History of election rigging in Pakistan from 1970-2008

History of election rigging in Pakistan from 1970-2008,

In February 2008, Pakistan will be moving ahead to hold its 9th General Election since 1970. However, in the shadow of contested election results and unfinished political tenures, several significant questions remain: Are elections in Pakistan free and fair? Are they an accurate instrument to determine the will of the people? Do they enable the winners to become sovereign rulers of the polity? Or: Are they rigged and stolen to defeat the will of the people?

We have assessed each one of Pakistan’s eight national elections with a brief commentary on the pre-poll, polling day and post-poll phases.

Popular perceptions about the integrity of the electoral process in Pakistan are dismal. Several historical political developments explain the low levels of popular confidence in the electoral process. But the low level of confidence in the integrity of the process does not deter large numbers of Pakistanis from still wanting to vote. In most of the pre-elections surveys conducted during the last six elections by Gallup Pakistan, over 70 percent Pakistanis expressed an intention to vote despite their scepticism of the electoral process. However, on polling day, an average of only 50 percent among men and 30 percent among women turn up to vote.

Mistrust of the credibility of the electoral process is caused by an accumulated experience of many elections. It is encouraged by street wisdom that rulers and politicians are not sincere in using elections to determine the will of the people. This popular perception captures the fundamental lack of faith in the electoral process in Pakistan. The ‘rigging’ in elections is popularly perceived in terms of stuffed ballot boxes, impersonated multiple voting, and fraudulent counting by polling staff who are intimidated to suit their masters’ illegal interference in fair voting processes. While all this is attempted and practiced on the polling day, the more deadly weapons of the game remain less exposed. These metaphorical ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that truly defeat the will of the people, precede and succeed the polling day rigging. They can best be titled as ‘pre-poll’ and ‘post-poll’ rigging.

We review all the eight elections held in Pakistan since 1970 and make an assessment of the three forms of electoral rigging. This will help us determine what to expect and how to check the possibility of rigging in Pakistan’s forthcoming 9th national election.

1970 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

In retrospect, there is reasonable evidence that the rules of the game were framed insincerely. They were designed to facilitate the emergence of a ‘Hung Parliament’, which, because of its internal divisions, could be manipulated by the establishment.

Polling Day Rigging

Irregularities on the polling day were not significant to meaningfully alter the outcome of the election.

Post-Poll Rigging

The resources of the state, intelligence agencies and armed forces were used indiscriminately to conspire against the outcome of the elections (will of the people according to the constitution). These unlawful activities were eventually successful in defeating the results of the elections.

1977 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

The state machinery and public resources were used to intimidate opposition parties, whereas the party in power allowed massive abuse of control and coercion. State intelligence agencies actively interfered in internal party politics, forging and breaking apart political alliances to ensure the success of officially supported candidates.

Polling Day Rigging

Polling day rigging was widespread. It was caused by cynical disregard for ‘rule of law’ by the rulers and a partisan clique of civil servants. Prime Minister Bhutto’s complete disrespect for rule of law took its toll, as overzealous civil servants, who were supposed to be custodians of law, went overboard in polling day rigging. When Mr. Bhutto saw this he is known to have remarked: “Who has done it to me?” But it was too late.

Post-Poll Rigging

In the post-poll phase, a very large section of voters who had voted against the ruling PPP, felt cheated and look to the streets. At some point they were joined behind the scene by a powerful section of the establishment, notably the armed forces. A popular agitation that spanned over several months eventually ended up in a coup by the army under General Ziaul Haq. The results of the election were annulled.

1985 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

In 1985, the military government’s decision to hold party-less elections deprived political parties of a basic political platform, thus distorting the rule of a level playing field. One of the two largest political parties in the country, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was cunningly encouraged by General Zia’s establishment and the intelligence agencies to boycott the elections. This ensured the absence of a key political player from the playing field.

Polling Day Rigging

Not significant. It did not affect the outcome of the election at annational level.

