Pakistan faces formidable economic and political challenges, but without a credible result in the elections scheduled for 8 February it stands little chance of overcoming them. The repercussions could extend beyond Pakistan’s borders, affecting regional stability and increasing pressure on Western governments as a growing number of Pakistanis leave their country in search of a more secure future abroad.
Questions about the integrity of the polls come amid widespread allegations of interference in the electoral process by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, said to be keen to engineer its preferred outcome.
The military is reported to be working in concert with the judiciary to keep former prime minister – and its former protégé – Imran Khan, out of the elections. Khan was ousted as prime minister through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April 2022 after falling out with the army leadership over military appointments, in what he maintains was a conspiracy hatched by the army leadership in collusion with US officials.
Khan is barred from standing as a candidate in the upcoming election as he is currently in prison. In January, he was also sentenced to ten years in prison for breaching national security and 14 years for corruption. The latest sentence also bars him from holding public office for ten years.
Meanwhile, thousands of candidates from Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), have had their nomination papers rejected while others have been hounded, harassed and detained for protesting his arrest last May.
The PTI was dealt a decisive blow in January when it was denied permission by the Supreme Court to use its long-standing symbol, the cricket bat, as an election symbol.
Critics believe the controversial ruling is tantamount to banning the PTI by forcing its members to contest as independent candidates without a unifying symbol.
Whatever its merits, the significance of the court’s ruling in a country where more than 40 per cent of the population are illiterate and identify candidates by symbols, cannot be ignored.
Concerns about the lack of a level playing field have also resonated abroad. In November, almost a dozen members of the US Congress called on the Biden administration to withhold aid to Pakistan after raising questions about the fairness of the forthcoming elections.
Nevertheless, there are pressures that could yet threaten the military’s reported game plan.
Of these, the most compelling is Khan’s personal popularity and support for his party. Both, according to a March 2023 Gallup poll, have soared since Khan’s removal from office with his personal approval rating standing at more than 60 per cent.
Meanwhile, the army’s reported favourite to replace Khan, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has found it hard to galvanize support.
Sharif, who was ousted from office in 2017 and sentenced to ten years in jail for corruption in 2018, was given permission to leave Pakistan in 2019 to seek medical treatment abroad. But since his return last October – and despite his speedy acquittal in all corruption cases against him – Sharif has struggled to rejuvenate his campaign. A Supreme Court ruling in early January lifted a lifetime ban on Sharif from contesting elections but whether this will help mobilize support is unclear.
The odds against Sharif are considerable. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which headed a coalition government after Khan’s removal in 2022, is still widely blamed for saddling Pakistan with sky-high inflation above 30 per cent, soaring fuel prices and crippling levels of public debt. While the release in January of $700 million under a $3 billion stand-by arrangement (SBA) with the IMF may bring some relief, the economic legacy of Sharif’s PML-led coalition continues to exact a heavy toll.
This may account for his party’s slump in popularity in its traditional Punjab heartland, where it is expected to face stiff competition from Khan’s PTI.
Many now fear that the return of Sharif’s party can only be secured through unacceptably high levels of election engineering.
Pakistan is no stranger to electoral fraud. In recent years tactics have graduated from the crude stuffing of ballot boxes to ‘pre-poll rigging’ – short-hand for denying candidates known to be out of favour with the military room to campaign freely.
These tactics were perfected in 2018 when Khan – then the military’s favourite – was given unfettered access to the media while his political rivals were excluded. This time the tables have turned; the media is sanctioned for giving coverage to Khan and prevailed upon to offer Sharif privileged airtime.
Critics see this as evidence that Sharif is once again the military’s favourite, a position he also enjoyed in the 1980s.
But more consequential would be if pre-poll rigging leads to a turnout so low it raises questions about the representative credentials of a new government.
Although Pakistan has a history of low turnouts (the highest stood at 51 per cent in 2018), anything below 44 per cent would suggest a lack of confidence in the election results.
Deteriorating security also poses a risk to the elections. In early January, an independent candidate was shot dead in the tribal district of North Waziristan, and four people were killed at a PTI election rally in Baluchistan later that month.