Every day there is a picture in the media of Imran Khan cutting a ribbon or raising a curtain to inaugurate some new “development” project as if he’s in a mad rush to woo the people as no less a “doer” than Shahbaz Sharif. The new finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, has also been instructed to press ahead with a development spending budget and tell the IMF – which has proposed the opposite strategy of belt tightening – to go fly a kite. Now Babar Awan, the SAPM on all dubious matters, has announced that, come hell or high water, the government intends to conduct the next general elections via nearly 500,000 Electronic Voting Machines as well as enable over 7 million “overseas Pakistanis” to cast their votes electronically. The PTI government’s serious purpose in this regard is demonstrated by its threat to steamroll the EVM bill through a joint session of Parliament so that the opposition-controlled Senate is not in any position to delay and thwart it.
Naturally, therefore, speculation is rife that the next general elections may be held in late 2022 rather than in mid 2023 as scheduled. The rumour mills are also working overtime since Maryam Nawaz Sharif held out the assurance that Nawaz Sharif would return to Pakistan “sooner than later” to lead the party to victory over the PTI.
But Imran Khan’s “disapproval ratings” are at an all-time high for many reasons. Why, then, should he be keen to opt for an early election?
Various reasons have been advanced. The opposition is confused and divided; its popular leaders are in prison or exile, hounded and impotent. The Miltablishment that has propped up Imran Khan seems more confident than ever before after its “victory” in Afghanistan. And Shaukat Tarin’s spending spree is aimed at alleviating lower-middle class hardships.
But a similar list of potential pitfalls exists to dampen such enthusiasm. If Pakistan is unable to guarantee a stable, pro-Pakistan, Western-approved Afghan government in Kabul soon and is scapegoated for the US downfall in Afghanistan – contend with its consequences like tightening of the IMF, FATF and GSP+ screws – and if cross-border terrorism continues to feed into political discontent, the “hybrid system” would come under severe strain. Indeed, if the opposition is able to cement together, shrug off its helplessness to exploit the adverse economic situation and confront the government in parliament and on the street, all bets would be off. That is why Imran Khan and his Miltablishment backers might be anxious to find a failsafe way to win the next general elections sooner than later.
One way to get the desired results would be to place full reliance on an engineered disruption of the Results Transmission System to determine favourable outcomes as was done in the dead of election night in 2018. Unfortunately, however, that method now stands discredited and political parties are retraining their polling agents to be extra vigilant at all stages of the election process. A better way to get the same end result is via Electronic Voting Machines that enable select shredding and shunting of domestic and foreign votes.
Independent experts have uniformly testified why EVMs are not desirable instruments in general elections, especially where trust is in acutely short supply. These machines lend themselves to rigging through software tampering. One expert estimate suggests that rigging less than 0.7% of the machines in pre-selected constituencies can swing an election one way or another. Except perhaps for two or three countries which have progressively experimented with EVMs over a long time period to make them reliable and credible, EVMs have been globally rejected in favour of paper voting and visual identification systems. They will also cost several hundred billion rupees to build and operate with trained manpower.
The date and mode of the next general elections is a factor in Imran Khan’s political calculations for one other reason. Justice Qaez Faiz Isa is in line to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court in 2023. His reputation as a no-nonsense constitutionalist precedes him. He has stood his ground against all odds, defying both the Miltablishment’s unconstitutional political meddling no less than the executive’s manipulations in the judiciary. It is inconceivable that he would allow any rigging of the general elections, whether through disempowering the Election Commission or by allowing EVMs and RTSs to rule the roost. Until now, the Miltablishment has been trying to oust him from the Supreme Court but a combination of pressure from the bar and civil society has thwarted such efforts. Therefore the option of a rigged election next year under the aegis of a weak Election Commission or judiciary has acquired urgency for the “powers-that-be”.
Let’s face it. In November 2022, Imran Khan will also be confronted with one other major decision. Should he extend the tenure of General Qamar Javed Bajwa for two years or should he appoint General Faiz Hameed as the next army chief? If the elections are held before that cut-off date in November 2022, Imran Khan can reasonably be assured of the support of both gentlemen, each vying for the coveted slot. But if these are to be held in 2023, and Imran Khan continues to play his cards close to his chest, then one or both may be inclined to think he is, or they are, dispensable, thereby opening up options for a different sort of change in 2022.