The Pakistanis have called it a “selection,” not an election. Human rights observers have condemned it as neither free nor fair.
As voters headed to the polls on Thursday, the influence of Pakistan’s powerful military and the turbulent state of its politics were on full display. Few doubted which party would emerge victorious, a reflection of the generals’ final control over Pakistan’s troubled democracy.
But the military faces new challenges to its authority from a disaffected public, making this an especially tense moment in the nation’s history.
The tension was underlined on Thursday when Pakistan’s Interior Ministry announced it was suspending mobile phone service across the country due to the security situation. Some analysts in Pakistan see it as an effort to prevent opposition voters from obtaining information or coordinating activities.
The elections were held in the shadow of a months-long military campaign to eviscerate the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former international cricket star and populist leader who was ousted by Parliament in 2022 after falling out with the general.
The crackdown is the latest dizzying turn in the country’s rollercoaster politics.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PMLN, the party of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is expected to claim victory in Thursday’s vote. Sharif himself was overthrown when he fell out of favor with the military in 2017, and Khan, with the military’s support, became prime minister a year later.
Now it is Mr Khan who is in jail after a bitter split with the military over his political control, while the generals apparently view Mr Sharif as the only figure in Pakistan who has the stature to compete with the widely popular Mr Khan.
Voters will elect members of the country’s provincial legislatures and Parliament, which will name the next prime minister. It is considered unlikely that any party will win an absolute majority, meaning that the party with the largest proportion of seats would form a coalition government. Officially, this will be only the third democratic transition between civilian governments in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly through various coups or indirectly under civilian rule since the country gained independence in 1947. It has often meddled in election cycles to pave the way for its preferred candidates and sway the field of its competitors. . But the military has used an especially heavy hand ahead of this vote, analysts say, a reflection of the growing anti-military fervor in the country stoked by Khan.
The crackdown has drawn widespread condemnation from local and international human rights groups. On Tuesday, the United Nations’ top human rights body expressed concern about “the pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detention of leaders.”
“We deplore all acts of violence against political parties and candidates, and urge the authorities to defend the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process,” said Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights, in a press conference. .
The intimidation campaign came at a particularly turbulent time in Pakistan. For months after Khan was removed from office, he criticized the country’s generals and accused them of orchestrating his overthrow, a claim they reject. His direct criticism of the military was unheard of in Pakistan. This inspired his followers to come out en masse to express their anger against the military for their role in his removal.
“Imran Khan is the clearest case of political engineering gone wrong; the army was a victim of its own engineering,” said Zafarullah Khan, an Islamabad-based analyst. “Now civil-military relations are written in the streets. This is unique in Pakistan.”
After violent protests broke out in May against military facilities, the generals responded forcefully. Leaders of Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, were arrested and ordered to denounce the party. PTI supporters were also detained by the police. Mr Khan was sentenced to a total of 34 years in prison after being convicted in four cases and banned from standing in elections.
Authorities also allowed Khan’s rival Sharif, who had been living in exile for years, to return to the country. He quickly became a front-runner in the race after Pakistani courts overturned corruption convictions that led to his overthrow in 2017 and overturned his disqualification from competing in the election.
The military also sought a detente with Sharif, who has a loyal base of followers in the country’s most populous province, Punjab, analysts say. Pakistan’s other major political party, the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, does not have anywhere near the same national appeal as the PMLN.
Sharif built his reputation by reviving the country’s economy (which is currently suffering from double-digit inflation) and building megaprojects such as superhighways. He has also pushed for greater civilian control of the government and each of his terms was cut short after falling out with the military, a story that raises questions about how long this latest rapprochement with the generals will last.
The turmoil has exposed the grim state of Pakistani politics, a winner-take-all game dominated by a handful of political dynasties and ultimately controlled by the military. In the country’s 76-year history, no prime minister has completed a term. This election is also the first in decades in which no party has campaigned on a platform of reforming that entrenched system.
“All major political parties have accepted the role of the military in politics; there is no challenge,” said Mustafa Nawaz Kokhar, a former Pakistan People’s Party senator and outspoken critic of the military, who is running as an independent candidate in Islamabad.
Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, and Zia ur-Rehman from Lahore.