Pakistanis have called it a “choice” – 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 come out on top, a reflection of the generals’ eventual predominance in Pakistan’s troubled democracy.
But the military is facing new challenges to its authority from a disaffected public, making this a particularly difficult time in the nation’s history.
The tension was underscored on Thursday as Pakistan’s interior ministry announced it had suspended mobile phone service across the country due to the security situation. Some analysts in Pakistan have framed this as an attempt to prevent opposition voters from receiving information or coordinating activities.
The election was held in the shadow of a months-long military campaign to oust the party of former prime minister Imran Khan, a former international cricket star and populist leader who was ousted from Parliament in 2022 after falling out with generals.
The crackdown is the latest dizzying turn in the country’s political rollercoaster.
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 election. Mr Sharif himself was ousted when he fell out of favor with the military in 2017 and Mr Khan, backed by the military, became prime minister a year later.
Now it is Mr Khan who sits in jail after a bitter rift with the military over political control, while Mr Sharif is apparently seen by the generals as the only figure in Pakistan who has the stature to rival the widely popular Mr. Inn.
Voters will choose members of provincial legislatures and the country’s parliament, which will appoint the next prime minister. It is considered unlikely that any party will win an absolute majority, meaning that the party with the largest share of seats will 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 governments since the country gained independence in 1947. It often interferes in election cycles to pave the way for its preferred candidates and win over their rivals. But the military used a particularly heavy hand ahead of that vote, analysts say, a reflection of growing anti-military fervor in the country sparked by Mr 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 over “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 uphold the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process,” Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a news conference. rights. .
The campaign of intimidation came at a particularly tumultuous time in Pakistan. For months after Mr Khan was ousted from office, he lashed out at the country’s generals and accused them of orchestrating his overthrow – a claim they reject. His direct criticism of the military was unprecedented in Pakistan. It inspired his supporters to turn out en masse to vent their anger at the military for its role in his ouster.
“Imran Khan is the clearest case of political engineering gone wrong. the army has become a victim of its own engineering,” said Zafarullah Khan, an Islamabad-based analyst. “Now civil-military relations are being written on the streets. This is unique in Pakistan.”
After violent protests erupted in May targeting military installations, the generals responded forcefully. Leaders of Mr. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, were arrested and ordered to denounce the party. PTI supporters were also dragged away by the police. Mr Khan was sentenced to a total of 34 years in prison after being convicted in four cases and banned from running in elections.
The authorities have also allowed Mr Sharif’s rival, who has lived in exile for years, to return to the country. He quickly became a front-runner in the race after Pakistani courts overturned the corruption convictions that led to his ouster in 2017 and overturned his ban from running in elections.
The military has also sought a rapprochement with Mr. Sharif, who has a loyal base of supporters in the country’s most populous province, Punjab, analysts say. The other major political party in Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party or PPP, does not have nearly the same national appeal as the PMLN
Mr. Sharif built his reputation by reviving the country’s economy — which currently suffers from double-digit inflation — and building major projects such as highways. He has also pushed for more civilian control of the government, and each of his terms was cut short after falling out with the military – a history that raises doubts about how long this latest rapprochement with generals will last.
The turmoil has exposed the sorry state of Pakistani politics, a winner-takes-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 ever completed one term. This election is also the first in decades in which no party has campaigned on a platform of reforming this entrenched system.
“All the main political parties have accepted the role of the military in politics. there is no challenge,” said Mustafa Nawaz Kokhar, a former Pakistan Peoples Party senator and staunch critic of the military who is running as an independent candidate in Islamabad.
Salman Masood contributed to the report from Islamabad and Zia ur-Rehman from Lahore.