Farce Majeure: Why Pakistan’s 2018 General Election is a brutal mockery By Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan’s farcical election features Nawaz Sharif and his daughter in prison, hardline terrorists freely contesting, media censorship, crackdowns on protests — and bomb blasts targeting select political rallies.

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Author Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan has had a succession of weak elected civilian governments — but most of them at least started out with a veneer of respectability. The government formed after the July 25, 2018 election would be the first to lack credibility from its very first day.

Pakistan has had a succession of weak elected civilian governments — but most of them at least started out with a veneer of respectability. The government formed after the July 25, 2018 election would be the first to lack credibility from its very first day.

These elections are being held under the shadow of media censorship, arbitrary disqualifications of leading candidates, manipulation of political parties by intelligence services, and the mainstreaming of terrorists.

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PML-N supporters arrested after holding a rally to obstruct the arrest of Mohammad Safdar, son-in-law of of Nawaz Sharif.

Even by Pakistani standards, the interference of Pakistan’s military establishment is too blatant and too obvious this time for the world to ignore. If the establishment’s favorites win, they will not be viewed as having won the people’s mandate.

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People’s mandate? The interference of Pakistan’s military establishment is too blatant and too obvious this time for the world to ignore

In case they somehow lose, the stage will be set for a new round of confrontation between the establishment and its protégés, on the one hand, and the political parties they tried to block, on the other.

In unprecedented panic on part of the establishment, no holds have been barred in denying space to Pakistan’s political mainstream — while mainstreaming extremists.

This is an unusual election because restrictions are in place on all moderate political parties previously preferred by voters, while extremists identified as terrorists by local and global authorities are free to participate.

Elections are usually preceded by robust debate in the media — but in this instance, draconian constraints on media have been imposed by the intelligence agencies. The electronic and print media have been harassed directly by the security services and even Dawn, the establishment newspaper since its founding by Pakistan’s founder, has not been spared. Its publisher recently described the media environment in Pakistan as “censorship”.

Women journalists are particular targets of sexually explicit comments and threats of rape. Trolls on social media call them names that are psychologically harmful. Liberals are attacked ferociously with abuse from anonymous accounts, aimed at silencing their voices.

Speeches by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz — particular targets for elimination from the political scene — were taken off the air. Orders were issued to not air a live broadcast of Sharif’s return to Pakistan or his subsequent arrest. Interviews with the Sharif family were dropped or censored after being recorded.

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Clampdown: Orders were issued to not air a live broadcast of Sharif’s return to Pakistan or his subsequent arrest.

When Sharif returned to Pakistan to go to prison after being convicted on corruption charges, the caretaker government — charged with organising free and fair polls — cracked down on popular dissent in anticipation of his arrival. Hundreds of people were arrested in Lahore — many of them members of Sharif’s party, the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) — and cell phone service was suspended in parts of the city.

The ensuing unrest was not confined to Lahore. Media reports indicated arrests of protesters and shutting down of major intersections in several other cities across the country. Even politicians opposed to Sharif protested this attempt to deny the right to peaceful protest.

While Sharif and his daughter have been sent to prison, the deep state’s mainstreaming of Pakistan’s “good terrorists” (militant groups it treats as strategic assets against India and in Afghanistan) is well underway. Clearly, Pakistan’s establishment deems allegations of financial wrongdoing a greater crime than terrorism.

The corruption case against Sharif was rammed through court without regard for legal niceties and he was disqualified from holding office even before he was put on trial. Meanwhile, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 26/11, 2008, is not only free, but also actively campaigning in these elections for the newly created political party, Tehrik Allah-o-Akbar.

 Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, is not only free but also actively campaigning.

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Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who is accused of being involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, is not only free but also actively campaigning.

No questions have ever been asked about the terrorist group’s financing either — an issue that has led Pakistan to be put on the grey list of the United Nations’ Financial Action Task Force. Surely, if the goal is eliminating corruption, rather than re-engineering the polity, the corruption tied to terrorism also deserves some attention.

Extremists have not faced a media blackout and other restrictions that applied to the PML-N and other political parties. After successful rallies by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the centrist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was also denied permission to travel and hold rallies, alongside denial of media access.

The Left-wing Awami National Party (AWP) has been the target of a terrorist attack on one of its major stars, Haroon Bilour, whose father had also been killed in a terrorist attack several years ago. That the pro-establishment Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, has faced neither restrictions, nor terrorist attacks indicates whose voters are being scared from coming out to the polls.

