In Pakistan one has to live hoping against hope. After having completed ten years of electoral democracy, with the third elections imminently around the corner, the country that came into being through a violence-free vote strengthened its hope that finally we have made it through. Democracy has come to stay, its roots are getting deeper and firmer into the ground and the extra-constitutional forces that constantly posed a threat to it seems to have been blunted. Various attempts at disrupting the system have miserably failed.It seems to have been too good to be true as we inch towards Election Day. Instead of doubts of foul play by the dark state getting dissipated, the promised neutrality and transparency are being widely shrouded by dubious moves by state institutions — institutions that are supposed to provide due legitimacy to the vote by keeping the electoral process clean. Usually, fingers are raised challenging the fairness of elections after the votes have been cast. Unfortunately this time around there is hardly any political party that is not creating a hullabaloo about pre-poll rigging. This is of course besides the horse-trading and pre-poll desertions which have been taking place for quite some time.It is deeply alarming that permission to contest elections has been extended to certain banned political outfits and their leadersThe national political scenario that is finally taking shape was forecast months ahead by political pundits. It started in Sindh when members of Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP-P) were targeted by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and there was open engineering in favour of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Soon it shifted to Punjab, where Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) claims it has been singled out after the legal knockout of its prime minister. The most sinister development is emergence of extremist religious parties under the garb of ‘mainstreaming’. It is deeply alarming that permission to contest elections has been extended to certain banned political outfits and their leaders. These are people known for spreading violent sectarianism. The situation has come to such a pass that Punjab’s main political party,the PML-N is deliberating to boycott the elections as it has alleged it is not getting a fair deal. Its Quaid, Nawaz Sharif has come out with an extremely strongly worded statement, saying his party would not tolerate what he calls ‘high-handedness’ against his party members. If the shenanigans by state players continued, conditions such as those which led to the creation of Bangladesh cannot be ruled out, Mian Sahib has warned.It is said that the PPP too is under pressure to support the idea of postponement of elections as desired by the ‘engineers’. According to a Tweet by leading TV anchor Hamid Mir, the attack by miscreants on PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s rally in PPP’s traditional stronghold in Lyari was contrived to put pressure on him to agree to postpone the polls for few months. Bilawal has refused to cow down and has intensified his campaigning in interior Sindh. PPP election manifesto — so far the only one to be announced by any political party— has rediscovered its socialistic ideological and populist moorings. Analysts say that it has the magic to pull votes from South Punjab. While PPP is seeking to revive its populist character through a manifesto that wants to revive the Roti, Kapra aur Makan slogan besides reinvesting its belief that it is the masses that are the source of all power, the character of other political parties seems to have drastically changed too. PML-N, which was once the establishment’s baby has changed colours completely. It is now a confrontationist party which has thrown the gauntlet to the establishment, challenging its monopoly over power. Although the current party president, Shahbaz Sharif, does want a new covenant with a formula of sharing power between the civilian and military leadership. He is reported to have offered the military some sort of compromise, giving an upper hand to the GHQ in foreign affairs. PPP is opposed to this, as it rightly feels that all that is being engineered is to do away with the 18th amendment, which is considered as bad as Sheikh Mujib’s six points by the establishment.Imran Khan’s PTI — the party of change — has emerged as the bastion of the status quo. With the influx of turncoats from the PPP, PML-N and the electables, its populist façade has changed. The rumpus over the distribution of party tickets has caused serious fissures within the party, especially disenchanting the party’s old guard, which feels betrayed by Imran Khan’s rank opportunism. In short, since all the political parties have changed, it can be apprehended that the outcome of the elections would be a combination of confusion and chaos. Much like the previous elections, July 25 will also turn out to be just another exercise by the dark state to experiment with a hung parliament with a handpicked prime minister. Instances of pre-poll machinations have come to light. The ECP has taken note of NAB’s questionable role in some cases that cast an aspersion on the fairness of the elections. The most outrageous incident that ECP has taken serious exception is that of a military officer’s direction to ROs and DROs for a conference meeting on elections in Kasur and the reported harassment and thrashing of PML-N candidates in Multan and Narowal. Reliable sources claim that the ECP has taken up the issue with the GHQ and it has been told it was a mistake on the part of the major. No doubt, this disorder is threatening to implode the democratic system. Meanwhile, the caretakers seem to be spectators to the on ongoing trapeze. It would be in the best interest of the country for elections to be held fairly and transparently without any engineering, manipulation or machinations. In strong democracy lies a prosperous and peaceful future for Pakistan. It will also strengthen our army in its battle to eliminate the terrorism that continues to pose a serious threat to us.The writer is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist Published in Daily Times, July 4th 2018.