative claims of blasphemy, the several thousand Labaik protesters gained the support of many conservative Muslims. Holding “Hang Aasia Bibi” rallies, Labaik leaders accused Supreme Court judges of blasphemy, called for their assassination, and urged soldiers to mutiny against army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose religious faith they questioned. On 2 November, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with Labaik. Arguing that to do otherwise would lead to more violence, the government agreed not to take any action against Labaik leaders and supporters, releasing those responsible for inciting sectarian hatred and resorting to violence during the protests. It also agreed not to oppose a review petition to reinstate Bibi’s death sentence, to bar her from leaving the country until the Supreme Court has reached a decision on that petition, and to release those responsible for violence during the protests. Though the government may have faced a short-term dilemma in looking for a way to defuse the protests and avoid provoking wider unrest, the tensions provoked by intolerant and sectarian groups like Labaik is a problem of Pakistani authorities’ own making over decades, one that is reinforced, not lessened, by a pattern of capitulation to such groups.

Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death [in Pakistan], and those defending the innocent [...] have often been silenced.

Emboldened by the government’s backing down, Labaik threatened another protest on 24 November. The government, fearing more violence, quickly placed the group’s leaders and hundreds of activists under preventive detention. Although cases have been filed, including in anti-terrorism courts against Labaik’s top leadership, those men are still awaiting prosecution. The outcome of these cases is uncertain, but in similar instances in the past, the filing of charges has not led to prosecution, once immediate pressures are relieved and public attention wanes. Bibi, though freed by the courts, remains in hiding. Her case has fuelled the fears of religious minorities that the state cannot protect them if those responsible for inciting and using violence against their communities operate with impunity. Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, and those defending the innocent, such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed by his guard in 2011 for supporting Aasia Bibi, have often been silenced.

Labaik’s emergence and growing influence is closely tied to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services’ longstanding use of Islamists to challenge civilian rivals by supporting their forays into political life. Reportedly backed by the military to destabilise the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in November 2017, Labaik at that time accused the law minister of blasphemy and besieged Islamabad, attacking police officers and civilians. The siege ended after the military concluded a deal whereby the law minister resigned and the state gave Labaik leaders and activists immunity from criminal prosecution. In another bid to undermine the PML-N by cutting into its support base in the July 2018 election, Labaik created a political front to contest the vote even as it continued to encourage and deploy violence. Exploiting popular sentiment about blasphemy, Labaik won 2.2 million votes and emerged as the third-largest party in parliament after the PTI and PML-N. It now uses its newfound political legitimacy to raise funds, recruit and propagate a hardline sectarian agenda.

Militants Deepen their Political Clout

In addition to using Islamists to weaken other parties, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have also encouraged anti-India jihadists, including some designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations, to enter politics. Most prominent is the now-rebranded Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) – previously Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – and its charity front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. LeT/JD is included in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list. In June 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, placed Pakistan on its “grey list” due to lax counter-terrorism financing laws and enforcement. Partly to avert FATF pressure, a presidential ordinance nominally banned LeT/JD and its charity front in February 2018. But the banned group was allowed to take part in the 2018 vote through yet another front, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, though it failed to gain even a single seat. The presidential ordinance banning LeT/JD and its charity front has since lapsed.

In principle, encouraging militants to enter politics could help moderate them. In these circumstances, however, little suggests that will happen, given that the political participation of groups allied to the military is not conditioned on their abandoning violence or related recruitment and proselytising. Indeed, their rebranding and entry into politics appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep alive groups regarded as useful foreign policy proxies in the face of international pressure. The mainstreaming strategy, particularly as it pertains to groups on the 1267 list, poses risks for Pakistan at home and abroad. The failure to ban those groups and reform financing laws could see Pakistan listed on the FATF’s “blacklist” of “non-cooperative countries” next fall, with serious implications for the country’s reputation and economy. That failure also hinders any rapprochement with India: New Delhi refuses to resume bilateral dialogue with Islamabad, frozen since a 2016 attack attributed to Pakistan-based militants, until Pakistan takes decisive action against jihadists. For the region, the security risks inherent in the failure to demobilise such groups are grave: another major attack on India by Pakistan-based groups could bring the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.

Crackdowns Heighten Political Turmoil

The military’s backing of the PTI and its alleged support for Khan’s government as it targets opponents fuel the political acrimony that already marked the July 2018 election. The two main opposition parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and former President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were denied an equal playing field amid reports, as noted in the EU election observation mission’s October report, “of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs”.

Reportedly with military and judicial backing, the government is now pursuing the PML-N and PPP leadership through a legal process that is deeply partisan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, now opposition leader in the federal legislature, have been indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges without due process; the government is also lodging corruption cases against the PPP leadership. Unless the government changes course, political turmoil could increase at a time when militant threats are still acute – over 200 people died in terror attacks during the election. The government would be better served by working with the parliamentary opposition to ban and prosecute groups that refuse to shun violence and that propagate sectarian hatred.

Engaging with Pakistan

The EU should push Pakistani authorities to take steps to ease political acrimony, protect minorities and stop militants entering politics without first renouncing violence. First, in line with its traditional emphasis on the rule of law, the EU should leverage Pakistan’s concerns about its international standing to urge the government to ensure due process in prosecuting cases against opposition leaders and thus help defuse political tensions. It should warn Islamabad that failure to meet its human rights obligations, particularly in respecting freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief, could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Second, the EU should press the Pakistan parliament to amend blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Aasia Bibi’s case is one of scores in which false accusations of blasphemy have placed innocent people, particularly from religious and ethnic minorities, on death row. The EU Council has repeatedly voiced concerns about the abuse of these laws, including in their most recent conclusions on Pakistan. Updating the legislation is even more important now as Labaik is exploiting the blasphemy issue to foment sectarian hatred among parts of Pakistani society.

Lastly, though the EU has called on Pakistan to work with the FATF to strengthen its counter-terrorism financial oversight regime, it should also highlight the importance of implementing existing or drafting new laws to prevent jihadists and other militants that refuse to abjure violence from operating under changed names. In its October report, the EU Election Observation Mission rightly expressed concern about the “the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence”. So long as the state fails to take action against such groups, they will continue to fuel religious sectarianism and intolerance at home and threaten the security of Pakistan’s neighbours.