Ironically, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, who has become a significant player in Pakistan’s politics and was instrumental in Sharif’s disqualification, had withdrawn official security from Bilour, making him an easier target for terrorists.

Another terrorist attack in Mastung, Balochistan — taking place on the day Nawaz Sharif and his daughter returned to Pakistan — killed 129 people, including a provincial Assembly candidate.

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An attempt to put off elections: The attack which killed 129 people took place on the day Nawaz Sharif and his daughter returned to Pakistan.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that “Despite the excessive presence of security forces in Balochistan, the capacity of militants to strike on this scale appears to be intact,” implicitly worrying that the terrorist attacks might be used as justification to put off elections.

The HRCP rightly asserted that “Election gatherings must not become killing fields.” But then, many Pakistanis already suspect that the July 25 election is not meant to be an exercise in democracy — it is just a cover for continued imposition of a permanent establishment’s choices on the people of Pakistan.

Note: The article was originally published by Daily O and the link to the original article is: Farce Majeure: Why Pakistan’s 2018 General Election is a brutal mockery

Writer

Farahnaz IspahaniFARAHNAZ ISPAHANI @fispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of Purifying the Land of the the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

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Wellesley in Politics: A personal profile interview.

Farahnaz Ispahani ‘85 has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for over two decades, working as a journalist, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a United States-based scholar. An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure in parliament (2008-2012), she was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013 and 2014 she was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” (2016), a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. In 2012 she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter.

What led you to Wellesley?

I arrived at Wellesley through family connections to the college. My grandfather, M.A.H Ispahani had spoken at Wellesley when he was Pakistan’s first Ambassador to the United States. My eldest sister attended Wellesley in the late 70s. I had never been to the United States before and I wanted to go to school in a warmer part of the country but I got in and the choice was made for me!

However, once I got to Wellesley I appreciated its unique and very special education and community and made it mine. Wellesley changed my life.

How did your childhood and family influence your work as an adult? Â Who was your biggest role model growing up?

Growing up in Pakistan in the 1970s I attended a convent school run by a teaching order of nuns from Ireland. My class was made up of girls from every religious and ethnic community of my city Karachi. We never knew who was a Christian or Shia or Sunni Muslim or a Hindu or a Parsi. The nuns ensured an atmosphere of inclusion. I started understanding that I belonged to a religious minority when my mother, siblings and I used to attend majlises or religious gatherings in the month of mourning which is called Muharram. We saw a city and country where we could commemorate this month in peace and our Sunni neighbors would acknowledge the solemnity and respect us to a point where our places of worship are surrounded by tanks and armed police or army men and we are frisked for metal objects and guns when we enter in case we are terrorist wanting to blow us up.

My career in journalism, politics and as a scholar was deeply influenced by what we as a family witnessed and experienced.

My greatest role model was my Iranian grandmother. She was an amazing woman who made Pakistan her home and founded and ran the first day care center in Karachi that enabled middle class and poor women to work and have their children in a safe environment where they were taught and fed. She also founded and ran an orphanage for unwanted children. Some were left outside in the dead of the night in a basket. In a society that rejects illegitimate children Kashana e Atfal and Naunehal took in and educated thousands of girls and still does. Some of the young women who were adopted from Kashana attended Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne.

Khanumjoon, as we called her lovingly, spoke 5 languages including Farsi, Urdu, French, German and Turkish. She also attended London University and got a social science degree during WW11.

Her affection, love, guidance and time were a constant for us throughout her life.

With Pakistan being Sunni run and about 77 percent Sunni, does that lead to distrust towards them from religious minorities? Based on the number of claims of blasphemy and harsh penalties for it, is it hard to people of different religions (and within Muslims for Shi’ites and Ahmadis) to trust each other?

The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah was a Shia Muslim and he was supported in the creation of Pakistan by the head of the Ahmadi Muslim community. Unfortunately, Mr. Jinnah died a year after the birth of Pakistan. The downward descent of what I call ‘communal majoritarianism’ kicked in immediately and anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi movements gained strength. Today, we see sectarian terrorist groups that kill those of Muslim minority and Christian and Hindu minority faiths and blow up their places of worship. The leaders of these groups are known to the authorities but remain free to address open public rallies and travel. The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is considered the toughest in the world and carries a death penalty if convicted. Once this law was passed it gave the general public of Pakistan a sort of license to judge and convict anyone they feel has blasphemed.

You said in a paper in 2013 for the Hudson Institute that Ahmadis make up only 0.22 percent of the population of Pakistan. How much of a change is that since the Partition? I saw an article recently in Dawn that another Ahmadi Muslim was killed. Do you think they’ll ever be safe in Pakistan?

Members of Ahmadi sect forbidden to call themselves Muslim. Ahmadis are some of the most common defendants in criminal charges of blasphemy, which in Pakistan can carry the death penalty. By law they cannot call their place of worship mosques or distribute religious literature, recite the Koran or use traditional Islamic greetings, measures that they say criminalize their daily lives.

The legal restrictions began in 1974, when the then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. A decade later military dictator General Zia ul Haq barred Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslim.

The exact percentage is hard to calculate as though many Ahmadis have fled the country and gained asylum in the US, Canada, UK and Australia the constant increase of the Pakistani population which is not easily attainable as many Ahmadis have to hide their faith to be able to work and ensure the safety of their families.

I do not think they will be safe in Pakistan in my lifetime. In the month of November alone, nuclear armed Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad has been taken hostage by thousands of religious extremists demanding further restrictions on the county’s Ahmadi Muslims & praising convicted criminals like Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of our former governor, Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer.

Also, The National Assembly (Parliament) has passed the new Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 challenging the voter registration of anyone accused of being an Ahmadi.

The bill relates to the fresh delimitation of constituencies keeping in view the provisional results of the recently conducted census with respect to the upcoming general elections in 2018.

Speaking on the new law ‘Elections Amendment Bill 2017′ Senate Deputy Chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, who belongs to the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F, said that the Ahmadis’ status is the same as it was back in the 1973 Constitution. Reinforcing the Ahmadis vulnerable position and demonstrating that the parliament and government consider them non-Muslims.

Can Pakistan ever be a place where all feel safe and welcome regardless of religion?

In my lifetime only former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had the power during his ten year rule to change the laws and ensure prosecution of those who attacked minority groups. And, to disband sectarian terrorist organizations. But he did not. I am not hopeful in the rational sense but one has to keep hope alive to ensure change one day.

Can social media be freely used or is it regulated as part of the blasphemy laws?

It is regulated to some extent. People have been arrested for blasphemy because of blasphemy allegations of online comments and killed as university student Mashal Khan was. But, like others, his family has not received justice. Journalists and bloggers speaking freely on social media have disappeared, been tortured and fled the country.

Especially after writing Purifying the Land of the Pure can you safely return to Pakistan? If not what would have to change for that to be possible?

I have gone back on a handful of occasions – but in a very low key manner and with a full understanding of the risks. Anyone who has written and spoken as much about the issues I do can never be safe in Pakistan. Vigilante justice continues unimpeded.

Do you think it’s possible to have a country based on a religion that’s welcoming to those who don’t follow that religion?

No. There has to be a separation of church and state and all citizens must be considered equal under the constitution. Religion or ethnicity cannot be a part of any modern and civilized nation.

Your work has largely focused on bringing Pakistan back to democracy. How do you hold onto hope for a country with such a history of violence?

Hope does spring eternal. However, as Pakistan is a relatively young country one can only work for a better tomorrow. But, I know how ugly the lives of those of minority community faiths are. That spurs me on. The country belongs to every single Pakistani and they deserve that.

I can’t even imagine getting to work with Benazir Bhutto as you did both when she was in exile and when she returned to Pakistan in September 2007. What is your favorite story about her?

Benazir Bhutto, was human and had faults but what a great leader she was. I still miss her every day. She had political intelligence, knowledge of her country and the world and a deep compassion and empathy for women, the disadvantaged and the persecuted. She was hated by the religious right wing forces.

My favorite story about Bibi as any of us referred to her was the day after her arrival. Estimates say that 1 million supporters gathered to welcome her arrival. As her caravan slowly inched through Karachi terrorists set off two bombs to kill her. Many died but she managed to survive.

The following day Benazir Bhutto held a press conference in her small garden at her Karachi home. It was packed with PPP party officials and reporters. Benazir arrived in a old pair of glasses from her bedside drawer as the ones she had on were shattered in the blast. The audio didn’t work. Bibi picked up a hand mike and without missing a stride spoke so clearly and with an unshaken sense of mission.

She answered every question although she was mourning those who had lost their lives and been up all night talking to her family and party people.

That was Benazir. Brilliant and unbowed. And, kind..Finding a bond with every woman she met. Rich or poor, educated or not. Privately her humor, and love of chocolate and ice cream, and escaping to a movie or a having a cozy chat for a brief respite from her lifetime of heavy responsibility. I always thought of her as the perfect Wellesley woman though she went to Radcliffe!

Farahnaz’s blog is https://farahnazispahani.com/ and her writings can also be found in various news outlets.

Photo by Elliott O’Donovan Photography

Interview: ‘SK Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia. Farahnaz Ispahani

 

With Pakistan also celebrating 70 years of its independence Farahnaz Ispahani, Global Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Centre, former member of Pakistan Parliament (from Pakistan People’s Party) and former media advisor to the Pakistan President, spoke to Rohit E David on the political flux in Islamabad after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, its impact on Kashmir and the nefarious role of Pakistan’s deep state:

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Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani

Q. What is your view on the political prospects of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who has been PM of Pakistan after Nawaz Sharif stepped down?

Farahnaz Ispahani. PM Abbasi has been nominated by Nawaz Sharif from his own party and is seen by all as a loyal placeholder until the next elections, in which Sharif’s nominated prime ministerial candidate will run. Sharif remains the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and, as is the subcontinent’s tradition, control of the party is more important than who is officially PM. Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia Gandhi.

Q. What is your view on Pakistan Supreme Court barring Nawaz Sharif as PM?

Farahnaz Ispahani. The verdict came as no surprise. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has a long history of political decisions and acts directly instead of waiting for due process through lower courts. Now it has disqualified a three times elected prime minister from holding public office for life, in a corruption inquiry linked to the Panama Papers.

However, Sharif was not named in the Panama leaks, there was no trial, and it has yet to be proved that he abused public office for private gain. The judges disqualified him on what many unbiased observers consider a mere technicality. It is indeed sad that no Pakistani PM is allowed to be voted out by the people and SC judges or generals decide when a PM should be ousted.

Q. Why has no Pakistan PM completed a full five-year term?

Farahnaz Ispahani. It is because of what many call the permanent establishment in Pakistan. This is led by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies; closely emulated by the Supreme Court and, in many instances, the bureaucracy. This is Pakistan’s constant and consistent power base. They do not accept the right of elected leaders to change the nation’s course.  The Supreme Court of Pakistan and the five high courts have an extremely poor record of defending democracy against authoritarian interventions. The Supreme Court has legalised each one of Pakistan’s three successful military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999.

Q. What impact will this have on Pakistan’s Kashmir policy?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Kashmir policy, all regional policy and non-regional foreign policy has been directed by the establishment since Pakistan’s founding. Several civilian prime ministers – most recently Sharif – have tried to improve ties with India but the powerful ‘Kashmir first’ lobbies in Islamabad and Rawalpindi have destroyed all these efforts by the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan. India and Pakistan can normalise relations without resolving all disputes first, as many countries have done, but that is not acceptable to the Pakistani establishment. Kashmir policy, anti-India policy and the policy of strategic depth have caused Pakistan to be increasingly isolated in our neighbourhood and around the world. Proponents of that policy do not want to accept that.

Q. Will this make the civilian government weak forever?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Nothing has to be forever. But Pakistan’s permanent establishment and its stranglehold on Pakistan’s media have made it very difficult to stand up to it even as we see today for a hugely popular and elected leader like Nawaz Sharif. Judiciary has become an instrument of the establishment. It responds to media noise rather than sticking to law and legal process.

Q. How do you assess Imran Khan’s role leading up to this court case? Do you foresee Pervez Musharraf and Imran Khan coming out with a third front?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Imran Khan has been in politics for decades but, until now, he has always been a bridesmaid who never made it to being the actual bride. He is thought to be growing more personally unstable and that is making some in the permanent establishment concerned about supporting him in the next elections against Sharif’s powerful PML-N party in the all-important Punjab province. That said, he has some following in urban areas among angry, hyper-nationalist youth and retired military personnel. And he remains a favourite of pro-establishment media.

Q. Do you feel that judicial accountability and judicial independence have become tools of a deep state?

Farahnaz Ispahani. I will only say that judicial accountability must be across the board and not selective to be credible. There is a reason why no general, judge or senior bureaucrat faces the kind of accountability inflicted on politicians. When the process is not transparent, it leads to suspicions about the deep state being at work.

Note; The Interview was published originally by “Time of India” , and can be read;  ‘SK Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia … Pakistan’s SC has poor record of defending democracy’