ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - In most countries, politicians who warned that aliens were trying to influence an upcoming general election would likely find themselves ridiculed by the media and shunned at the ballot box.
In Pakistan, where cryptic references to “invisible hands” wielded by “the boys” have long been part of the political lexicon, such talk is a staple of the campaign trail.
Ahead of the July 25 vote, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has cautioned that “aliens” (Pakistan’s military) will attempt to prevent his party from winning another five-year term. Others whisper about the role the country’s feared “angels” (intelligence services) might play.
The colourful terminology is partly a reflection of Pakistan’s rich linguistic heritage, peppered with English terms such as “blue-eyed boy” (one favoured by those in power) and “red lines” (forbidden subjects).
A closer look, though, shows a political vocabulary born out of fear of openly criticising the country’s powerful military - the unnamed subject of most of the creative language.
“These terms are particular to Pakistan because of our governance structure,” said Jibran Nasir, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist. “We have militarised politics, and that’s something you don’t get so often in a modern-day democracy.”
Pakistan’s military, which did not respond to a request for comment, has repeatedly denied interfering in modern-day politics.
Coming a decade after former army chief Pervez Musharraf was forced from power, July’s general election is billed as a historic event that would mark only the second democratic transition of power for a nation that has been ruled by the military for nearly half its history since independence in 1947.
But intensifying allegations of military meddling threaten to cast a shadow over the milestone, with senior figures in Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) alleging “hidden forces” are trying to weaken the party.
With newspapers abuzz with claims the military is attempting to engineer the election result and media houses complaining that “higher powers” (the military) are crushing free speech, journalists too are relying on oblique terms to get their message across without angering the “Establishment” (the military and intelligence top brass, along with some senior civil servants and judges).
Newspaper editorials and social media are awash with fears the poll may be delayed due to behind-the-scenes scheming by “anti-democratic forces” - yet another euphemism used to describe the army and its spy bodies, including the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
In a recent speech, Sharif accused “invisible aliens” of intimidating his lawmakers and pushing them to switch sides.
“The real aliens...have been there for 70 years,” Sharif said. “Now, it is going to have a match, God willing, with humans, and humans with the blessing of God will defeat the aliens.”
On Monday, Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor declined to comment when he was asked at a news conference about the military being referred to as “aliens”.
Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is seen as PML-N’s main challenger, denies colluding with the military, but has in the past teased crowds at rallies that a “third umpire” might dismiss PML-N’s then-premier Sharif, widely interpreted as relying on a cricketing metaphor to suggest the army might intervene.
Nasir, the rights lawyer, said introducing “aliens” into the political lexicon was a calculated move by Sharif.
“It may be difficult for low-level PML-N workers to openly and publicly keep repeating that Nawaz Sharif is not competing against Imran Khan but against the military,” Nasir said.
“But it is easy for a worker to say he’s fighting ‘aliens’, and act naive. Everybody knows what he means.”
Many of the oblique terms for the military took hold in the 1970s and 1980s, during the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, who had journalists tortured and whose censors vetted all stories before they were published.
“This language is well-honed and these terms all fit into the historical background of a military that has a pervasive role in Pakistani politics,” said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, the country’s largest English-language newspaper.
Many writers also feel the influence and overflow of Pakistan’s lingua-franca Urdu, a flowery and poetic language, has swelled the popularity of such colourful turns of phrase in English, which is Pakistan’s second official language widely spoken by the political and business elites.
Terms such as “angels”, referring to ISI and other intelligence agencies, hail from the belief that none of their work is documented and their involvement cannot be proven - but they still exist.
On Tuesday, a prominent social activist who was openly critical of the military was abducted for several hours. Her colleagues blamed a “sensitive institution”, another commonly used term in Pakistan to refer to the military and ISI.
The doublespeak often befuddles diplomats engaged in talks with Pakistani civilian government officials.
“We’ve noticed they will never say ‘ISI’. It’s as if somehow it would be bad form for them to admit they actually exist,” said one Western diplomat.
“They always tell us they have to run our request past ‘relevant authorities’ or talk to ‘appropriate authorities’.”
In a conspiracy prone nation, it’s hard to untangle the truth from paranoia. But what is clear is the widespread belief by prominent politicians, businessmen and even ordinary people that their phones are tapped.
In a recent meeting with a government minister in his office, the official signalled that he was talking about the military by folding his right arm and using his first two fingers to tap an invisible rank insignia on his shoulder.
On-the-record interviews can be equally bewildering for journalists.
Talal Chaudhry, state minister for interior affairs until last week, recently told Reuters that certain state institutions were pressuring rights activists to stifle dissent and create a “controlled democracy”, which in Pakistan refers to the concept of de facto military control.
But when asked which state institutions he was referring to, Talal declined to name them.
“By naming them things might get even worse and we don’t want to make things worse,” Talal said. “We want to make them better.”
Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kay Johnson and Alex Richardson