by Ryan Grim The Intercept 11 February 2024
And why the U.S. State Department is now in a difficult position on Pakistan.
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When covering the politics of foreign countries, it’s hard for me not to transpose what’s going on there back onto the United States and try to see it from that perspective. That’s made easier in Pakistan since we have roughly similar population sizes and much of Pakistani politics plays out in spectacle on Twitter and Facebook. That much of it is in English helps too (as does the “translate” button).
Yet what Pakistani voters managed to pull off over the past few days strains my imagination to its breaking point. I just can’t picture us doing it.
Consider this: The leading opposition party, the populist PTI, led by legendary cricket star Imran Khan, was officially banned from the ballots by the courts. Its candidates were forced to run as independents instead. The candidates were prohibited from using the PTI’s party symbol – a cricket bat – on the ballot, a crucial marker in a country where some 40 percent of the population can’t read. Khan himself was jailed on bogus charges and ruled ineligible to run. Candidates who did file to run were abducted and tortured and pressured to withdraw. So were the new ones who then replaced them. Virtually the entire party leadership was imprisoned or exiled. Rallies were attacked and bombed; rank and file workers jailed and disappeared. Campaigning was basically impossible as candidates had to go into hiding.
On election day Thursday, polling locations were randomly changed and the internet and cell service was taken down. Western media described the race as over, a fait accompli for the military’s preferred candidate Nawaz Sharif. And yet.
And yet. Pakistani voters came out in such historic numbers that it caught the military off guard. The ISI — Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency — was prepared to steal a close election or nudge Sharif to his inevitable victory, but they were swamped by the tsunami they didn’t see coming. In a crucial mistake, they had allowed individual polling locations to release official vote tallies, which parties and TV broadcasters could then total up themselves.
According to those broadcasts, watched by millions of people, PTI (or “independent”) candidates had won 137 seats by official counts, well on their way to a majority (there are 342 seats in the National Assembly; 266 are filled by direct elections). There were another 24 seats where 90 percent of the vote was counted and PTI was ahead. It was a clear landslide.
Then the military moved in, shutting down the election commission website and halting the count. Military and police forces surged into polling locations. Fantastical numbers began to be announced, sometimes just reversing the totals so the winner became the loser. The military was clearly unprepared to steal such a resounding victory, and the obviousness of the fraud forced politicians in the UK and U.S., including even the State Department, to denounce it.
All of this puts the State Department in a difficult position. It’s widely known the U.S. is no fan of Imran Khan. The U.S. prefers to work directly with the Pakistan military as a check against China. Khan has long said he wants a better relationship with the U.S., yet we refuse to believe him – our preferred approach was to oust him, put in more pliant clients, and shrug as the military dismantled democracy in the runup to the election. (The U.S. denied playing a role in ousting him, but we very much did, as The Intercept reported.)
That approach has now failed. The military-backed client proved unable to run their own country, losing all faith from the Pakistani people. The establishment in Pakistan may still be able to form a coalition government through fraud and abuse, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come out on top. The Pakistani people showed they can’t be held back anymore. When their will finally translates into real power is only a matter of time. The U.S. can delay it, but can’t stop it.
At this point, the State Department’s choice is either to respect the will of the Pakistani public and find a way to work with Khan, or discard all the talk about democracy and usher in a full military dictatorship, one without the pretense of even a civilian hybrid. It’s not clear which route we’ll take, but the pressure from Congress and the fairly strong statement from the State Department suggests the generals may be losing favor in Washington.
On Thursday afternoon at the State Department, I told spokesperson Vedant Patel that the military’s clear strategy after the election was to abduct, torture, and bribe the independent candidates into switching parties. If PTI candidates won the election, I asked, but were coerced into changing parties, would the U.S. recognize such a government? My mistake was asking a hypothetical, even an easily foreseeable one, because spokespeople are good at ignoring such questions. Patel called it a “made up” scenario and wouldn’t commit either way.
One winning candidate, Waseem Qadir, has already flipped. Elected to the national assembly as a PTI-affiliated independent, he claims he was abducted and is now supporting Nawaz Sharif’s party. Skeptics believe he was actually bribed, not tortured, and there protests outside his home – but either way, neither scenario is remotely democratic. The scenario is no longer made up, it’s real, and the State Department has some decisions to make.
I wrote in more detail about all of this on Friday and talked about it with my colleague Murtaza Hussain and Pakistani journalist Waqas Ahmed on Breaking Points.
Anyway, can you imagine American voters overcoming those sorts of obstacles to get to the polls? I want to leave you with the opening anecdote from my story Friday, one of the most inspiring (and infuriating stories I’ve ever come across in politics):
Pakistan, a bystander happened to catch, on camera, police raiding the Sialkot home of Usman Dar. At the time, Dar was an opposition candidate representing former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party — which the military and its civilian allies were busy suppressing with abductions, raids, blackmail, and threats. Khan, a populist prime minister, was forced from office in 2022 under military pressure with the encouragement of the U.S.
Through a window, video shows Pakistani police officials assaulting Dar’s elderly mother, Rehana Dar, in her bedroom. Dar’s brother, Umar Dar, was also picked up, though police only acknowledged he’d been arrested much later at a court hearing. When Usman Dar emerged from custody, he announced he was stepping down from the race and leaving the party — as many other PTI candidates have done under similar pressure.
But then came a new wrinkle, a symbol of the refusal of Khan’s supporters to bow to the military-backed government. While the news was announced that Dar was withdrawing from the race, and with another son still missing, his mother went on television to say that she would be running instead. “Khawaja Asif,” Rehana Dar said in a video posted on social media directed to the army-backed political rival of her son, “You have achieved what you wanted by making my son step down at gunpoint, but my son has quit politics, not me. Now you will face me in politics.”
She was a political novice, an angry mother who represented the country’s frustration with its ruling elite. “Send me to jail or handcuff me. I will contest the general elections for sure,” she said while filing her nomination papers. Those papers were initially rejected — like they were for so many PTI candidates, and only PTI candidates — and she had to refile.
Nevertheless, she persisted. On Thursday night, election night, with her son Umar still in custody, she shocked the country. With 99 percent of precincts counted, she had beaten that lifetime politician, Khawaja Asif, with 131,615 to 82,615 votes. The loss by Asif, who was allied with Nawaz Sharif — the military-backed candidate whose victory Vox had called “almost a fait accompli” — was a blow to the army.
Then came one more wrinkle — one that many in Pakistan expected, but which was still shocking. When the full results were announced, Dar’s total had been reduced by 31,434 votes, while Asif gained votes, and he was declared the winner.
Across the country, similar reversals are flowing out from Pakistan’s election commission. As polling ended Thursday evening, early results shocked the establishment and even some dispirited supporters of Khan who had worried that Pakistani authorities had successfully done everything they could to manipulate the outcome. Those results suggested a landslide victory for ousted former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party even as Khan himself sits in prison, ineligible to run.
But in several key races, results have suddenly swung toward the military-backed party, after hours of unexplained delays. In the NA-128 constituency, where the PTI-backed candidate is senior lawyer Salman Akram Raja, Raja was leading with 100,000 votes in 1,310 out of 1,320 polling stations. On Friday, he was trailing by 13,522 votes. But the publicly available totals from the polling stations did not add up with the results announced by the election commission. He took the case to high court, which granted him a stay and stopped the election commission from announcing the winner pending further investigation. Following his lead, multiple PTI candidates have announced that they will take their cases to court. Rehana Dar is one of them.