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“Political Crisis Will Continue”: Close Contest in Pakistan Amid Election Crackdown

StoryFebruary 09, 2024
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Initial election results in Pakistan show a lead for candidates affiliated with imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan’s political party was blocked from running for office, and supporters have accused Pakistan’s military-backed interim government of trying to rig the election by shutting down cellphone and internet services just as voting began and by delaying election results. “It’s up in the air exactly how many seats each party has got,” says journalist Munizae Jahangir, who reports from Karachi that “there is no clarity” on who won, despite substantial voter turnout. “Irrespective of the results, the political crisis that we’re seeing in Pakistan is going to continue,” says Pakistani political activist Alia Amirali, who describes the long history of military interference with democratic processes in the country. “It’s not that people’s votes don’t matter; it’s just that the military will certainly manipulate the results.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh, joined by Amy Goodman.

In Pakistan, independent candidates affiliated with imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan are leading the country’s elections as official results continue to come in. The results so far have come as a surprise to many observers, given the extent of support to PTI loyalists. Khan’s supporters have accused Pakistan’s military-backed interim government of trying to rig the election by shutting down cellphone and internet services just as voting began and by delaying election results. Khan was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions he says were politically motivated. He was imprisoned in the run-up to the election.

In a close second so far are candidates with the Pakistan Muslim League party of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who’s backed by the military. Sharif returned to Pakistan in October after four years of self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences in corruption cases. Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

And coming in third so far is the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

For more, we’re joined by Alia Amirali, Pakistani political activist and organizer. She’s a member of the left-wing Awami Workers Party, normally based in Islamabad, but joins us today from London, where she’s a graduate student at the London School of Economics. And in Karachi, we’re joined by Munizae Jahangir, journalist and the host of a political talk show on Pakistan’s leading news network, where she’s been covering the elections. She’s also editor-in-chief of the digital media platform Voicepk.net. She’s co-chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Munizae Jahangir, why don’t we begin with you? Tell us about the election results, what you see coming in, the latest news. I’m afraid we seem to have lost Munizae. We’ll try to get back to her. Alia Amirali, if you could comment on what you see coming out of Pakistan?

ALIA AMIRALI: Yeah. I mean, I think — well, the fact that the results continue to pour in so slowly and are so delayed is itself an indicator that whatever the results actually end up being, they’re not particularly credible. And so, I think that irrespective of the results, the political crisis that we’re seeing in Pakistan is going to continue.

And I think it’s worth remembering that, you know, in Pakistan, this is not unusual. Like elections have never been a straightforward affair where people just come out and make their will known. I mean, it’s worth remembering that the first general elections in the country, in 1970, were, in fact, not just dismissed by the military establishment, but ended up being the first time in history where a majority actually separated from a country — I’m referring to Bangladesh. And ever since then, I mean, elections in Pakistan have always been a more or less controlled affair.

What I think is different, though, about these elections and what has been happening successively in Pakistan is an increasingly sort of — this sort of military control over Pakistan’s political affairs is becoming tense and untenable. We’re seeing this time, you know, there’s this very large young and politicized electorate, and also an increasingly divided electorate. I mean, if we look at sort of, you know, just voting patterns and sort of how people are approaching and how meaningful elections are in the center versus Pakistan’s peripheries, there’s, you know, the gulf. The political gulf between center and periphery is increasing, and these elections are going to be — you know, are going to be a clear indicator of that.

And I think, finally, like, you know, quite irrespective of Imran Khan being the opposition, and I think — you know, at least the unofficial results that have been coming in over social media ever since yesterday do show that the PTI has gotten a lot of seats, and perhaps the official results will not reflect that as accurately as perhaps the actual sort of results have. But I think it’s worth remembering that the PTI is basically composed of electables who have belonged to different parties at different times and, you know, who have sort of jumped ship, let’s just say, from one party to the other in the past, who are basically local landlords, chieftains, businessmen, and have been part of the political establishment for a very, very long time. So, I think, in terms of what Pakistan is facing, you know, its economic crisis, its climate crisis, the ecological crisis, and then the political crisis in the peripheries, irrespective of who comes to power, neither the military leadership nor any of these political parties seem to have a solution to this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: OK, we seem to have gotten Munizae Jahangir back on the line. Munizae, if you could respond to what’s happening? You were following the election, minute by minute, for your own news program. What most struck you as results were coming in? And what do you see today? What are the results so far?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, one of the first things that is of immediate concern is that the results were supposed to be released this morning at 10 a.m. Now, several hours later, we still do not have the results of this — the complete results of this general election. And there is no clarity on who is going to be forming government in the center and who is going to be forming government in Punjab, simply because the symbol from the PTI, the Imran Khan-backed party, was taken away, and as a result it threw off many independents.

