Pakistan is gearing up for a pivotal general election on February 15th, 2024 that will determine the country’s leadership over the next 5 years. With rampant allegations of pre-poll rigging and a powerful military establishment overseeing the electoral process, opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan face significant obstacles in their bid to regain power.
Nawaz Sharif Attempts Political Comeback Despite Legal Troubles
Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party Nawaz Sharif hopes to make a dramatic political comeback in the upcoming elections. Sharif has positioned himself as a pro-democracy champion standing up to military interference in politics. However, his recent conviction on corruption charges poses a major challenge to his electoral ambitions according to experts.
In 2018, Sharif was removed as Prime Minister by the Supreme Court over allegations stemming from the leaked Panama Papers. He was later convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison for corrupt practices. Despite remaining popular amongst his supporters, legal troubles have dogged Sharif’s recent attempts to return to power.
Earlier this month, the Islamabad High Court unexpectedly overturned Sharif’s conviction, ruling that procedural irregularities had deprived him of a fair trial. This surprise verdict cleared the way for Sharif to run for a parliamentary seat and potentially return as Prime Minister if the PML-N wins the elections.
|Seats Won (2018 Election)
|Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)
|Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
Critics allege the court ruling was influenced by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment to fracture the opposition vote and aid current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s struggling campaign. Despite this suspicion, the Court’s verdict provided Nawaz Sharif an opening to revive the fortunes of his embattled party ahead of the polls.
However, on February 1st an Islamabad accountability court sentenced Sharif to 10 years in prison on money laundering charges stemming from his previous tenure as Prime Minister. This ruling once again complicates his return to power if the PML-N were to win.
Analysts suggest Sharif tapped into popular resentment towards the military leadership and economic hardship under the current PTI government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. By promising a return civilian rule free from Army interference, Sharif generated momentum coming into the elections. But this latest conviction casts doubt over opposition chances and underscores the institutional advantages enjoyed by current officeholders.
Imran Khan Running Campaign From Behind Bars
Like his arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister Imran Khan also faces significant legal troubles impacting his own attempt at a political comeback. Since being ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022, Khan has been actively campaigning for early elections from jail where he is currently imprisoned on anti-terrorism charges.
Khan maintains he was unjustly removed by an American conspiracy aided by defectors from his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) coalition. After months of rallies and street protests demanding fresh elections, Khan was arrested in October 2022 for allegedly making verbal threats against police officials and a female judge during public remarks.
While still able to coordinate his campaign from jail with the help of loyal PTI lieutenants, Khan’s arrest tilted the electoral playing field against his opposition coalition according to analysts. The PTI social media operation remains very potent but has failed to counteract strong patronage advantages of PML-N incumbents.
Khan however retains a very passionate voter base, especially amongst Pakistani youth. Running as a conservative nationalist, Khan taps into popular resentment against poverty, inflation, and Western interference. Analysts believe if Khan was allowed to campaign freely, the PTI coalition could possibly win an electoral majority based on pure enthusiasm of their grassroots supporters.
But with mainstream media firmly under government control, Khan has struggled to get his message out. Khan has turned to alternative channels but claims algorithms are manipulated on major social media platforms to limit his audience reach. Despite passionate supporters, Khan’s outsider coalition faces institutional obstacles that undermine their ability effectively combat PML-N’s powerful patronage machinery.
Military Seeks Return to Stability As Economy Struggles
While avoiding overt interference, Pakistan’s military leadership under Army Chief General Syed Asim Munir has taken active measures to shape the electoral landscape. Seeking a return to political stability, the military aims to back establishment candidates that will protect core national security interests. However western diplomats worry these efforts risk undermining the democratic process and weaken prospects for economic reform.
With Pakistan’s economy on the verge of default and inflation running rampant, international observers worry destabilizing political turmoil will further exacerbate current hardship. Pakistan desperately needs western backing to avoid insolvency but continued allegations of pre-poll rigging risk worsening tensions with major aid donors.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for nearly half its history since independence. And while no longer wielding overt political power, analysts say military leadership continues influencing key decisions behind the scenes. Accusations of covert interference threatens hopes that free and fair elections can lead to democratic consolidation necessary for securing economic stability.
Credible reports accuse military intelligence of intimidating opposition candidates to change party loyalties while censoring media coverage favors incumbent interests. Military officers dismiss these allegations as unfounded while reaffirming their commitment to staying above the political fray.
However opposition leaders remain highly suspicious of General Munir given his past proximity as ISI Chief to former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government. Despite no clear evidence yet of direct interference, few doubt Munir aims to subtly guide electoral outcomes protecting military prerogatives.
Striking a balance between national security priorities and democratic norms remains the central tension as Pakistan heads towards highly contentious general elections. With the military looming in background, opposition leaders face pervasive obstacles seeking regain power through free and fair contest at the ballot box. The election results may offer insight whether democracy can take root allowing vital economic reforms or powerful remnants of deep state endure subverting people’s will.
What Comes Next?
Assuming relatively credible elections on February 15th, several potential scenarios exist once results become clear. If PML-N wins a governing majority, Nawaz Sharif could possibly secure another term pending legal dispensation from the High Court overturning his recent conviction. However military leadership would likely continue exerting pressure constraining his policy options and subverting governance priorities. Ongoing political instability could worsen leading to potential early elections in couple years.
Alternatively if PTI manages an unexpected victory, Imran Khan would regain premiership pending his own legal troubles getting sorted out. However Khan would return facing a hostile bureaucracy overseen by military establishment determined to constrain his populist impulses. Any initial PTI honeymoon would quickly fade amidst ongoing economic crisis leading to more political turmoil.
There does exist possibility of unstable coalition government emerging out of split verdict with no decisive majority. Military leadership might see this scenario allowingmblebuffer while buying time assessing post-election dynamics within shifting civil-military equilibrium. However such indecisive electoral outcome offers no clear path toward economic reform desperately needed restoring investor confidence.
Credible reports of pre-poll meddling by unseen forces casts doubts whether true democratic transition can finally occur after this pivotal vote. Powerful legacy networks seem poised to manage electoral variables preventing upheaval within existing hierarchy of power relations. Until military’s oversized influence gets right-sized and rule of law applies equally, Pakistan’s episodic trysts with democracy will continue disappointing aspirations of its people for breakthrough change.
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