Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan, arrives to attend an election campaign rally ahead of the general election in Islamabad on July 21. Pakistan will hold the general election on July 25. Photo: AFP
Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan, arrives to attend an election campaign rally ahead of the general election in Islamabad on July 21. Pakistan will hold the general election on July 25. Photo: AFP

Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif face-off as Pakistan goes to polls this week

Wednesday's polls to see power transfer from one civilian govt to another for 2nd time in nearly 71 years

Pakistan, which goes to polls on 25 July, will see a transfer of power from one civilian government to another, for only the second time in almost 71 years of its existence.

For a country, which has seen its powerful military dismiss civilian governments at regular intervals, such a seemingly smooth transition of power can be deemed an achievement. However, analysts see it as a dubious distinction, given the penchant of the army to work behind the scenes to skew poll results.

Wednesday’s electoral battle for the 272 directly elected seats in the 342-member Pakistan National Assembly is primarily seen to be between cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N).

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is expected to be third in the electoral race. Bringing up the rear is a group of ultra-Islamist parties, some with links to terrorist and militant groups, such as the Milli Muslim League (MML), whose leader Saifullah Khalid, is supported by Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Former Indian ambassador to the US Arun Singh, who has also held charge of the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desk in the Indian foreign ministry, said that the Pakistan Army had tried to manipulate the election outcomes even in the 2008 and 2013 polls.

“This time around, however, it is playing an even more active role. The reason is that last time around, it was willing to accept the PML(N) as the alternative option. This time, since it would want neither the PPP nor PML(N) to win, it has to be more active in generating support for its preferred outfit, the Imran Khan -led PTI, and in organizing a potential coalition around it in the event of a hung verdict," he said. “The additional worrying element is the mainstreaming of extremists and terrorists, who have been allowed to contest elections."

The mainstreaming of such groups comes as Sharif was disqualified by the Pakistan Supreme Court from contesting for public office over revelations linking his family to lucrative offshore businesses. Earlier this month, Sharif and his daughter Maryam, who is widely regarded as his political heir, were sentenced to prison in absentia by an anti-corruption court. The two were later arrested after their return to Pakistan on 14 July.

“These rulings were seen to be at the behest of the Pakistani military, that is, the military working through the judiciary deliberately to keep Sharif from contesting," said Dilip Sinha, a former Indian foreign ministry official who was in charge of the Pakistan desk.

With Pakistan’s army seen backing Khan, analysts in India say he seems well placed to be Pakistan’s next prime minister. An improvement in India-Pakistan ties, however, will depend on a break from the policies followed by Islamabad in the past, which includes supporting anti-India terrorist groups and a different approach to solving the Kashmir dispute.

Khan’s party manifesto talks of “improving our (Pakistan’s) relations with our eastern and western neighbours", and “work on a blueprint towards resolving the Kashmir issue within the parameters of the UNSC resolutions", noted Vivek Katju, a former Indian diplomat, in a recent article for the Outlook magazine. But Khan’s approach towards India is “no different from that of the Pakistan Army", Katju added.

The fact that Khan sees the Kashmir issue as a dispute which should be sorted out within the “parameters of UN Security Council resolutions," is outdated, Katju said. “There is no mention of the need to put an end to Pakistani terrorist groups that are active against India. The manifesto has a section dealing with the need to eliminate terrorism, but that is almost exclusively in the domestic context."

“Thus, the terms of engagement that Imran will offer will be no different from those of the past: dialogue under the shadow of calibrated terrorism and greater focus on issue resolution than building co-operative mechanisms through trade and connectivity," said Katju.

Should Khan’s PTI not win an outright majority, it would need to look for alliance partners with the Islamist groups bringing in the requisite numbers. A PTI, with such outside support, “would be guided more by the army, which benefits not from a peace process, but from controlled and managed hostility with India," Singh said pointing to the possibility of a prolonged period of uncertainty in India-Pakistan relations.

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