On 8 February, Pakistan is expected to hold its first parliamentary elections since the installation of a caretaker government in 2022, in a race that sees the parties of two former prime ministers vying for power among allegations of electoral subversion.
The former prime minister Imran Khan, who is serving a jail term for corruption and breaches of national security, was removed from power in April 2022. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is pitted against the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML). That party’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, served three terms as prime minister before being convicted of corruption himself.
While Khan remains a popular figure in Pakistani politics, his imprisonment makes him ineligible for office. Electoral authorities have rejected PTI candidates from standing and senior party officials have resigned after being arrested, amid other setbacks.
Pakistan’s powerful military
Sharif is widely believed to have the support of Pakistan’s powerful military. He lost power in 2017 following a conviction on corruption charges and avoided a 10-year prison sentence by absconding to London. In recent months, his conviction was quashed, and a lifetime ban from politics overturned, enabling him to return to lead the PML into the elections.
Sharif faces two obstacles to power, according to Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior research fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House: ‘First, the military, bureaucracy and intelligence services that have been responsible for his previous removals from power. Sharif is seen as a safe pair of hands by the establishment, but this could change. Second, securing support of the people amid the continued popularity of Imran Khan.’
Sharif’s approval rating was 52 per cent, behind Khan’s 57 per cent which has dipped only slightly since his imprisonment last year, according to a Gallup poll in December 2023.
Khan’s nationalist, Islamist and anti-American rhetoric while in power attracted a popular base but alienated Pakistan’s military – leading, his supporters argue, to his fall from power and persecution.
‘Khan’s exclusion from the top job as prime minister is a foregone conclusion, and the prospects for his party are no better,’ said Farzana Shaikh, associate fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House.
‘PTI has been banned from using its cricket bat symbol on ballot papers, which is significant because Pakistan’s literacy rate is 60 per cent. It could suffer huge losses. However, Khan could claim a moral victory if voter turn-out falls below 40 per cent, indicating a lack of confidence in the election results.’
Whoever forms Pakistan’s next government faces pressing economic and security issues. Inflation stands at more than 23 per cent and the country’s external debt has ballooned to $100 billion, prompting an International Monetary Fund bailout in November.
‘Pakistan’s dysfunctional politics make it difficult to pass meaningful reforms,’ said Bajpaee. ‘Securing consensus to pass politically sensitive reforms, such as expanding the tax base and privatizing loss-making state-owned enterprises, will be key for the next government’s ability to manage the public debt.’
The deterioration of Pakistan’s security
Security has deteriorated since the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) called off peace talks at the end of 2022.
There were 645 militant attacks in 2023, mostly in the northwest border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a 70 per cent annual increase, resulting in 976 deaths.
‘The TTP poses a very serious threat to the country and its capacity to expand its operations is evident,’ said Hassan Abbas, distinguished professor of International Relations at Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies, National Defence University in Washington.
‘Islamic State is equally dangerous, and its rivalry with TTP only complicates matters. Successive governments have invested little in developing the country’s civilian law enforcement making Islamabad overly dependent on the military. The new government will have its hands full as soon as they move into the power corridors.’