Post-Poll Rigging

The state had designed a policy of creating and nurturing a new political setup meant to, as General Ziaul Haq himself put it, “share and NOT transfer power” to the elected politicians. It successfully spawned a new Muslim League (ML), selected its president (Muhammad Khan Junejo) and made him the country’s prime minister. This election provided hands on experience to intelligence agencies, particularly Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in developing what later became a craft to play in national politics.

1988 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

This election came on the heels of General Ziaul Haq’s death in an air crash on August 17, 1988. Under the active guidance and support of the ISI, an alliance of the PML and religious parties was put together under the title of Islami Jamhoori Ithehad (IJI), translated into English as Islamic Democratic Alliance.

The formation of the IJI made a crucial impact on the 1988 election outcome, especially in the vital electoral battlefield of Punjab. While the PPP more or less maintained its share of votes in Punjab as of 1970 (40 percent), but the vote opposed to it consolidated under the banner of IJI, bringing together part of the Muslim League vote and the religious parties vote. Thus, in 1988 the IJI bagged 38 percent of all votes cast in Punjab, whereas six percent went to the Pakistan Awami Ittehad (PAI), a coalition of small vote banks that did not pool up under the IJI.

The resultant impact on the allocation of parliamentary seats proved decisive. In 1988, the PPP bagged 53 seats against 45 of IJI from Punjab in the National Assembly. The consolidation of anti-PPP vote manoeuvred under official patronage hurt the PPP and helped its opponents.

Polling Day Rigging

Despite minor allegations, polling day rigging did not affect the outcome of the election at the national level.

Post-Poll Rigging

Intelligence agencies of the state continued to play a decisive role in the formation as well as destabilisation of governments at federal and provincial level. The IJI had enough seats to form the government in the largest province of Punjab. The apparatus of the provincial government was indiscriminately put at the service of the political objectives of Mr. Nawaz Sharif, then Chief Minster of Punjab. On her part, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was equally willing to employ state resources for her political aims. However, she remained at odds with the establishment, and an atmosphere of mutual distrust prevailed.

1990 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

After twenty (20) months in power, the PPP government was dismissed on charges of corruption and misrule by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan under the overt guidance of the armed forces and intelligence agencies. A highly partisan government was formed at the Centre under the premiership of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a breakaway senior and influential leader of the PPP and head of a political party, the Pakistan National Party (PNP).

As fresh elections were announced, the state apparatus, including state television, embarked on a highly partisan campaign against the PPP, indirectly aiming to benefit its key adversary, the IJI. Given the politically polarised climate of the time, it is conceivable that ‘rogue’ elements provided some support to the PPP as well.

The role of intelligence agencies and active contacts of political leaders with the military and intelligence officers became a nearly accepted practice in political circles. By this time, the media and the intelligence agencies nexus had also thickened. Political partisanship of what should have been non-partisan offices including the president, caretaker prime minister, intelligence agencies and senior civil servants began to be institutionalised. With state resources at their disposal, they manipulated the political system to produce two new supra-constitutional political players, the president and the chief of the army staff. The latter had two well-funded and staffed intelligence agencies at his disposal, the ISI and the Military Intelligence (MI). The president and the chief of army became two parts of what was to be later called the ‘troika of power’, the third part being the Prime Minister. The 1990 elections campaign played a critical role in shaping the ‘unlawful’ de-facto institutionalisation of this arrangement. It was an obvious and by far the most damaging form of pre-poll rigging. It manifested itself while putting the final touches in the consolidation of the anti-PPP votes under one alliance, the IJI. The PPP vote consolidated under another alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDA). It is important to note that while IJI became the beneficiary of pre-poll rigging in the 1990 elections, less than three years later the beneficiary was to be the PDA. This established the crucial and recurrent role of pre-poll rigging defined as unlawful interference in the democratic/electoral process.

Another manifestation of the institutionalisation of pre-poll rigging was the setting up of (perhaps a small) unannounced election monitoring unit in the president’s office under an army general, General Rafaqat. Mystery surrounds this office and the nature of its involvement in the orchestrated electoral process. However, it was only the tip of an iceberg as the more potent players were to be found in the many-layered arrangements, all leading to the army chief and the military General Headquarters (GHQ).

