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Opinion

The army is the real victor in Pakistan's election

Military muzzled established parties in favor of Khan

Imran Khan, who has claimed victory in Pakistan's election, will be under pressure to keep his military backers happy.   © Reuters

The just-ended election should have been a moment of celebration in Pakistan.

It was, after all, only the second time in its 70-year history that the nation experienced a civilian transition. Yet as election results trickled in with interminable delays due to unexplained "software problems," widespread reports of heavy-handedness by military personnel posted in polling stations and usurpation of ballot boxes by presiding officers, the electorate's mood steadily darkened until it was anything but celebratory.

Late on the day after the vote, several candidates in key constituencies were still awaiting official results from the electoral commission. What results had been announced at that point confirmed what many had suspected would happen: the newcomer Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (Justice Party), headed by cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, had swept to power and the Sharifs' PMLN and the Bhuttos' PPP, the two parties that have dominated politics here for the last 30 years with increasingly fractious relations with the country's military establishment, had been hobbled.

The portents were there for all to see. Over the last year the "Miltablishment," as Pakistan's military establishment is known here, had made its disapproval of Nawaz Sharif glaringly obvious. The popular but allegedly corrupt prime minister had once been the army's blue-eyed boy and a protege of the former military dictator General Zia. He overstepped his authority when he demanded greater civilian control over military budgets and peaceful relations with India and Afghanistan.

With the help of a partisan judiciary, he was promptly hounded out of office on unproven corruption charges. When his ouster not only failed to dent his popularity, but cast him as a victim of injustice, the "Miltablishment" doubled down: media was muzzled, civil activists were picked up, hundreds of PMLN workers were arrested, an anti-corruption watchdog was selectively deployed to disqualify powerful members of Sharif's party and, finally, with the help of inducements and coercion, no less than 40 of his MPs were prized away and shepherded into the ranks of Khan's PTI.

At the same time extremist religious parties on the fringes of Pakistani politics came into the mainstream. Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, a little-known gaggle of extremists that burst into prominence two years ago with its stiff resistance to Sharif's government, is headed by Khadim Rizvi. A fiery cleric in a wheelchair, he publicly threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on the Netherlands for daring to insult the Prophet Muhammad -- and this in a nation possessing nuclear weapons. On July 25, at vast expense and funded by undisclosed sources, Rizvi fielded no less than 500 candidates in both national and provincial elections and made significant inroads into Sharif's conservative base.

The coup de grace was delivered to the PMLN three weeks before the election. Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, were sentenced to 10 and seven years' imprisonment respectively for failing to disprove alleged corruption. While Khan and Rizvi were provided with a full complement of security, three candidates of other parties were killed in targeted suicide attacks, including a bomb that claimed 30 lives in the western province of Balochistan. All in all, 180 people have been killed and scores wounded in the last month alone. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a widely respected watchdog, described these developments as 'blatant, aggressive, unabashed attempts to manipulate the attempts of the upcoming election.'

When the army has not been ruling Pakistan directly through martial law, it has always had a say in who should run the country and how. Pakistanis understand this. But even so the scale and intent of the manipulation we have witnessed over the last year has left many in no doubt that this is nothing short of a "creeping coup."

The beneficiary of the military's manipulation this time is Khan. A philanthropist and fading sports icon, he was an uncompromising ideologue who waged a lonely war against corruption in politics when he launched his party in the 1990s. Over the years however, he has gradually laid his principles to rest and evolved into an unrepentant demagogue. He spouts anti-Western nationalist rhetoric, is an admirer of the Taliban and has a curiously elastic concept of graft. His party is now stuffed with the very politicians he castigated for being crooked even six months ago, and though he still boasts of his personal financial probity, his lavish lifestyle is funded by men of dubious means.

He lambasts the Sharifs and Bhuttos for corruption but maintains a tactful silence about the military's vast industrial and real estate empire. If any politician or journalist dares to criticize the military, Khan immediately savages them like a faithful Rottweiler, questioning their patriotic credentials and accusing them of being in the pay of "foreign interests." His abusive rants against local and Western elites (the first of his three wives was the British heiress, Jemima Goldsmith) have found a ready audience among conservative, urban middle-class youth who are his devout fans and insist that he deserves a chance to run the country.

Deserving or not, he has now received that chance.

In the election, which almost all other parties protest were rigged against them, he did astonishingly well. For now Khan is strutting on television but his smug demeanor may not last long. A restive population, simmering at what is wildly perceived to be a stolen election and an insurrection brewing in the north among angry Pashtun tribesmen may well test Khan's emollient skills as prime minister. He also has to contend with a parlous economy and ballooning debt, deteriorating relations with neighboring Afghanistan and India and a president in the White House who wants to cut aid to Pakistan's military and is fast running out of patience with its equivocal stance toward the Taliban.

Not only will Khan have to fulfill his tall promises of instantly delivering a shiny "New Pakistan" to his army of young, volatile fans but he will also have to keep his benefactors in the barracks sweet by toeing their line on virtually every aspect of national security and foreign policy. The "Miltablishment" does not like to be crossed, particularly by its own creatures, as Mr Sharif, who now languishes in jail, can readily confirm.

Moni Mohsin is a Pakistani writer based in London. The author of three novels, her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Nation.

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