Home Politics Election season enters final stretch in divided Pakistan

Election season enters final stretch in divided Pakistan

Election season enters final stretch in divided Pakistan
Polls to elect new government for 5 years will be held on Feb. 8; nearly 130 million voters are registered to take part in election; – 3-way contest expected between mainstream political parties

Aamir Latif 

Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

Electioneering is picking up steam across Pakistan in the leadup to a crucial national vote next month to elect a new government for a five-year term.

Scheduled for Feb. 8, the election is viewed as one of the most polarized battles in the South Asian country’s 75-year checkered political history as the nation remains clearly split over a number of issues, ranging from political ideology to the handling of the electoral process.

A tough contest is expected between the three mainstream political parties — the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) group, center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and independent candidates backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of incarcerated former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif

Led by three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N is seen as the frontrunner to form the new government, followed by the PPP.

The PPP and the PML-N have ruled the country four times each since 1970.

Since the popular PTI lost its traditional electoral symbol, a cricket bat, after a cumbersome legal battle, the party has fielded its candidates as independents.

The latest surveys show Sharif and Khan neck-and-neck, with the latter enjoying an overall slight edge over the former.

However, in bellwether Punjab, the country’s most populous and richest province, Sharif has a slight lead over his arch-rival.

Also read: Year 2024: Polarizing elections, flailing economy major worries for Pakistan

The PTI, according to surveys, is in a commanding position in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where it has ruled for two consecutive terms.

Headed by the young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a former foreign minister and the son of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the PPP appears to be in a comfortable position in its stronghold, southern Sindh province, and some parts of Punjab and southwestern Balochistan province.

The party has ruled Sindh for a record three straight terms, from 2008 to 2023.

Two mainstream religion-based political parties, Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), are expected to win constituencies in the pockets of KP, Balochistan and Sindh, especially in the commercial capital Karachi, where JI has covered sizable ground in recent local polls.

Some political analysts see high chances of a coalition government. According to them, no party will be able to secure the magic number of 169 seats in the 336-member lower house, the National Assembly, to form a government with a simple majority.

Polarized elections

Pakistan, like many other nations around the globe, has been facing a biting economic crisis along with a spiraling currency and runaway prices of food staples, hurting household budgets in the country of over 240 million.

The economic headwinds pushed the country to the brink of default before it managed to revive a long-stalled $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June last year.

Adding salt to its wounds, political turmoil has engulfed the country since the ouster of Khan in April 2022, dividing the nearly 130 million strong electorate into two camps.

While Sharif promises economic stability, a reduction in inflation and cheaper electricity, evoking his relatively better handling of the economy during his previous three stints, Khan is calling for “haqeeqi azadi (real independence).

The cricketer-turned-politician, the only prime minister that has been deposed through a no-trust vote, which occurred in April 2022, a year before he completed his tenure, accuses the US of orchestrating his ouster.

Although, Islamabad and Washington have repeatedly denied the accusation, a large number of Khan’s supporters still buy the theory.

“Sharif and Bilawal’s voters are asking about (their) performances during their tenures, but Khan’s supporters do not care about his performance as prime minister,” Mazhar Abbas, a Karachi-based political analyst, told Anadolu.

“Apart from the victim card and a cult-like following, many others also did not like the way he was ousted,” he said.

“They are not ready to even listen to a counter argument (against Khan).”

Bilawal Bhutto
Bilawal Bhutto

In a first, according to Hasan Askari, a Lahore-based political commentator, a popular political party has been kept out of the contest on “technical grounds.”

He described Pakistan’s current political scenario as akin to the one in the US, where the “establishment is grappling with a hard nut like former President Donald Trump to crack.”

“The two share several commonalities, including a host of cases, opposition from the establishment, and above all, a strong base of ardent supporters who still trust them without an argument,” he said.

The sharp partisan division has split the population in two.

Sporting a tri-color cap plastered with Khan’s picture, Asif Junaid, who works for a local investment company, said his vote is “only for the true leader.”

“I don’t trust Sharif, Bilawal or others. They have done nothing for the country. It’s Khan who has given us strength and courage to stand against thieves,” he said.

Fida Abbasi, a businessman, said he would prefer to vote for “delivery rather than rhetoric.”

“The country desperately needs an economic recovery, and it cannot be done just through rhetoric and emotions,” he said.

“Therefore, my choice is Nawaz Sharif.”

Out of sight but not out of mind

No prime minister has completed a full five-year tenure in Pakistan’s 75-year history.

Once the “blue-eyed boy” of the “establishment,” a term to designate the country’s powerful army, which plays an oversized role in making and breaking governments, Khan is currently in hot water.

Languishing in a jail in the northeastern garrison city of Rawalpindi, the ex-prime minister is facing multiple civil and criminal cases. A few of them carry jail terms up to 14 years each.

Khan was sentenced to three years in prison and subsequently disqualified by the country’s Election Commission last year in a case that accused him of hiding details of state gifts he received as prime minister. His sentence, however, was suspended by the Islamabad High Court.

His party is reeling from an ongoing crackdown with hundreds of its supporters in jail following violent protests and attacks on military installations in May last year in reaction to Khan’s brief arrest in a corruption case in the capital Islamabad

But despite all this, the 71-year-old former cricketing hero has managed to retain a strong base of die-hard supporters.

But his physical absence and the stripping of his party’s electoral symbol have affected the party’s chances of repeating its 2018 election victory.

Also read: Political Promises vs. Reality: Insecurity for Minorities in Pakistan

Many see the current situation as a replay of the 2018 elections, when Sharif was in jail, with his party complaining about arrests, disqualifications and unfair treatment.

Abbas, however, argued that in 2018, Sharif had been jailed and disqualified, but his party did take part in the elections with its electoral symbol. In contrast, he added, not only has Khan been disqualified and jailed, but his party has also been kept out of the contest.

“No doubt, things (for Khan) are completely opposite to that in 2018, when he had the full backing of the establishment,” said Askari, the Lahore-based analyst.

“But he is still one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan and his opponents must not take him lightly,” he added.

Given the current political scenario, said Askari, political stability would remain in question no matter who forms the government.

“The faltering economy will be the biggest challenge for the new government. The only way to quell the ongoing polarization and bring stability is to improve the economy and conditions of the common people,” he said.


Aamir Latif is a senior journalist based in Karachi. He represents Anadolu, a Turkish news agency.
Courtesy: Anadolu Agency (Posted on 29.01.2024) 



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