A nuanced role was played by the civilian Intelligence Bureau (IB), officially mandated to report to the prime minister (in theory the same is true for the ISI). Given the multiplicity of unlawful players, the politicians were quick to discover that exploiting the internal contradictions of several intelligence agencies and state bodies could provide to them covert partners in politics. This practice assumed new proportions and a new shape by virtue of un-mediated, frequent and direct contact between politicians and the other two arms of the emerging troika of power. The fig leaf of interacting through ‘personal’ friends, ‘businessmen,’ ‘cultural’ icons, ‘saintly’ figures and such other conduits began to be dropped.

The principal features of this scripted power play remained constant for the entire decade of the 1990s, although four changes in government took place. Mr. Sharif replaced Ms. Bhutto; Ms. Bhutto replaced Mr. Sharif; Mr. Sharif replaced Ms. Bhutto and finally General Musharraf replaced Mr. Nawaz Sharif in 1999 when the millennium was coming to a close.

Poll Day Rigging

There are considerable allegations of polling day rigging in the case of 1990 elections. How can, the question was raised, the PPP lose 39 seats in Punjab, plunging from 53 seats to 14 in just two years? The explanation was found in stuffing of ballot boxes in a certain number of vulnerable polling stations in selected constituencies. However, a careful examination of the seats lost by the PPP reveals that the principal cause was the so-called ‘one to one’ strategy. The election engineers, a euphemism for the institutionalisation of rigging, persuaded the smaller stand-alone components of the anti-PPP vote to consolidate under the IJI. At the same time, the vote of ‘independents’ declined from 15 percent to eight percent. A good part of this vote also transferred to the IJI. The success of election engineers to further consolidate the anti-Bhutto vote turned the tables against the PPP. A gain of 12 percent of votes in Punjab by the IJI completely changed the landscape in the National Assembly. It would, therefore, be reasonable to assess that while polling day rigging seemed plausible, it did not decisively influence the outcome of the national elections. The pre-poll rigging was in comparison much more potent.

Post-Poll Rigging

The script of election engineers had allocated the premiership to Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, the caretaker Prime Minister with strong PPP (breakaway) credentials. His political base was in Sindh. But despite heavy-handed use of state resources, his group did not fare very well in the elections. He was unable to emerge as the charismatic leader of the anti-Bhutto vote consolidated under the banner of the IJI. That role seemed better suited to Mr. Nawaz Sharif. Mr. Nawaz Sharif was young (just about 40 at the time) and his background as a businessman, victimised by the PPP government, his native Pakistani and Muslim lifestyle, provided the necessary contrast to Ms. Bhutto. Besides, he was ambitious, dynamic and resourceful. He managed to work through the maze of the establishment network and used internal contradictions in the intelligence agencies to claim the premiership for himself. The scriptwriters were happy with his continuation of chief ministership in Punjab, but were uncomfortable with elevating him to the premiership. The post-election power struggle within the election engineers and their beneficiaries sowed the seeds of mistrust between the new premier Mr. Nawaz Sharif and his erstwhile supporters in the two arms of the troika, presidency and the army. This aspect of post-election rigging set the tone for the ouster of the elected government under Mr. Nawaz Sharif some thirty months later in April 1993.

1993 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

This time the election engineers used the 1990 script of pre-poll rigging but modified the characters and the tactics. In the 1988 and 1990 elections the tactic was to combine the anti-PPP vote. Now it was changed to divide it. The IJI was dissolved. The Jamaat-i-Islamic vote was isolated under a new creation, the Pakistan Islamic Front (PIF) and dissidents from the Nawaz led Muslim League were encouraged to activate their own faction of the ML, the Muslim League (J) headed by Mr. Hamid Nasir Chattha. This made the necessary dent in the Nawaz edge in Punjab. In NWFP, the Islamic vote of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal ur Rahman) (JUI) was encouraged to ally with the PPP. In Sindh, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) boycotted the elections.

In some ways these were normal political alignments and realignments. Why would one label them as pre-election rigging? Essentially, because the authority and resources of the state were massively used to unlawfully interfere in and steer this process. Such interference played a decisive role in altering the electoral outcome. In 1993, the beneficiary was Ms. Bhutto. On the previous two occasions, 1988 and 1990 the beneficiary had been Mr. Sharif.

