A day before Pakistan’s 11th national election, the country’s dream of undiluted democracy appears to be receding – again.
In its 70-year history, Pakistan has alternated between quasi-democracy and pure military rule. In the process it has become embroiled in international conflicts and morphed into a home base for Islamist militancy.
Over the past decade, Pakistanis have witnessed democracy at its most undiluted thus far, but it’s now under threat from what some say appears to be a “democratic coup” of sorts.
And just as in the past, the country’s powerful military establishment remains the chief suspect behind the fresh round of political manipulation.
In the past, the military used to either stage a direct coup or use special powers to sack an elected government and then manipulate elections to ensure it wasn’t re-elected.
In 2008, those special powers were done away with, leading to a first in 2013: an elected government completing its five-year term.
But since then the tide appears to have reversed, and critics say the establishment is resorting to more primitive tactics to recover its edge.
A three-pronged approach is in evidence.
First, as some legal experts have observed, the courts have selectively applied the law to clip the wings of the outgoing government, thereby creating an advantage for its rivals.
On Sunday, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court said that the ISI intelligence service was interfering in the judiciary, and had pressured judges not to release convicted ex-PM Nawaz Sharif ahead of the vote.
Mr Sharif was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court on questionable grounds last year, and has since been sentenced to 10 years in jail by a trial court, in a ruling which one legal expert described as an embarrassment to his community.
According to the Dawn newspaper, Justice Siddiqui told the Rawalpindi Bar Association he was not afraid of speaking out against the powerful ISI, saying: “I am not afraid even if I am assassinated.”
Second, authorities have either looked the other way as banned militant groups have joined the election process, or have actively helped them to do so.
And third, the military has been given what many call an obscenely large role in administering the voting process on election day.