How elections are rigged

January 26, 2020

A brief history of how the Pakistani ruling elite have used different methods of manipulation from pre-poll rigging to political engineering, and in the making and breaking of governments and political parties

— Photo by Rahat Dar

Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klass’s book, How to Rig an Election takes a global view while looking at methods of rigging like hacking elections, buying votes, stuffing ballot boxes, and tricking the international community by managing perceptions. Though not specific to elections in Pakistan, the book is a must-read for voters here.

I have witnessed many elections here since 1970, both as a student of politics, and as a journalist. Often, voters in Pakistan allege that their mandate has been stolen, yet no one has ever been caught. There is evidence, including circumstantial evidence, relating to how elections are controlled before the actual polling day, which can make their credibility suspect.

In the Pakistani context, we often refer to the term ‘political engineering’ when we talk of ‘managing’ elections or ‘making/ breaking’ governments. In my view, this also works to the end of ‘rigging’ the mandate.

There is a thought-provoking lesson in the book for those who believe that democracy is the best revenge or the best system as it concludes with: “In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies, both old and new because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all…Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change.”

To put this into perspective, the book defines four different types of political systems which can exist in a polity. First, pure authoritarian regimes in which no elections are held at all. Second, dominant authoritarian states, in which elections are held while political rights and civil liberties are extremely constrained. Third, competitive authoritarian states, in which elections may be hotly contested but the opposition nonetheless competes with one hand tied behind its back. The fourth is electorally democratic states, in which polls tend to be reasonably free and fair, although there may be some discrepancies, as in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, when it comes to categorisations of elections, the book situates India in the category of ‘free’ and Pakistan in that of ‘partly free’ elections within the broader category of electoral democracy. It should be a matter of satisfaction for us that, all said and done, we have still made it to the category of ‘partly free’; though, some may not agree, the credit for this goes to political parties which after the 1977 rigging learnt the lesson that the establishment had used them against one any other to secure its control.

In tracing a brief history of how the Pakistani ruling elite used different methods of manipulation from pre-poll rigging to political engineering and in the making and breaking of governments and parties, this reality become clearer.

In 1977, then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto fell into a trap when he was advised to hold elections a year early. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had a clear edge – even the opposition alliance had conceded this in private conversations. But then, Bhutto’s feudal instincts kicked in: through an unnecessary administrative tactic, he tried to get himself elected unopposed for which he got his opponent late Jan Mohammad Abbasi of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) abducted from Larkana. The chief ministers also followed suit and got themselves elected unopposed. This was the beginning of election rigging and though most serious allegations were about 14 to 15 NA seats, the opposition front, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) boycotted the Provincial Assembly polls; this resulted in General Zia ul Haq imposing martial law on July 5th, 1977.

Zia promised elections in 90 days on October 16, 1977 but, postponed those after getting reports that Bhutto’s PPP would sweep the elections. This too arguably is pre-poll rigging as on the basis of intelligence reports and on the advice of some senior editors and owners of right-wing newspapers and magazine.

In 1984, Zia tried to get political legitimacy through a ‘referendum’ to test his popularity and despite empty ballot boxes, got 98 per-cent votes and was declared victorious. In 1985, in order to keep mainstream political parties, particularly the PPP, out, he announced party less general elections, which again is another form of ‘rigging’ geared towards a ‘positive result’ – what suited the power elite.

In 1988, after the death of Gen Zia in a plane crash on August 17, the interim government led by Acting President Ghulam Ishaq announced elections in November. All predictions were for a PPP landslide; the former ISI chief, the late Lt Gen Hameed Gul, formed an opposition alliance called the Islami Jamohuri Ittehad (IJI) to ensure that the PPP did not get a two-thirds majority. Thus, the election was not only manipulated but manipulated well and the results showed that PPP had a simple majority. Conditions followed soon after: to form a government PPP had to practically hand over power by agreeing to vote for Ghulam Ishaq Khan as the president. The party also had to agree to continue of the Afghan policy.

The late Benazir Bhutto committed two mistakes. One, despite the role the former ISI chief had played, she awarded a ‘Tamgha-i-Jamhoriyat’ to the then army chief, General Aslam Baig. Two, she accepted conditional power.

Still, her government did not last beyond 18 months as a conspiracy to dislodge it began within a year. A vote of no confidence was moved against her in 1989. Allegedly, the two key players behind the move were the president and the army chief. This time, the establishment used the MQM, who despite having been an ally of the PPP, voted against the PM.

Bhutto’s government was finally dismissed in August 1990 under Article 58-2(B) of the Constitution, the very article amended by Gen Zia by including a clause that would weaken the prime minister’s office. An interim government was set up headed by late Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who was clearly on the side of IJI. In an interview with me at his Karachi residence he conceded that there had been an understanding between him and Mian Nawaz Sharif (who was supported by Gen Baig) that he would be the premier; but Mian Sahib backed out and all his nominees in Sindh lost. Later, Mian Sahib accommodated Jatoi by allowing him to contest elections from the Punjab.

The 1990 elections were ‘rigged’ by allegedly distributing money among the anti-PPP parties. This later become the cause of the high-profile Mehran Bank or Asghar Khan case and the role that the ISI had played at the time was exposed.

Mian Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister; but he too, was booted out using the same article in 1993. Even when the Supreme Court restored his government, the powerful ruling elite led by Ghulam Ishaq Khan refused to let him be the PM. Later under the ‘General Waheed Kakar formula’ another interim government led by the late Moin Qureshi was formed but not before Ghulam Ishaq too was asked to resign.

Benazir Bhutto was now elected prime minister for the second time, and got one of her trusted people, the late Sardar Farooq Leghari as president but could not remove the infamous Article 58-2(B); nearly 25 months later, she became its victim for the second time as to her surprise, Farooq Leghari sacked her government in 1996, a month after the assassination of her brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto — a case in which her own spouse Asif Ali Zardari was one of the accused.

In 1997, Mian Nawaz Sharif was given a two-thirds majority and the PPP was cut to size – to 18 NA seats. Within months the PM had forced Sajjad Ali Shah, the chief justice out. This was followed by another development which also led to the resignation of the COAS General Jehangir Karamat. He was replaced by Gen Pervez Musharraf who on October 12, 1999 removed Sharif’s government through a coup and ruled Pakistan for nine years. Like Zia, he too, used the judiciary by getting a judgment in his favour under the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’, which since the days of Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan has played a key role in ‘pre-poll’ rigging.

In 2001, like Gen Zia, he too went for a referendum and got a result in his favour. In 2002, he held elections but minus Benazir and Nawaz Sharif. It was also the first time that Imran Khan got elected as an MNA from Mianwali. Khan later withdrew his support for Musharraf.

The 2008 elections were ‘partly fair.’ Again, power was not to be handed over unless PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari agreed not to create problems for General Musharraf. He was given a safe exit with the traditional grandeur despite having been named by the late Benazir Bhutto in a conspiracy to kill her.

While political parties through the 18th Amendment created a system of holding elections under an interim set-up through a reasonably independent ECP, provided it used its authority the outside interference has continued, resulting in questions of credibility.

Between 2008 and 2013, there was a lot of judicial interference. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani was sent home but, the PPP-led government completed its term.

History was made in 2013, when for the first time in Pakistan, the civilian government not only completed its full five-year-long term but we also witnessed a peaceful transfer of power. International observers also called elections partly fair. At this time, we saw the rise of Imran Khan and the PTI. He accused the then establishment of favouring Mian Sahib and blocking his victory.

He launched a movement in 2014, with a dharna on ‘rigging.’ The Judicial Commission set up with his consent pointed out many irregularities but declared elections to be ‘largely fair’. The finding disappointed Imran Khan but he was left with no other choice and had to accept it.

‘Panama leaks’ came as blessing for Khan and led to the exit of Mian Sahib. However, PML(N)’s popularity remained intact and had pre-election manipulation not taken place in Balochistan, which saw the surprising overturn of the PML (N)-led government to that of dissident Jam Kamal, played key role in the post 2018 elections.

In Karachi, both, MQM (Pakistan) and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) leaders faced non-political pressures. As a result PTI got a surprising 14 NA seats against just one in 2013. In order to ease the situation for PTI, PML(Q), MQM (P) and Janoobi Punjab Mahaz (JPM) allowed Imran Khan to form the government at the Centre and in the Punjab while creating a record of retaining the government in KP.

The events mentioned from 1977 to 2018 provide insights into how elections are held in Pakistan and governments are formed and dismissed. However, the process of ‘rigging’ or ‘managing’ elections is much more complex. In my view, it begins with not holding the population census at the proper time (in clear violation of the Constitution). This is followed by the delimitation of constituencies, one of the essential exercises before elections and often designed to suit one party or be against the interests of the other. We have also witnessed serious flaws in the preparation of voters’ lists which at times create problems for certain political parties.

Census is important because it is followed by an increase in the number of National and Provincial Assembly seats in congruence with the increase in population. The provinces also get fund allocations reflecting the same. Smaller provinces often complain that this is an injustice and term it to be part of organised pre-poll rigging.

Questions have often been raised regarding hiring government employees – school and college teachers – as polling staff. Had the ECP been given enough funds they could have carried out independent recruitment to take care of these concerns.

Delay in the announcement of some of the results is often seen as part of a ‘rigging’ strategy. Election tribunals take six months to a year, and in some cases two to three years to decide on election petitions despite having been given a specific time frame of four months.

Militancy can also play a role in manipulation. For instance, when MQM was too strong it was accused of using arms against opponents on the polling day. In 2013, a terrorist outfit, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeted ANP, PPP and MQM, to stop them from carrying out effective campaigns.

Political parties have improved the system through amendments in the Political Parties Act. Today, candidates cannot change loyalties — they have to quit their seat if they want to join a new party. But some challenges still remain. The ‘buy vote’ method is still being used in the ‘secret ballot’. This recently became the subject of a debate in the case of vote of no confidence against the chairman of the Senate. Although, incidence of horse-trading has declined considerably, it is still resorted to when needed.

While political parties through the 18th Amendment created a system of holding elections under an interim set-up through a reasonably independent Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), provided it used its authority the outside interference has continued, resulting in questions of credibility.

Pakistan since its birth has failed to evolve a truly democratic system despite the long political struggle led by Jinnah under the banner of the Muslim League. Jinnah was a firm believer in a ‘democratic Pakistan’, and in parliamentary democracy. He also laid down the basic principles of governance in his policy statement before the Constituent Assembly on August 11th, 1947.

After his death, our ruling elite not only deviated from but also buried the vision of a true democratic system.

It was arguably the sole reason why the country faced a political and constitutional crisis in 1948. A frequent change of governments, dismissal of one prime minister after another, the establishment of One Unit to weaken the Bengali power and progressive movements, the banning of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) during the first five years and putting its leadership behind bars tie in with strategies to manipulate the political system, of the choice of a ‘few selectors’.

The most tragic part of our charred political history of elections, however, is the 1970 elections, which though people have, by and large, accepted as fairly ‘free and fair’; had its results been accepted and power handed over to the Awami League, Pakistan could have set a different political direction.

As the author of Democracy and its Crisis says, “Democracy is great, unless it can be undermined, manipulated and rigged.”

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. Twitter: @Mazhar,AbbasGEO

How the ruling elite rigs elections in Pakistan