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Military’s Influence Casts a Shadow Over Pakistan’s Election

LAHORE, Pakistan — The phone calls started last month, said Rana Iqbal Siraj: intimidating, anonymous demands that he defect from the party that governed Pakistan for the past five years and tried to curb the power of the military. Soon, he was summoned by state security officials who delivered the same message.

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Maria Abi-Habib
Salman Masood, New York Times

LAHORE, Pakistan — The phone calls started last month, said Rana Iqbal Siraj: intimidating, anonymous demands that he defect from the party that governed Pakistan for the past five years and tried to curb the power of the military. Soon, he was summoned by state security officials who delivered the same message.

Siraj, a candidate for the legislature in Punjab province, stayed with his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which was built decades ago around former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Then in June, roughly a month before Election Day, security officials raided his business at the behest of the military, Siraj said in an interview.

“They are trying to ruin me financially by raiding my warehouse and beating my staff,” he said, adding that he was considering moving his family abroad for their safety. “What am I at fault for? Just because I’m running on the PML-N ticket?”

Siraj and fellow party members said the aim of the raid was to weaken the former governing party’s chances by forcing its candidates to defect ahead of national elections on Wednesday that are shaping up to be a referendum on the military and its interference in Pakistan’s democracy.

That military campaign has been likened by some candidates to a soft coup, and has included sidelining candidates who are out of the military’s favor, censoring major news outlets and persecuting peaceful political movements.

The most likely beneficiary of the military’s manipulation is the party led by former cricket star Imran Khan, who has called the Taliban’s war against the U.S. military in Afghanistan justified, and is seen as the military’s favored candidate — a notion he denies. Khan has positioned himself as a fighter against corruption, taking aim at the dynastic politics and nepotism of parties like the PML-N while maintaining a good relationship with the military, which he credits with protecting the country. The military has ruled Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, through various coups for nearly half the country’s history since it gained independence in 1947. Even during civilian rule, the country’s generals have wielded enormous power, setting the agenda for the country’s foreign and security policies and tolerance of extremist groups — including the Afghan Taliban in its fight against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan next door.

As prime minister, Sharif ran afoul of the military early on by trying to assert control over foreign and defense policy, which is seen as the army’s domain. He also tried to improve ties with India, Pakistan’s archrival, and opposed the military’s embrace of terrorist groups, members of his party say.

In Wednesday’s election, voters will choose provincial legislatures and the country’s parliament, which will appoint the next prime minister. Officially, it will be only the second democratic transition between civilian governments in the Pakistan’s history, after the last election in 2013.

The PML-N accuses the army of pressuring the country’s courts to disqualify its top candidates, including Sharif, who was sentenced to prison this month. At the same time, some candidates who are on the government’s terrorism watch list have been cleared to run.

The main Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, denied at a news conference this month that Siraj was targeted because he belonged to the PML-N, saying he had been the subject of a government investigation for a year and a half. Ghafoor would not specify the nature of the investigation, and he denied that intelligence agencies had been involved in the raid on Siraj’s warehouse.

Other high-profile PML-N candidates have defected to Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf or PTI.

Khan said that while he has a productive relationship with the military, he is not receiving any help from it. Candidates are joining his centrist party because they are fed up with traditional parties that have failed to deliver, he said.

“When you have poor-quality leadership without the moral standing, you have a void and someone will always fill it,” Khan said in an interview at his home in Islamabad, referring to the military’s track record of coups and political interference.

The PTI is popular with voters under 35 who are hungry for change and make up 43 percent of the electorate.

But the military’s influence over Pakistan’s courts and its muzzling of the news media have cast a shadow over Khan’s party and its rallying cries for change and transparency.

Sharif and his daughter and political heir Maryam returned to Pakistan this month to face arrest after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. He had already been forced to resign last year by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in a case involving undisclosed luxury properties the Sharif family owns in London.

The Sharifs say those rulings were politicized, with the courts pressed by the military to bar them from politics.

On Saturday, a judge of the Islamabad High Court accused the military’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of meddling in the judiciary and forcing the justices to rule against Sharif and his relatives.