Over the years as these episodes progressed, pre-poll rigging began to be institutionalised in the president house but more importantly in the various intelligence agencies. It came to its bloom later in 2002 when the head of the election exercise General Zamir was constantly in the news columns during the election campaign.

By then the fig leaf of secrecy was removed beyond the earlier limits. Most of the stakeholders had been sensitised to accept the de-facto practice of what was a blatant breach of law, namely the use of state authority to influence the outcome of elections to the benefit of some and detriment of others. The practice of rigging had left the realm of unlawful activity to become commonplace, even expected.

Polling Day Rigging

Despite various allegations, any irregularities on the polling day were not of a magnitude to alter the outcome of the elections.

Post-Poll Rigging

With the departure of Ghulam Ishaq Khan as president, a new president had to be elected. Ms. Bhutto took her last laugh in ridiculing the octogenarian Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan by luring him into the presidential race but finally deciding in favour of Mr. Farooq Khan Leghari, a competent and experienced PPP parliamentarian with sound reputation and social acceptability beyond the party fold. She was soon to discover that the institutionalisation of supra-constitutional (illegal) role of the president house and its well groomed links with the army chief were to take their toll. If one is to look for evidence of post-poll influence, it should be in the presidential election. But perhaps it was minor by the norms that had been widely accepted as standard practice by then.

1997 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

There was an air of scepticism in the second tenure of Ms. Bhutto (1993-96). There was little sense of propriety to separate personal interests from the state exchequer. All kinds of real and imagined shady deals earned Mr. Zardari the title of ‘Mr. Ten percent’. As later elections were to confirm, Ms. Bhutto’s vote bank was rapidly declining. It had been under stress for nearly ten (10) years and was now cracking.

It is hard to pin down the exact reasons but at some point the two arms of the supra constitutional troika decided to dismiss the prime minister. It is conceivable that President Leghari took the lead, although as later events showed the act did not serve his personal interests.

The unlawful practice of employing the president’s office and the intelligence apparatus of the armed forces continued unchecked. It had become normal practice to sidestep the constitutional power of an office and act according to convenience, all in the name of national interest or ‘the law of necessity’.

The goals of the establishment in dismissing the Benazir Bhutto government in 1996 are still unclear. But apparently it was expected that the 1997 elections would serve as another round in the ‘musical chair game’. They would produce a weak Parliament. Politicians would stand discredited. The stage would be set for introducing a formal role of the armed forces through a new National Security Council.

There is no indication that the election engineers strongly supported or worked against either of the two major political parties, the PPP and the PML headed by Mr. Nawaz Sharif. But they seemed interested in producing an election result that would generate low election turnout as well as neck and neck outcome of the PPP and the PML in the next assembly. There was also an interest in discrediting politicians and elevating technocrats or new faces as better and preferable alternatives.

On the whole, pre-poll interference in the normal electoral process was modest compared to earlier elections, although the unlawful interference of formally non-partisan bodies such as the president’s office and government intelligence agencies persisted as previously.

Polling Day Rigging

There is no evidence that polling day irregularities affected the outcome of the election at the national level. Unlike previous elections, the runner up party (PPP) was not very vocal on rigging charges against the winner (PML).

