Pakistanis will go to the polls Wednesday to elect a new prime minister in what the country’s voters and outside observers have warned will be a dirty election soiled by a military bent on getting their own candidate into power.
The run-up to the vote has been marked by deadly attacks on political rallies, allegations of vote tampering, and a media crackdown — all within the shadow of Pakistan’s military.
The country boasts 106 million registered voters, with 3,675 candidates fighting for 272 national assembly seats. While issues such as Pakistan’s struggling economy, corruption and a worsening water crisis are dominating political debate, many observers fear the influence of the military will have the greatest impact on the ultimate outcome.
And the stakes are high, with the country torn over whether to move towards the West or to China in search of monetary relief.
Pakistan’s gaze has increasingly turned towards Beijing in recent years, especially as relations with the U.S. have deteriorated with disputes over the threat from the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups.
Pakistan has routinely swung from military to civilian rule and back again since it gained independence from the British in 1947, and while the military has denied it is backing any particular candidate in this year's vote, observers have warned that the security forces have helped promote candidates running for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI party, and moved to silence its opposition.
A stinging report published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last week said that all parties had not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns, adding that the organization is “gravely concerned over what it sees as blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections.”
The election has been overshadowed by the incarceration of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted last year by the Supreme Court after the Panama Papers revealed the extent of corruption at the highest levels of government.
Sharif was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He returned to Pakistan from London earlier this month where he had been tending his gravely ill wife to begin his sentence.
Even though Sharif is in jail, his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), continues to garner large support. It is now being led by Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz, who is hoping to become the next leader.
Standing in his way is Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former cricket captain, who has emerged as the star attraction of this election. However, the media and Khan’s rivals have linked his surge in popularity to a clandestine effort by the military to support their preferred candidate — something Khan vehemently denies.
With Sharif or Khan likely unable to form a government on their own, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party could play a vital role as kingmaker. Bhutto-Zardari comes from Pakistani political royalty, being the son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the grandson of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed. However, Bilawal’s father, former President Asif Ali Zardari, is thought to wield the real power within the party.
What are the problems?
Wednesday’s vote will mark just the second civilian-to-civilian handover of power in Pakistan’s 70-year history, but observers, journalists and campaigners insist the vote will be tainted due to numerous problems in the lead up to the election. They include:
- Violence — Earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed at least 151 and wounded hundreds at a political rally in the western Pakistan village of Mastung. The incident is one of a number of bombings that have hit the campaign trail. Many are now worried about attacks at polling stations.
- Media Crackdown — A number of media outlets have been censored. Cable television services in some areas of the country began blocking the transmission of the television station Geo, while the English-language Dawn newspaper said its sales networks had been disrupted. Some foreign journalists, such as Christina Lamb, have been denied visas to cover the election, while Gul Bukhari was kidnapped by the military.
- Overseas observers — Independent election observers, who are typically in a country for weeks ahead of polling day, have not been able to gain visas until days before the vote. “We have never had a situation like this in any of our 150-plus missions,” Dmitra Ioannou, the deputy chief observer for the EU observation mission, told the Financial Times.
- Fake news — Like every other election in 2018, disinformation and fake news is a problem in Pakistan, but because only 20 percent of the population is online its impact is limited. But this has not stopped WhatsApp taking out full-page ads in the run-up to the election to counter any fake news spread on its platform.
- Election engineering — Many members of the PML-N claim the military is using intimidation to try and get voters to change their preferences. The military is accused of trying to bribe people by offering to install electricity transformers or promising to release relatives allegedly “disappeared” by the security forces. The army will deploy 370,000 soldiers to polling stations on Wednesday, raising further concerns among observers about the army’s influence on the vote.
Cover image: Supporters of Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan (unseen) gather at his political campaign rally for the upcoming general election in Lahore on July 18, 2018. (ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)