So, right now in the lead are PTI-backed independent candidates. There are 52. And then, following close is Nawaz Sharif-backed PML-N with 40 candidates. And then there’s the Pakistan People’s Party with a total of 19 candidates. So, it’s up in the air exactly how many seats each party has got and whether the PTI will be allowed to form a party and also, you know, continue in the National Assembly in the form of a political party, which means that they will then get reserve seats, which would shore up their majority, and they will be in a clear position to then make government in the center. They are claiming that they can make government in the center and in the biggest province of Pakistan, which is Punjab. However, we have not seen the actual results.

The problem in Pakistan has been that there was an election management system that was dependent on the internet. Now, internet signals went down. And earlier on, there were certain government ministers who kept on saying that “There’s a terror threat, and therefore we will be shutting down the internet.” When there was an outcry over that decision, the government, the caretaker government, backtracked. And now it said they will in fact not be blocking the internet. But, lo and behold, when everybody woke up in the morning to go and vote, the internet across Pakistan and data services across Pakistan has been blocked. Even as we speak now — and it is the second day of the elections, and it’s 7 p.m. in Pakistan — we still do not have a proper signal across Pakistan. So, as a result, people were not able to get to the polling stations the way they wanted because there is a fear factor that settled in.

Having said that, we still saw a substantial turnout in this election. We still saw an eager voter wanting to go out and vote. We saw women come out in substantial numbers to come out and vote. And I think that was the biggest concern. But the people have spoken. They have voted against a party that was seen to be pro-establishment, and voted for a party, as you know, that was seen to be against the establishment.

But are the results going to be accepted? We are now getting information and reports from the ground that returning officers, which were appointed by Election Commission to deliver the result, one of them, in Lahore, had been picked up. We do not know where he is. The candidate has cried foul and gone to the courts. In other cases, we are seeing that the form that was supposed to be submitted, they are showing different numbers. The initial forms that were submitted to the Election Commission, which the media had got a hand of, which is called the Form 45, which the presiding officers were supposed to give to residing officers, they had a different outcome. And the one that the residing officers gave to the Election Commission has a different outcome. We are also receiving reports that the residing officers were confined to certain rooms by the military. And, of course, these are reports that are unconfirmed, but, certainly, there is enough evidence to suggest that during the night there was significant manipulation of the results as they were coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Alia Amirali, who is in London right now but closely following the Pakistan elections. For a global audience, Alia, who are not closely following politics in Pakistan, if you can explain to us how the system is working right now? We saw the violence in the lead-up to the election, candidates gunned down, the telecommunications going down. You had PTI barred, so Imran Khan’s party — Imran Khan, who has been jailed for corruption — running as independents because the party is barred; Nawaz Sharif, who was imprisoned for a time, coming up second. Do you agree that all these independents, that seem to be ahead now — they’re saying the reason the results aren’t in is because they’re being tampered with, they’re being finagled with? But for a global audience, to put this election in context, and where the military stands, the Pakistani military stands, in the middle of all of this, such a powerhouse in running Pakistan?

ALIA AMIRALI: Mm-hmm, yeah. Yeah, as I said earlier, I think it’s important to remember the history of — you know, I prefer to use the term “civilian rule” rather than “democracy,” because it literally is just — the battle for elections to simply take place and the results to be accepted has been a constant struggle for Pakistan since its inception. I mean, we have to remember that the first general elections took place in 1970. The country was created in 1947. We’ve still spent more than half of our political history under direct military rule. And as I said earlier, like where we began, the 1970 elections, the results were not accepted, and we lost more than half of what was then Pakistan as a result.

And I think what has happened over time is that the military establishment has become more and more insecure, and that insecurity has meant greater attempts to manipulate and control, not just the election, electoral process and its technicalities, but there is a whole sort of foreplay that happens beforehand about — and alliances that are made. And, you know, in Pakistan, it’s common knowledge for people to assume that governments are made — it’s not that elections don’t — like, that people’s votes don’t matter.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alia, you have 10 seconds. Ten seconds.

ALIA AMIRALI: OK. So, it’s not that people’s votes don’t matter; it’s just that, you know, the military will certainly manipulate the results.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alia Amirali, Pakistani political activist and organizer, thank you so much for joining us. Munizae Jahangir, journalist and host of a political talk show on Pakistan’s leading news network.

That does it for the show. I’m Nermeen Shaikh, with Amy Goodman. A happy early birthday to Messiah Rhodes! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff and Tey-Marie Astudillo. Thank you so much for joining you — joining you? Joining me.

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