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Pakistan's democracy hanging by a thread

Pakistan's democracy hanging by a thread

As Shehbaz Sharif is sworn in as new PM, a growing chorus in Congress is calling on Biden to investigate allegations of election fraud

Analysis | Middle East

Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as Pakistan's new prime minister Sunday amid a swirl of accusations that his party, in concert with the Pakistani military, rigged the elections.

Earlier this month, voters in Pakistan woke up to what initially appeared to be an overwhelming victory to former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and a strong rebuke to the powerful military-backed government in the country’s parliamentary elections. Instead, the election was ultimately called for the military's preferred candidate, Sharif, of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party.

Early results, broadcast widely by the Pakistani media, had shown a landslide victory for PTI. After the election was called for Sharif's party, nonpartisan observers like the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) found that there were election law violations at over two-thirds of polling sites, which almost certainly helped change the outcomes.

This was in addition to unprecedented efforts by the Pakistani military to discourage voter turnout and intimidate candidates running with the populist PTI, including forcing PTI-aligned candidates to run as independents, banning the PTI’s iconic cricket bat symbol from the ballot in a country where a significant number of illiterate voters rely on those symbols to identify candidates, and widespread mobile outages.

Late in the evening of the election, after an unusual gap in media coverage, constituencies where televised results and hard documentation (known as “Form 45s”) had shown PTI-backed candidates with commanding leads were suddenly showing “official” results in which PML-N candidates had surged to improbable leads, in some cases with PTI-backed candidates losing votes.

A high-ranking elections official in Rawalpindi, a city housing the military headquarters abutting the capital Islamabad, later confessed to flipping 13 constituencies against PTI-aligned candidates and accused the Election Commission of Pakistan and military leadership of orchestrating electoral theft.

In spite of these efforts to ostensibly skew the results in the PMLN’s favor, official results still showed the PTI with 93-seat plurality, eclipsing the PMLN’s 75 seats. But reducing the potentially-enormous PTI mandate into a bare plurality left the party incapable of overcoming a coalition of the PMLN and the PPP — Pakistan’s other dynastic political party — and forming a government.

Members of the U.S. Congress from across the political spectrum have come out with statements sounding the alarm on the Pakistani military’s election interference, vote rigging, and fraud. A number of lawmakers are specifically calling on the State Department to refuse to recognize the results of Pakistan’s election until there is an independent investigation into the vote rigging and fraud. Growing pressure from Congress, advocates, and Pakistani-Americans, many of whom support PTI, has forced the State Department to think carefully about its next moves.

House Foreign Affairs Committee members like Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) and Rep. John James (R-Mich.) were among the lawmakers stressing the importance of making sure the U.S. does not recognize an illegitimate government in Pakistan.

“Now is the time for the international community to stand on the side of the people of Pakistan,” Rep. Wild said. “We cannot recognize a new government until it is clear that democracy has prevailed.”

Progressives, establishment Democrats, and even Republicans have spoken out in recent days to express support for the right of the Pakistani people to a democratically elected government. More than two dozen lawmakers, led by Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), sent a letter to the Biden administration on Wednesday demanding it withhold recognition of the new government until there’s an investigation.

The State Department’s response, on the other hand, has been mixed. Not long after military and police forces moved to suppress the election results, Biden’s State Department put out a statement calling for an investigation into the election fraud. "Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated,” spokesperson Matthew Miller said. However, he added, “the United States is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of party."

Pressure from activists and lawmakers like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) likely compelled the State Department to issue a recent call on Pakistan’s government to restore access to X (formerly known as Twitter) during an extensive blackout in the country.

It remains a question how committed the State Department is to seeing this through. At a press briefing earlier this month, Miller said the U.S. wants to see the vote rigging investigated by “Pakistan’s legal system.” It is widely known, however, that Pakistan’s legal system is an arm of the regime. Courts in Pakistan have already thrown cases out, and it was the Supreme Court that essentially banned PTI candidates from running in the election when it ruled they could not use their party symbol on ballots. When Intercept reporter Ryan Grim pressed Miller on this fact, pointing to growing congressional calls for an independent investigation, Miller replied: “I don’t know what body they’re proposing.”

But the State Department has had no problem assessing elections and suggesting actions against them in the past. They just appear stronger and more categorical. In July 2023, the State Department declared that the Cambodian national elections “were neither free nor fair.” When Uganda saw its government undermine the 2021 general election with violence, intimidation, and other suppression tactics, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the actions and announced visa restrictions “on those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda.” On Sunday, the State Department condemned the “sham parliamentary elections” in Belarus. “Impossible to hold free and fair elections in a climate of fear and with 1400+ political prisoners,” Miller said in a tweet. Anyone familiar with recent U.S. foreign policy knows well that Washington is never shy about condemning purportedly undemocratic behavior abroad, even using it as justification for military interventions and sanctions regimes.

A chorus for an election audit is growing domestically in Pakistan. Election monitors with varying degrees of independence from officials in Islamabad, ranging from FAFEN to the Pattan Development Organization, have called the results into question and demanded action from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Pattan officials have gone even further in their assessment of electoral fraud and have demanded an investigation of motives: “Since Pattan had observed and analysed the whole electoral process of the election, we are confident to note that rigging at each step of the election was likely to be part of a grand strategy. Therefore, it appears necessary to investigate the role of its authors, the implementors and who are the possible beneficiaries.”

Pressure is growing from the halls of the U.S. Congress on the State Department to endorse such an audit before recognizing any PMLN-PPP coalition government formed under fraudulent terms. Senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is among the latest and most significant of those voices, addressing his message to the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.: “Pakistani authorities must fully investigate the allegations of fraud and electoral interference. Without a credible investigation, a new government will struggle to bring the Pakistani people together.”

Sen. Van Hollen also invoked the specter of Pakistan’s looming IMF negotiations, a challenge that has plagued the country’s fragile governments and economy for years and one that has similarly been raised by Imran Khan in his own letter asking the IMF not to extend a loan to an undemocratic Pakistani government.

The coming weeks will be a crucial moment in the future of Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

A portrait of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen amid flags of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the religious and political party Jamat-e-Islami (JI) as supporters attend a joint protest demanding free and fair results of the elections, outside the provincial election commission of Pakistan (ECP)in Karachi, Pakistan February 10, 2024. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/File Photo

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