Mint Explainer: What’s at stake in Pakistan’s general election?

Women wait outside a polling station in Lahore on 8 February. Photo: Reuters
Women wait outside a polling station in Lahore on 8 February. Photo: Reuters

Summary

  • Nawaz Sharif, who was forced out as prime minister in 2017, seems to be back in favour. But few observers expect the country’s elections to be free and fair, given the military’s track record and its desire to keep Imran Khan out of power.

Pakistan goes the polls on Thursday to elect a new national government. These general elections come after a prolonged period of political instability. Experts speculate that the result may be a foregone conclusion, with the country’s powerful military working to cut Imran Khan’s party down to size. Mint takes a closer look.

What is the background to the election?

For the past few years, Pakistan’s economy has been unable to shake off a persistent crisis. Inflation is rampant, unemployment has shot up, and accessing basic necessities has become harder. Declining foreign exchange reserves and large debts to multilateral and bilateral creditors such as China complete a grim picture for the country’s economy.

Pakistan has also faced political instability since Imran Khan was forced out as prime minister in 2022. His subsequent arrest in 2023 triggered large protests, which saw citizens even direct their anger at Pakistan’s powerful military.

Who are the major players?

The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N is widely expected to win the election, given that it has the support of Pakistan’s military. A victory could return Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, to office.

However, analysts say Imran Khan, who served as PM between 2018 and 2022, remains the country’s most popular politician. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have faced pressure from Pakistan’s powerful military, which has directly or indirectly controlled the country’s politics for decades. Khan himself has been barred from running in the elections and has been sentenced to jail on charges of corruption and violating Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act.

Finally, there is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by the prominent Bhutto-Zardari family. While the PPP played a role in the coalition government that replaced Khan in 2022, its strength has declined over the past decade.

What role is the military playing?

Khan was brought into office in 2018 with military support and was forced from it in 2022 after he clashed with his top generals. Since then, his party has been splintered, prominent leaders have been jailed, and numerous state institutions such as the Election Commission have been used against the PTI.

Sharif, who was forced from office in 2017, seems to be back in favour. Few observers expect that the country’s elections will be free and fair, given the military’s track record and its desire to keep Khan out of power.

What does it mean for India?

Observers point out that Sharif has been relatively positive about relations with India. In a recent speech, he questioned the wisdom of Pakistan remaining at odds with its neighbour.

However, as in the past, Pakistan’s military will remain the ultimate arbiter on India policy. Under the present army chief Asim Munir and his predecessor Qamar Javed Bajwa, relations with India have remained relatively stable. The army has its hands full with a spate of domestic terror attacks, and brewing tensions with Iran and Afghanistan, so maintaining the status quo with India may be the military’s best option.

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