Post-Poll Rigging

For the first time in the recent series of elections, the top two parties were not neck and neck. The PML was markedly ahead of the PPP. It had nearly two-third of the seats in the National Assembly (139 out of 203). Consequently, the formation of a government was relatively smooth. But many other issues were quick to crop up. The unlawful and partisan influence of state apparatus continued. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not particularly enamoured with faithfully observing the constitution, except when it suited his political aims. He was impatient with the legal system and perceived it as a hurdle in the delivery of justice. Despite some lip service, he had little respect for the independence of judiciary. He wished to see it run by his own hand-picked judges who would support him in his political aims, especially to curtail what he believed to be the constant harassment and undercutting of his authority by rival power centres in other arms of the government and the armed forces. He was a man in a hurry to uplift the nation, and as someone put it aptly “could not distinguish between speed and indecent haste.” Various types of kitchen cabinets, ad-hoc courts (e.g. anti-terrorist courts) and other quick fixes were employed to gain short-term results on issues that deserved a far-reaching institutional approach. However, one must also note that unlawful partisan interference by state apparatus in the functioning of an elected government reinforced the shortsighted tendencies of the political government. When an elected government is unwilling or unable to exercise its constitutional power, and reluctant to subject itself to the constitutional checks, it is unlikely to get very far. As the proverb goes: “It cuts the branch of a tree on which it sits.” It undermines the source of its power which is ‘popular will protected by rule of law’. Neither Mr. Sharif nor the challengers to his constitutional power had sufficient respect and patience with the constitutional procedures and legal course of action. The landslide electoral victory of Mr. Nawaz Sharif could not be translated into a meaningful exercise of authority mandated by the popular will. The post poll rigging combined with cynical negligence to the rule of law and the constitution of the country took its toll.

2002 Elections
Pre-Poll Rigging

The aims of the 2002 elections were stated very clearly namely:

1. The will be a step (only) towards democratic transition

2. Mr. Nawaz Sharif and Ms. Benazir Bhutto, leaders of the two major parties will not participate in the election and shall remain in exile outside the country

3. General Pervez Musharraf will be the President of the country while maintaining his role as Army Chief even if it might require some changes in the constitution

In order to achieve these aims a number of rules were framed. Since the country was practically governed under an extra-constitutional arrangement, the procedure to make rules followed suit. There was no concern with ensuring a level playing field, neutrality of the administration or independence of the Election Commission. The electronic media was under public control; it provided all-out support to the government policy to steer the elections to achieve its aims. The print media was independent except that the message from the government was loud and clear: those in the media who cooperate would be rewarded with publicly controlled advertising money and other privileges; those who defied or criticised government’s politically partisan (hence unlawful) policies would be penalised accordingly.

To this extent the pre-poll partisan role of the state was a continuation of the previous (unlawful) practice. But the 2002 elections carried it a step further. It now engaged a sizeable number of military officials, local government functionaries and other public servants to play an openly political role at the grass roots. They called or attended meetings of the local notables to ‘facilitate’ the management of constituency level policies. They interfered in crucial decisions in choice of party candidates. They encouraged or intimidated potential electoral contestants and were in constant collusion with the electoral candidates. They were an important, near transparent (albeit unlawful) players in the electoral game. The institutionalisation of pre-poll rigging, as mentioned earlier, saw its bloom. This was a dangerous assault on the autonomy of the will of the people.

Polling Day Rigging

Despite all the pre-poll irregularities and the allegedly partisan role of local government, any irregularities on the poll day are not known to have affected the outcome of the election at the national level.

Post-Poll Rigging

The post-poll interference with electoral process was massive. In no other election of Pakistan, with the possible exception of 1970 when the electoral result was totally turned down, the electoral outcome was disturbed as ruthlessly and unlawfully as in 2002. It was done through systematic use of rewards, punishments and intimidation by the state apparatus. While PML (N) was the principal target of pre-poll interference, the brunt was borne by PPP in the post-poll phase. A section of its elected leadership was lured and intimidated to form a splinter group. It was named as the PPP Patriots. Since the constitution prohibited this type of floor crossing, the relevant clause was suspended.

Similar pressures were applied to other members as well. It took weeks and months to achieve this while the assembly remained idle. Once the objectives were achieved, the relevant clause of the constitution was restored, for it could now be an instrument to the disadvantage of the pieced together parliamentary majority. For lack of another identity, it came to be informally known as the king’s party. Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali from the Muslim League (Q) was elected as the prime minister. He came from Balochistan which was refreshing, but the fact remained that Balochistan counted for a total of 16 seats in the directly elected assembly of 272, and Jamali could not claim personal support of a majority in his own province, much less in the entire assembly. He was entirely dependent on the wishes of the president, who continued to keep the office of the Army Chief. The president would occasionally address political rallies of the ruling party in his military uniform.

But the issue of uniform and constitutional provisions would not go away. Such is the predicament in Pakistani society, history and politics. Military rulers must solicit indemnity (‘pardon’ would be less euphemistic) from the assembly whenever it meets.

These legal provisions forced Pervez Musharraf to negotiate with parliament members other than the king’s party, because constitutional amendments would require two-thirds majority. The establishment worked out an agreement with the religious parties’ alliance (MMA) to pass what is known as the 17th Amendment. It brought infamy to all. It appeared like an amateur bout of legal tricks on the one hand and contemptuous disrespect for decency and rule of law on the other.

It is not surprising that when the push finally came to shove, the society totally rebelled and refused to deal with the legal tricks any longer. In return General Musharraf declared a state of emergency. That brought matters to the end of the term for which the 2002 elections were held. In the meantime, the prime minister, whom the constitution designated as the chief executive of the country, worked as a salaried subordinate. It was a gross violation of the constitution and defeated the will of the people, supposed to be determined by a free and fair election. The assembly elected through an uneven playing field, formed a majority party through unlawful rewards and penalties. It began its business by unceremonious compromise on the 17th Amendment, which is likely to be scratched whenever the rule of law is restored, and ended its term when the assembly hall was all empty except the King’s party. The assembly proudly completed its full term of five years. There was little to cherish about it.

The only people who celebrated it were a small group of beneficiaries. The nation stood apart, interestingly united as never before. And while the 2002 assembly came to a sad end, it left behind an important legacy. It had, even if momentarily, united the large majority of the nation on what is abstract, yet so crucial to the existence of a nation, rule of law. In a way the ending showed there was hope at the end of the tunnel.

Popular perceptions on rigging in 2008 elections

Approximately 15 percent of the population expect that the forthcoming elections will be completely free and fair, the remaining are divided between those who expect election to be rigged (53 percent) and others who say they cannot give a definite answer at this point (32 percent). The perceptions on the expected fairness of the forthcoming election are not very flattering.

The struggle for democracy is a struggle for the rule of law, or more specifically the institutionalised rule of law through a constitutional government. It is invariably achieved through free and fair elections. The failure of democracy in Pakistan has been the failure to comprehend its essential link with the rule of law. The citizens and civilian rulers have together failed on this count. Often the voters seek favours from rulers in breach of law. Politicians who excel in that craft are keen to oblige, and look for their own rise to power through that route. In the end only a few benefit while the community as a whole begins to lose its faith in democracy. Severed from their role as “custodians of rule of law” politicians lose their source of power and undercut their own source of legitimacy. When that happens, either the armed forces or power cliques and mafias are quick to march in.

Many people raise the question: why democracy failed in Pakistan in the nineties? Why were military take-overs from elected leaders not resented? Why did 70 percent or more of the public approve the removal of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and 1993 and the removal of Nawaz in 1997? I would hazard to suggest that it happened to them because they were seen as elected governments minus ‘rule of law’. The popular will elected them but found it could not subject them to rule of law. Nawaz Sharif has recently provided a telling story. Upon the dismissal of his elected government, he says, he turned to see the crowds behind him (metaphorically) and discovered it was an empty street. With a deeper vision he, as also his predecessor, should have seen the disillusionment of popular will with ‘democracy minus rule of law’.

There are signs that the vicious cycle is on the reverse path. A new civil society elite (call it ‘vanguard’) has grasped the centrality of rule of law to civilian and democratic governance. The masses are not out to cheer them or agitate alongside, but they are, nevertheless, firmly behind them on that issue. The popular will might elect one or other of the key political contestant but any future civilian government will find it very hard to practice elected government minus rule of law.

The movement for rule of law is the true force to defeat electoral rigging in all its forms. The ‘Pre-poll Rigging’ designs have already been reversed from its 2002 heights. The playing field is not totally even, but the crookedness of keeping the key players in exile has already been reversed. The intelligence agencies are apparently less active in partisan games. The civilian administration, local governments, perhaps the caretakers are still engaged in partisanship disallowed by the constitution and the law. But, so far, it is an improvement on 2002. We have yet to witness the polling day and the post-poll scenario.


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