Pakistan election: Country heads to polls amid political and security crises

Country faces grave economic challenges and a surge in violence

Electoral posters of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party, in Karachi. EPA
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Pakistan is heading to the polls to elect its 16th parliament on February 8.

More 128 million voters are registered to elect 266 legislators for the national assembly and 749 for provincial seats, Pakistan’s election commission said.

But political uncertainty, a deteriorating security situation and record high inflation are some of the challenges the country is facing as it holds elections.

On Wednesday two bombings at the election offices in south-west Pakistan killed and injured dozens, officials said.

The two bombs were caused by motorbikes planted with explosives.

Last week, Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets and 14 years along with his wife for illegally selling state gifts.

The leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is barred from standing in the elections.

“Our leader Khan has been jailed in illegal cases, but we still support Khan and we remain committed to vote for our party's independent candidates,” Muhammad Ali Shah, a PTI supporter told The National.

Party supporters as well as observers say the charges against Khan are of a political nature.

Dr Amjad Ali, standing as an independent candidate, but affiliated with the PTI and a former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa minister, told The National that “opposition parties were free to do campaigns, but PTI-backed candidates are not being allowed to campaign.“

“The way the establishment, bureaucracy, and state are dealing with PTI is increasing public resentment towards them,” he said.

There are 5,121 candidates in this election. They belong either to one of Pakistan’s 167 registered political parties or are independents.

Shabir Gigyani, an advocate of Pakistan's Supreme Court, told The National that “the weak political structure persists as political entities consistently lean on the establishment for support.”

The army is locally referred to as the establishment. The military, however, has repeatedly denied interfering in the country’s politics.

Economy woes

Pakistan is struggling with high inflation and steep prices. The inflation rate, according to Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics, stood at more than 29 per cent in January. The highest inflation rate on record was 37.9 per cent in May last year.

The economic troubles the country is facing have led to distrust of politicians among many Pakistanis.

‘’Elections may not bring political and economic stability to Pakistan, we are hopeless from all of the political parties leaders,” Ibad Ullah, a Ph.D student, told The National.

Analyst and author Fakhar Kakakhel said the country's stability relies on free and fair elections, leading to democratic governance.

"Political leaders must demonstrate maturity and sincerity for the new government's success,” he said.

Security concerns

Pakistan is facing a surge in violence, limiting voters' ability to participate in political gatherings.

This week, ten officers were killed and six wounded in an attack on a police station in the southern district of Dera Ismail Khan.

Last month, an independent candidate was shot and killed in the Bajaur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province

That same day, a leader of the Awami National Party was killed during a party campaign event in Balochistan province.

Political rallies and corner meetings have drawn less engagement from the public.

Aslam Ghauri, spokesman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) told The National that security agencies were struggling to tackle regional security problems.

“Daily, terrorism is affecting JUI-F and its election campaign. But despite the challenges, we won’t boycott, we’ll continue the fight," he said.

Figures compiled by the Centre for Research and Security Studies show Pakistan had more than 1,500 violence-related deaths, as well as 1,463 injuries, from 789 terror attacks and counter-terror operations in 2023.

This marks a 56 per cent surge in violence, marking a six-year high.

Syed Irfan Ashraf, a defence analyst and assistant professor at Peshawar University’s journalism department, told The National that Pakistan has a history of political instability and security challenges during elections, citing instances in 2002 and 2008 marked by targeted killings.

He said there was a "a new wave of terror against parties opposing the establishment."

The country's last elections in 2018 had a 51 per cent turnout.

Former police chief of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Akhtar Ali Shah, said while there were security concerns, the elections would proceed smoothly.

“I believe that there will be threats of terrorism and various incidents may occur, but they are less likely on a large scale to postpone elections,” Mr Shah told The National.

Caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi recently said the government had made arrangements to ensure security and integrity of the process, providing protection for polling stations.

Updated: February 08, 2024, 6:28 AM