By Josh Bowes, Research Associate SAFN
With Pakistan’s parliamentary election coming up, the tension-riddled country is due for a tumultuous period. Election interference and the potential for violent outbreaks will leave a chaotic mark on Pakistan’s start to 2024.
Ahead of the 8th February elections to decide Pakistan’s 16th National Assembly, political tensions are high. The country’s all-powerful military will inevitably play a pivotal role in the decision of a new Prime Minister, likely to favor Nawaz Sharif for a renewed opportunity as leader. While public approval of Sharif rose to 52% from 36% after his return to Pakistan, many Pakistanis are likely to distrust his leadership given his 2018 corruption conviction. Controversy around the scheduling of the vote has enveloped Pakistan’s political system, leaving many uncertain of what to expect. A resolution proposed in the Senate cited security concerns over rising unrest in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan provinces. On 17 January, two children were killed when Iran launched a missile targeting the armed group Jaish al-Adl in Balochistan. On 10 January, an independent candidate named Malik Kaleem Ullah was shot dead while campaigning in north Waziristan, KP. Furthermore, ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party has been restricted from using its trademark electoral symbol, a cricket bat, on 14 January, after challenging a court ruling. The symbol was taken away after PTI was accused of violating constitutional and election law during internal elections.
Staunch opposition to Imran Khan’s potential for resurgence as a political force has resulted in interference from state authorities. On 7 January, government officials temporarily disrupted access to the Internet and social media platforms, thwarting the ability of voters to interact with Khan’s virtual fundraising campaign. The PTI’s idea for an online ‘telethon’ came after a previous government crackdown on physical gatherings among PTI members. Subsequently, the government was accused of breaching international law and the freedom of expression for not upholding the rights of political parties. Islamabad and the military say the government’s intervention of the PTI is justified, claiming party members damaged army property during anti-government protests last year.
Pakistan’s military and its perceived influence on the country’s internal socio-political system has long been a formidable force. Despite the military’s denial of its involvement in politics, it has, in effect, ran the country for a large chunk of time since independence in 1947. This has been a major point of consternation for Pakistani civilians and non-government entities alike, alleging corruption. Notwithstanding the military’s role in the ousting of Imran Khan, the new favorite to win the office of Prime Minister is none other than Nawaz Sharif, who became the country’s leader for a third time in 2013, but was disqualified by the Supreme Court for receiving payment from a company owned by his son in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Court’s ruling elucidates how the military exudes power as overseer, striking down Khan’s ability to run but simultaneously granting disqualified Sharif the chance to run for office. Following accusations of misconduct, a senior Supreme Court judge named Ijazul Ahsan announced his surprise resignation on 12 January. The high likelihood of Sharif to win will conflagrate already rising levels of instability in the country. Rights groups claim that the military’s crackdown on opposition leader Khan interferes in both PTI’s right to political assembly as well as voters’ rights to select their leader.
To add fuel to the fire, Pakistan’s electoral commission was accused of redrawing the country’s voting map to skew in favor of Nawaz Sharif in November 2023. The commission is alleged to have accepted bribes for the purposes of rigging the polls and undermining support for Khan’s PTI party. Voting districts were lumped together despite being hundreds of miles away and characterized by differences in culture, politics, language and other social factors that would ordinarily differentiate polling areas. Such interference in the electoral process creates partisan advantages to the detriment of others. With violence already inflaming Pakistan’s western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), largely against Pakistani security personnel or Chinese interests in the region, those associating themselves with Khan’s KP stronghold may rebel, with violence or otherwise, against the current path of Pakistan’s politics.
In Balochistan and KP, the threat of terrorism from various armed groups like Daesh and the ethno-nationalist separatist group Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) remains high. The BLA claims that Islamabad has depleted Balochistan of the provinces’ right to self-determination, outsourcing a colossal investment from China as part of the expansive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Previous elections have seen terrorist operatives target the polls, resulting in the casualties of many Pakistani civilians and armed service members. In 2018 elections, almost 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber during an rally in Mastung. This attack was claimed by Daesh. So too does the threat of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remain high, following the terrorist group’s decision to forego its truce with Islamabad in November 2022. A multitude of militant outfits in the area aim to dilute power from Pakistan’s central government. On 16th January, an unknown assailant attacked a school in Balochistan with a hand grenade. The location was being utilized to train election officials, raising questions about the attacker’s motivation to disrupt the election process. The largest escalation of conflict came on 17th January, when Pakistan launched an attack against Baloch separatists over the Iran border, threatening regional instability.
With both the security and the freedom of next month’s elections in question, Pakistan’s future is as uncertain as ever. For a safe and free Pakistan, militancy and corruption must be stamped out, coupled with a dismantling of the military’s role in government. The alleged involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political processes negates any sort of hope for democratic precepts. For democracy to prevail, the integrity of Pakistan’s electoral system must remain intact. Egregious acts of terrorism have no place in society. To that end, Islamabad remains hopeful February’s election will move forward despite continued challenges. The world stage awaits to feel the reverberations from one of the region’s most polarized and fragmented societies.
Josh Bowes is a Research Associate at South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN). @Josh_Bowes1