Pakistan votes for contested elections under high security

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan votes on Thursday February 8 for elections tarnished by violence and the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, which appears to pave the way for a fourth term for Nawaz Sharif as head of government

Pakistan votes for contested elections under high security

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan votes on Thursday February 8 for elections tarnished by violence and the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, which appears to pave the way for a fourth term for Nawaz Sharif as head of government.

The fifth most populous country in the world, with 240 million inhabitants, must elect the 336 deputies of the federal parliament and renew its provincial assemblies.

In the morning, Pakistan's Interior Ministry announced that mobile services were "temporarily suspended" across the country during this election day, due to security concerns.

“Security measures are essential to maintain law and order and to deal with any potential threats,” a ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

The vote was marred by the deaths of twenty-eight people on Wednesday in two bomb attacks near candidates' offices in the province of Balochistan.

Polling stations are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4 a.m. to 1 p.m., French time), for the approximately 128 million registered voters, in a country under the surveillance of more than half a million members of the security forces.

“All efforts to sabotage peace and security will be foiled,” interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar promised Wednesday after the two explosions.

A vote without the popular Imran Khan

The fairness of the vote was questioned in advance. The popular Imran Khan, 71, sentenced to three long prison terms for corruption, treason and illegal marriage, was unable to appear.

His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was decimated by arrests and forced defections, and prevented from campaigning. Dozens of its candidates have been banned from running and the others can only compete as independents.

The party, which denounced a “non-election” but refused to boycott it, also fears that its supporters will not be able to vote freely on Thursday and called on them not to wear its colors.

The campaign was particularly gloomy, a sign of the deep disenchantment of Pakistanis, 70% of whom “do not have confidence in the integrity of the elections,” according to the Gallup Institute.

This survey reflects a democratic setback for a country which was led for decades by the army, but which had seen progress since 2013, the year of the first transition from one civilian government to another.

The military has always had strong influence even under civilian rule, but observers say it interfered in these elections even more openly.

Imran Khan, who had nevertheless benefited from her favors to be elected in 2018, challenged her head on. He accused her of orchestrating his ouster from the post of prime minister in April 2022 and attributed his legal troubles to her.

His disgrace seems likely to benefit Nawaz Sharif, 74, who returned to Pakistan in October after four years of exile in London. Analysts believe he has the support of the military.

The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), who since his return has benefited from the annulment of previous convictions for corruption, promised during the campaign to draw on his experience to restore the economy.

Even if the PML-N appears to be the favorite in the election, its outcome could depend on participation, particularly among young people in a country where 44% of the electorate is under 35 years old.

A country with countless challenges

In 2018, Imran Khan benefited from real popular enthusiasm, particularly from young people, thirsty for change after decades of domination by great family dynasties, considered corrupt.

Even if his four years in power were not very successful – economy in crisis, opponents muzzled, press weakened – many young people think that the former cricket star deserves a second chance.

An absolute majority seems a difficult objective for the PML-N. She will probably have to form a coalition.

These elections are also important for the leader of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who at 35 must prove that he has the makings of a successor to his mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in 2007.

Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal and occupies a strategic position between Afghanistan, China, India and Iran, faces countless challenges.

Security has deteriorated, particularly since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021. And its economy is in tatters, with abysmal debt and inflation hovering around 30%.

Whatever the verdict at the polls, the question of the longevity of the next government could quickly arise, in a country where no prime minister has ever completed his mandate.