The general election of 2018 will be a defining moment in our history.So far, election campaigning has not been focused on issues. Rather it has been about exchange of vitriolic among politicians trying to run one another down. Despite all that, since elections always act as a catalyst, 2018 would perhaps be the year when the fundamental issue as to who is the real arbiter of power — people or the establishment — would get addressed. Pakistan does not have a good experience of elections. Except the one that voted Pakistan into existence, rest of them have had mixed consequences. Three prime ministers and many other leaders were disposed off violently. Pakistan lost its first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, shot in a public meeting in the garrison city of Rawalpindi when he was to announce the date for first general elections. Then came Prime Minisrer Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Despite the fact that he gave the 1973 Constitution, galvanised a fractured nation after its army surrendered to the Indians, resurrected national pride and a hope in future securing its defence by giving the nation nuclear deterrence. Confident of his achievements, Bhutto faulted in calling for elections earlier than schedule. And then he became a victim of General Ziaul Haq’s conspiracy.Third was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She was assassinated when she triumphantly returned to Pakistan to contest elections after a long struggle. Military dictator General Pervez Musharraf would not allow her back in safety to be assassinated once again in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Killers of none of the three leaders were caught. It is ironic that both the father and the daughter made Pakistan’s defence invulnerable. One gave the country nuclear capability, while the other brought missile technology to the country. The bullets that injured Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal were meant to warn the nation about things to come during the election timeThe bullets that injured Federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal were meant to warn the nation about things to come during the election time. Not that Pakistani politics is not known for violence, after the advent of Pakistani Taliban and deep state sponsored religious extremist groups, the liberal and secular parties like PPP, ANP and MQM (now splintered) were targeted in 2013 elections marginalising their voting strength. One has more reasons now to believe that this new face of extremism can be scarier than anything Pakistan have seen so far.However, sometimes, a patient has to go through extreme surgery to get to the root of the disease. For the first time ever, Punjab’s establishment has been challenged by Punjab’s civilian leader. Battle lines are clearly drawn to decide who would be both de fecto and de jure ruler. The civil-military row, or to be more precise, the wrangling between PML-N government and the military establishment is now in quite an advance stage. Preparations for general elections are also in full swing. Even then, unlike 2013 general elections, one can’t confidently `think or talk about a smooth transition from one elected government to another in 2018. The reason for this uncertainty is the naked political engineering by the powers-that-be through administrative, judicial and political instruments. The process has been so brazen that it is now an open secret. It’s obvious that test tube political outfits for creating conducive conditions for raising of ‘umpire’s finger’ were not spontaneous. The long arm of the deep state can be clearly seen as a motivating factor behind judicial activism, the likes of which were never seen before. Double standards in dealing with generals and civilians is a sad reflection on the character of the judiciary. The very fact that the apex judiciary has failed to prosecute General Pervez Musharraf for abrogating the Constitution, coupled with its recent role in deciding cases of political nature — seem to be rightly equated as nothing but repetition of the Doctrine of Necessity, in contradiction to basic requirements for rule of law.The contradictions between the de facto and de jure have brought into fore serious questions regarding the sustainability of the 1973 constitution, following the 18th amendment that empowered provinces, reducing the hegemony of central power. Though it was attempted during PPP’s government whose leadership was mature enough to steer itself from succumbing to the machinations of the powers-that-be, then tacitly backed by the PML-N leadership. Regretfully, space provided by default to the establishment by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his ministers, by not respecting the Parliament, has gone a long way in marginalisation of civilian power. Despite the fact that Mian Sahib has no credentials of his own and is suffocating under a pile of corruption charges, he has yet taken on the establishment when the latter has made it clear that in future politics in Pakistan there would be no space for any powerful civilian chief executive. Besides, Mian Sahib’s failure to rise to the occasion has limited the scope for future effectiveness of any elected government.At this juncture, there are three fundamental issues confronting the nation. First, obviously is the question of the real ruler — people or the Praetorian establishment (Pakistan has the unique distinction of coming into being by vote, not violent struggle). Secondly, there is the issue of provincial autonomy versus strong centre (the latter being the cause of partition of India in 1947 and then breaking up of Pakistan in 1971). Provincial autonomy remains a thorn in the side of anti-democratic forces in Pakistan. Every military coup in the past attempted to roll back federal structure and turn the country into a unitary state. Attempts continue against the 18th Constitutional Amendment. There is a consensus that any subversion of 18th Amendment by dubious and unconstitutional means would leave no other option with smaller provinces but to demand parity in the National Assembly for all federating units— the medicine that was originally invented by Punjabi ruling elites in mid 1950s for countering the population weight of the then East Pakistan (67 million Bengalis to 60 Million West Pakistanis).The third key question relates to foreign and security policies of the country. After Bhutto Sahib’s government was overthrown by General Ziaul Haq, reins of foreign policy passed into the hands of the security establishment. Now the latter controls the foreign policy as well. Any effort by the civil governments to normalise relations with the neighbours (India and Afghanistan-strategic depth) become a major point of friction. Pakistan’s jihadist foreign policy has been responsible for Pakistan’s isolation. Notwithstanding CPEC, even China is becoming wary of it too.The writer is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalistPublished in Daily Times, May 23rd 2018.