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

Courtesy : The New York Times

By  Maria Abi-Habib and Salman Masood

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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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?”

Mr. 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 the former cricket star Imran Khan, who has called the Taliban’s war against the United States military in Afghanistan justified, and is seen as the military’s favored candidate — a notion he denies. Mr. 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 United States-backed government in Afghanistan next door.

As prime minister, Mr. 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.

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