In October 2002, 15 years ago, general elections were held in Pakistan under a military ruler.
The General’s elections were interesting for a number of reasons: the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, minority communities were able to vote for candidates in general seats (rather than just for candidates in ‘minority seats’), the educational qualification requirement was introduced which made a number of seasoned representatives ineligible as candidates, and the exiled leaders of the country’s two main political parties (former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif) were barred from contesting the elections.
Also, two large multi-party alliances contested the elections as a bloc, helping to thwart both the PPP and PML-N.
This matter of electoral alliances is particularly significant as Pakistan is now once again on the brink of a general election. There is once again a situation where a civilian government is challenging the military’s role in politics and attempting to establish some sort of civilian supremacy.
In 2002, the main alliance, Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), was made up of religious parties. Religious parties have traditionally not done too well on their own in Pakistan’s elections but in alliance are somehow able to convince voters that to vote against them would be a rejection of Islam and the Quran. This message was conveniently (or deliberately) condoned by the Election Commission when they allowed the MMA to use a book as their election symbol (conflagrating the visual with the book, i.e. the Quran).
The MMA won 63 seats in the National Assembly. They also formed a government in the northern province of KP (then known as NWFP), where they set about doing useful and constructive things like removing women’s images from billboards, banning music, burning CDs, ruining Pakhtun musicians and singers, and generally insisting that the performing arts were haram.
They then also performed a very useful role for the military ruler General Musharraf, as they provided a vocal and vociferous opposition to the US policy in Afghanistan, which the General was able to use to his advantage in dealing with the US.
The elections also provided an early (and shocking) example of the policy of mainstreaming militants: Maulana Azam Tariq of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, a murderous militant group with a one point hate agenda, “Shia kafir”, was not just allowed to contest the election but was also elected to the parliament.
The other electoral alliance was made up of Farooq Leghari’s party and various other anti-PPP groups, and was able to win 16 seats. The PML-N was neutralised largely by their own former members, referred to as the PML-Q, which was then regarded as the ‘King’s party’.
No one group was as powerful as Q with 126 seats. They had to form a coalition government with the MQM (17), a PPP breakaway faction headed by the erstwhile Faisal Saleh Hayat and various independent candidates.
The interesting thing about this election was the creation of two different alliances rather than just one. One main alliance was the model for the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) in 1977 or the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in 1988 and 1990.
The IJI united right-wing politicians (like Nawaz Sharif) with religious leaders, and was funded by the ISI to counter Benazir Bhutto’s PPP (this is now a matter of court record, thanks to the Asghar Khan case and according to former ISI director General Hamid Gul’s own admission).
But the model could not be used in the 1993 election, where a key member of the right-wing, establishment alliance, Nawaz Sharif, was himself in conflict with the establishment.
No alliance was required in 1997 either when Sharif was voted in decisively.
But what electoral alliance model will we see in the 2018 (or 2017?) elections, where the PML-N is at odds with the traditional establishment?
It’ll be interesting to see if the 2002 model is used and whether the militant mainstreaming policy is in fact part of that plan…