The speech by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui to lawyers in Rawalpindi was the latest public indictment of the military’s interference in politics. The parts of the speech that were critical of the ISI were not aired by local television news networks but short video clips went viral on social media.

The judge accused the ISI of influencing and pressuring the court that convicted and sentenced Sharif and his relatives. On July 17, the Islamabad High Court deferred the hearings of the appeals by Sharif against the court verdict until after elections.

“In this election, what’s at stake is the fate of Pakistan,” said Hina Rabbani, a former foreign minister who is running with the Pakistan Peoples Party, a rival of the PML-N. “I may hate Nawaz Sharif for his political choices, but I believe the system needs to self-correct, and we can no longer allow external forces to correct it. The only thing that can correct the system is elections.” The 2013 election was important because it was the first time power had been transferred from one civilian government to another, Rabbani said. “But for the next 10 years, we’ll be holding our breath with every election.”

Khan, who made Sharif’s removal from office almost a personal mission, sees the situation differently.

“To say the army castrated Nawaz Sharif — Nawaz Sharif was castrated by his own corruption,” he said. “The unlevel playing field you see is that they have minted this country,” he said, referring to the endemic corruption among Pakistan’s top political parties.

Although Khan has a good chance of becoming prime minister, the military is likely to insist on curbing the next government’s ability to shape defense and foreign policy, risking Pakistan’s further international isolation.

“The military finds itself in a tight corner,” said Raza Rumi, the editor of The Daily Times, an influential newspaper based in Lahore. “They want a hung parliament that doesn’t focus on cutting the military’s budget or curtailing its foreign policy. Instead, they want a government that focuses on cleaning the streets and planting trees.”

Whichever party forms the government will inherit a raft of problems: domestic terrorism; terrible relationships with neighboring India and Afghanistan; deteriorating ties with the United States, once a major ally; and a sputtering economy. Last month, Pakistan was returned to a “gray list” by the Financial Action Task Force — a global body that fights terrorism financing — for not doing enough to counter Islamic extremists operating from its territory. The listing could affect the country’s ability to raise funds internationally. At the beginning of this year, the Trump administration cut more than $1 billion in annual security aid over Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups. (The Pakistani military denies supporting terrorists.)

The military believes it can weather the storm by turning to China, which is spending some $65 billion on infrastructure and other projects in Pakistan, as well as doling out billions in loans.

“The question the whole nation is asking is what does the army want and why this level of interference?” said Ahmed Rasheed, a foreign-policy analyst and author.

Like others interviewed, Rasheed said he believed the military wanted a weak government, with the PTI at the helm of an unwieldy alliance in parliament.

While the PML-N, which held a supermajority in the last parliament, may win the most votes, it will struggle to form a government if the military pressures potential coalition partners. Analysts say Khan’s party is likely to be able to form the next government by cobbling together a coalition with smaller parties and independents.

But the military risks a severe backlash, Rasheed said, in part because social media has increased scrutiny of an institution once seen as sacrosanct.

“For the first time, not just the elite, but the public is now aware of the army’s major role,” Rasheed said. “It’s now talked about at the village level.” When Gul Bukhari, a journalist and vocal critic of the military, was abducted in an army-controlled area of Lahore last month by unknown assailants, including men in military uniform, the news spread quickly online. Pakistanis took to social media, including Twitter, to demand Bukhari be freed, and within hours she was returned home.

Bukhari said the public outcry had played a large role in her quick release.

“It was a demonstration of the immense power of social media in our times,” she said in an interview.

The traditional news media have also stood up to the military, as happened this spring when the newspaper Dawn and the TV channel Geo News complained that their distribution was being disrupted in parts of the country that the military administers.

Many candidates are nervous about the military’s unusual decision to deploy some 371,000 soldiers to monitor the election, including inside polling stations. But Khurram Dastgir Khan, a PML-N candidate who was defense minister in the last government, said social media had made the military and its allies more careful about overt interference.

“Things come out — they can’t be kept hidden anymore,” he said. “It’s unfeasible to use the draconian measures of two decades ago. Society has moved forward and technology has moved forward.”

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