How fair is the democratic transition in Pakistan?

    TRT World spoke with Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) – an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit think-tank focused on political and public policy research.

    Millions of Pakistanis are voting today to choose the political party that will steer the country until the next elections.

    TRT World spoke with Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) – an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit think-tank focused on political and public policy research.

    Mehboob gives an assessment of the pre-election atmosphere in Pakistan, including controversies related to  pre-poll rigging, legal challenges faced by the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, civil-military relations and the role of technology in voter mobilisation.

    Irrespective of the hurdles facing the democratic process, the body responsible for conduct of the elections, the Pakistan Election Commission, has strengthened as an institution, Mehboob says. 

    This has paved the way for a mature democracy in the country, which has seen multiple military interventions over the years. 

    Ahead of the vote, we have witnessed allegations of pre-poll rigging and restrictions on freedom of expression. What is your take on this?

    AHMED BILAL MEHBOOB: We have done a very detailed report titled ‘Perception of the Pre-Poll Fairness.’ My organisation has concluded that the pre-election period has not been fair and that a level playing-field was not given to all political parties as it should have been. This is our perspective and since we issued our report in May 2018, several media outlets have issued reports that seem to be endorsing what we were talking about.

    So what sort of rigging took place before the vote? 

    ABM: First of all, the media is being controlled in a clandestine way. Authorities are not doing this using the regulatory framework. Instead, this is happening in a secretive way. A television channel  simply goes off air in certain areas of the country and all the government departments say they have nothing to do with it. The channel does not come back unless some sort of negotiations lead to changes in its editorial policies.

    This has happened before with [one of Pakistan’s largest private news channels] GEO and we are currently looking at the interruption in distribution of [Pakistan’s oldest English newspaper] DAWN. There are some areas where I have lived, where both GEO and DAWN were unavailable for weeks or months at a time.  

    Secondly, management of the media houses acknowledges, off the record, that there is significant pressure on them not to broadcast certain type of views or give airtime to certain people. There is overwhelming evidence that the media is under pressure, and this is one practice employed by those who wish to see the vote go in a certain direction.

    A particular set of politicians has been targeted such as Nawaz Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in the Punjab and bureaucrats who have been working with them. It’s the same case with the  Pakistan Peoples Party. 

    Thirdly, we see the signs of pre-poll rigging in the way the legal cases are being handled. The recent sentencing of  Hanif Abbasi (PML-N leader), is a case in point. His case was pending for seven years and three days before the election; he not only gets disqualified from the election, but is also sentenced to life in prison. 

    Have any improvements been made in the way election is conducted? 

    ABM: Till a few months back, we thought Pakistan was heading for the best elections of its history. That’s because of the improved framework, particularly the Elections Act of 2017, which has improved the participation of women in the election. It has also given more power to the Election Commission, more financial autonomy and put more restrictions of political finance.  

    The Election Commission has become more powerful as a result, and that has helped improve the voter lists. Now there is hardly any chance of duplication when one voter was registered multiple times. 

    Do you think a presidential system would be more suitable for a country like Pakistan?

    ABM: I don’t think a presidential form of government is going to address the ineffective role of a parliamentarian. In any case, even in a presidential system, we will have members of parliament, we will have a legislature. What I mean to say is that members who are elected as legislators are not really interested in legislation because their voters do not hold them accountable on basis of the legislation they pass, but rather they hold them accountable for personal problems such as policing, local administration and other things related to governance. 

    Since governance is so bad, people feel they always need a powerful individual on their side, even if what they want is their administrative right. So most of the time, these elected people are not sitting doing nothing. They are in fact working hard to address problems of their constituents and they don’t have time to go to the parliament and take the necessary time to seriously consider legislation. That is the primary weakness and that weakness will remain. 

    The way to address this is to strengthen the system of local government so that representatives at the grassroot could address most of these daily issues. That way MPs would have more time and ability to address substantial policy and legislative issues.

    What can be done to improve the democratic institutions?

    ABM: The most important thing that needs to be addressed is the state of the civil-military equation in the country. Most of the issues related to democracy, governance or mis-governance in Pakistan basically originate from these dynamics, although, this is very difficult for people to admit. But every now and then we come to a situation where it becomes very apparent that there is a problem. 

    I think there has to be a clearer understanding between the civil and the military leaderships. There has to be a very genuine, realistic and meaningful process of consultation on policy issues relating to the military and national security. Every country goes through this type of consultation, there’s no issue in it, and the military’s point of view should be sought and considered.

    After consultation however, it should be clear that policy issues should ultimately be decided by political leadership and that military shouldn’t have veto power. I don’t think the military is seeking veto power, what they are seeking is a proper consultation process, in which they are included so their viewpoint is heard and understood by the political leadership. The political leadership must make the effort to understand the military’s point of view. The most appropriate forum for this would be an official committee of one sort or another.

    During Nawaz Sharif’s time, the average frequency of meetings between the political leadership and the military was once in six months, whereas in Khaqan Abbasi’s [interim prime minister] time, meetings took place once a month on average. Ideally they should meet at least once a month and should sit together and discuss long-term strategic issues such as the relationship with India, the relationship with United States, water issues and economy. All these matters should be discussed regularly and this is the right form of dialogue, and this can be done once serious political leadership comes to power.

    How are demographic shifts and technology changing the nature of the election?

    ABM: Digital media, like the traditional television channels, is playing a much greater role now in mediating between the political parties and the electorate. Before it used to be large public rallies and processions. These kind of things were more frequent and larger. What I have seen in this particular election campaign is that there has been much emphasis on digital media advertisements and news on digital and social media outlets. 

    Social media has limited connectivity and reach (30 to 40 percent of the population), but since traditional media taps into social media, they have used information from social media for mainstream bulletins and discussions. Therefore these two things have really impacted the election campaign. At the same time, we still see the same traditional practices such as door-to-door campaigning, rallies etc. However, with time the technological aspect will no doubt acquire more importance.

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