How ISI engineers Pakistan elections

By K. Subrahmanyam, IANS

A 38-page dossier prepared by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on a detailed plan by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which was to have been released by Benazir Bhutto Dec 27, 2007, the day she was killed has been leaked by her followers in London. The objective of the plan was to cripple the opponent by slow and gradual measures, in a manner that was not connected plausibly with the subsequent elections.

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Among the steps to manipulate the elections were creation of violence in the vicinity of the polling stations to interrupt polling when the officially favoured candidates felt that the polling was not proceeding in their favour or conspiracies to create a situation for stuffing ballot boxes while shifting them to counting centres. Once, General (retd) Aslam Beg said that in Pakistan the voting was generally free and fair and the “angels” intervened during counting, implying thereby that rigging of elections took place at that stage.

Pakistan has had elections in 1970, 1977, 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1996. Of these six elections it is generally agreed that the 1970 elections were free, fair and unrigged. That was because ISI predicted that no party would get a majority and the Yahya government and ISI would be in a position to manipulate the formation of a coalition government after the elections. They were proved wrong. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League swept the polls in then East Pakistan, won all seats except two and secured an overall majority in the Pakistan National Assembly. Neither the Pakistan Army nor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose PPP won a significant majority of seats in West Pakistan was willing to hand over power to Mujibur Rahman. That resulted in civil war and secession of Bangladesh in 1971.

In 1977 by all accounts, Bhutto could have easily won a majority. But he arranged for rigging in a number of seats where he was not sure of his party winning. His own loyalists subsequently admitted this. The rigging was done in such a crude way it could be exposed and consequently the opposition Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) organised a violent opposition, which necessitated deployment of the army in a number of cities. Even as Bhutto and the opposition had finalised a deal on the issue, the then army chief Zia-ul Haq staged a coup and seized power. Bhutto, in his memoirs written in jail while awaiting execution, called the Pakistani political culture “coupgemony”.

The next election with participation of political parties could be held only after Zia died in an explosion that destroyed his aircraft in 1988. While the PPP under Benazir Bhutto was allowed to participate in the election ISI supported the Muslim League and discovered in Nawaz Sharif an appropriate leader to oppose the PPP. The election itself was conducted under army supervision. The PPP emerged as the largest single party but very much short of majority. It was allowed to form a government under a US-mediated deal which severely restricted the powers of the prime minister and vested in the president the powers to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the prime minister and excluded the prime minister’s jurisdiction on policies related to nuclear programme, foreign policy and defence. The army was dissatisfied with Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and got her dismissed in August that year.

A new election in October 1990 gave the highest number of seats to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and he formed a coalition government. Years later in a case where Habib Bank was charged with having given large sums of money to ISI it was accepted by the then army chief, Aslam Beg, that the money was distributed by ISI to various political parties other than the PPP in the elections in 1990. Beg also disclosed that late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had originally empowered ISI, under the army control, to intervene in the affairs of political parties. There were other allegations in Pakistan that these large sums were drug trade-related money, which was used by ISI for various covert operations including party financing. With reference to the 1990 elections Beg had observed that “angels” intervened during counting in Pakistani elections.

In 1993 both Nawaz Sharif and President Ishaq Khan had to quit after the latter dismissed the former and the Supreme Court declared the dismissal invalid. Fresh elections brought Benazir Bhutto to power. In 1996 Benazir Bhutto was dismissed by then President Farooq Khan Leghari, earlier installed by her in office and the new elections once again brought Nawaz Sharif to office.

In October 1999 when Nawaz Sharif dismissed the then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf, two of his senior lieutenants staged a coup in collaboration with other corps commanders. The elections of 2002 were notoriously rigged. It did not stop there. After the elections both the PPP and the PML-N were split to have a coalition that would support Musharraf. The breakaway Muslim League supporting Musharraf was named the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q). Election laws were amended to ensure that fundamentalists could get elected in North West Frontier Province and Balochistan.

This is the history of elections in Pakistan. There is no tradition of an autonomous Election Commission as in India, where the Election Commission’s authority is supreme and no executive interference is allowed. These precautions and safeguards are absent in Pakistan.

Obviously in a nation where the chief justice and scores of judges of the Supreme Court and high courts can be removed in one go and placed under house arrest, it is too much to expect an independent election commissioner or free and fair poll. It is not only the army that attempts to rig the polls. Even elected prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did it and he brought in ISI as an instrumentality to manipulate civilian politics.

In such circumstances there is nothing surprising in the PPP dossier about the planned ISI strategy. The Pakistan Army has asserted on more than one occasion that it is the guardian of Pakistani ideology. Pakistani ideology also maintains that sovereignty does not vest with the people of Pakistan but with Allah. In democracies, people are sovereign and armed forces are apolitical instruments of the government elected by the people. To use Zulfikar Bhutto’s phrase, for a “coupgemonic” army, which does not consider itself a subordinate of an elected government the process of elections may not matter very much. Once asked about his legitimacy as a ruler Zia replied that in Islam it did not matter how a ruler became one but it was incumbent on him to govern according to the provisions of Shariah. So long as Pakistani generals follow Zia’s dictum, elections too are after all a process to get a ruler.

(K. Subrahmanyam is a leading Indian analyst on foreign policy and strategic affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected])