Pakistan teeters on the edge of a pivotal moment in its political history as it prepares for a decisive electoral showdown on February 8. Amidst rising insecurity, strict surveillance, and an unprecedented crackdown on the former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, the Parliamentary polls are deemed to put Pakistan’s nascent democracy to its most strenuous test yet.
Many observers have already contended the forthcoming elections are likely to be neither fair nor free, owing to the interference of powerful military establishment, and a fragile security situation in the country.
Pakistan has been going through a deepening political crisis since the ousting of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in April 2022, before completing his five-years term in what is believed by him and his followers a conspiracy against his government. With Khan’s removal, main opposition parties joined hands to make a coalition government under the name of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), ruling the country for 16 months and later dissolved the national and provincial assemblies paving the way for an interim government that was formed on 14 August 2023, to hold the next general elections.
On the other hand, the plight of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) began as soon as it lost power. Its workers have been arrested and jailed, and even its leader has been imprisoned. While the persecution keeps mounting, the PTI refuses to give up. Moreover, with the country deep in the legal-political morass, terrorists have not only warned but also started targeting political figures.
How significant are the elections?
Following Khan’s ouster from office Pakistan has remained in a near-anarchy situation, and the upcoming elections are considered to end the period of uncertainty in the country and usher in the much-needed political and economic stability.
In the past two years, the Pakistani rupee depreciated to a record low; inflation soared as food, fuel, and medicine costs spiked; foreign reserves shrank; the country approached default several times; floods wrought tens of billions of dollars in damages. As political instability has led to economic crisis in the country, and as the caretaker government does not have enough mandate to decide on important economic matters, elections are necessary to bring forth an elected government and save the economy from further bleeding.
However, the question remains whether the elections will bring the much-needed political and economic stability. The middle and poor class have suffered the most in the last few years due to the inflation and they have little hope from Thursday’s elections.
“We are happy for the elections but we are eagerly waiting for a government that takes care of the urgent issues rather than just giving us lip service”, said Hamid Ali, a school teacher in Peshawar, capital of the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Ali, who is working in public school, said: “political parties make tall claims in the election campaigns but mostly fall short of their promises”. However, he added, “I still want to use my democratic right and cast my vote as that’s the only way of moving forward”.
PTI singled out for persecution
With the elections approaching close, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf commonly known as PTI, stands in disarray, even argued to be decimated. Following the arrest of Imran Khan on 9 May 2023, the party workers allegedly stormed army installations in different places. Since then, the party has been hammered by the powerful military establishment. To break the party, the military establishment jailed countless PTI workers and forced false confessions from the party senior leadership. Those who were found involved in the May 9 riots are unconstitutionally under trial in military courts, who nonetheless should have been tried in civilian courts.
The party has been banned from holding public rallies, and several times its virtual gatherings on social media have been disrupted by deliberate internet shutdowns by the Pakistani authorities. Pakistani internet freedom watchdog Bytes 4 All recorded four hours-long social media shutdowns in January, cutting off access to TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube while PTI live-streamed to its supporters. Lawyer and independent candidate Jibran Nasir has termed the social media shutdowns a ‘direct attack’ on freedom of expression.
The party’s main website was also blocked in January, and within hours a seemingly perfect duplicate appeared, however, it contained disinformation meant to confuse voters.
Even after putting the PTI through the worst form of persecution, the party breathed. To deal a deadly blow to the party, the Supreme Court deprived the PTI of its election symbol, bat. However, the PTI came up with another strategy and asked its candidates to contest elections independently. Irked by the ingenuity of PTI, a special court sentenced Imran Khan and his confidante Shah Mehmood Qureshi to 10 years in jail in a case related to leaking of state secrets, just days before the elections.
“Courts were held day and night for several previous months; nation felt that decision would be impartial. But the courts were in contrast – opened at night only to murder the justice system.The whole country witnessed the results today.The nation will not accept this decision ever”, said Shahram Khan Tarakai, a PTI leader in his social media message from his hiding, hinting at the decision. Tarakai has been hiding for the last few months like many senior party leaders.
The state’s wrath continued nonetheless, and an Islamabad accountability court awarded another 14 years in prison to Imran Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, for unlawfully buying and selling state gifts. To damage the reputation of Imran Khan and a verdict considered to be a final nail in the coffin, a local court in Pakistan sentenced Imran Khan and his wife to further 7 years in jail in an illegal marriage case. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was outraged by this verdict which considered it as a bad precedent for democracy and something clearly violating a person’s privacy.
With the grip tightening every minute around PTI’s neck, the party is nevertheless unyielding and vows to contest elections despite all the hardships. Sher Afzal Khan Marwat, the senior vice president of PTI told The Contrapuntal, “Not only did the supreme court take our election symbol, bat, from us but every institution in the country is bent on destroying the PTI…we will win, nevertheless”. Even though the odds are clearly against the PTI, members of the party like Marwat are optimistic to win the upcoming elections.
As no other political party is as much persecuted as the PTI, this attitude of the state institutions towards one party casts doubts on whether the playing field is level and the upcoming elections will be fair.
On 5 February, just a few days ahead of elections terrorists attacked a police station in Dera Ismail Khan, killing 10 policemen and injuring 6 others. Although not claimed by any group, experts believe that the attack was carried out by the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
As the polling day is inching in, terrorist groups have unleashed violence on political parties.
Not excluding the other terrorist outfits, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the local chapter of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is the most active and has been consistently issuing statements against elections and targeting political figures. Its main target is Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (F) or JUI-F. On 30 July 2023, the group targeted the political convention of JUI-F in Bajaur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in which 56 people were killed.
Days before the Bajaur incident, a bomb blast in a PTI rally in Sibi, Balochistan left four people dead and five injured. The attack was claimed by Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP).
While some attacks on political parties are claimed by terrorist groups, others go unclaimed adding further to the complex situation. For instance, the killing of Zahoor Ahmad of the Awami National Party (ANP), in Killa Abdullah, Balochistan was not claimed by any terror outfit.
In the conflict-ridden Balochistan province, grenade attacks on political parties is the new normal. Recently, the home of Zahoor Buledi, the provincial minister and PPP candidate for Turbat, was attacked with grenades in the Balochistani area of Kech. Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the incident and threatened more such attacks.
With terrorist attacks becoming a daily thing in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, political parties have limited their political activities these days.
Rifatullah Orakzai, a senior journalist and security analyst based in Peshawar, told The Contrapuntal, “terrorist violence has created such fear that political parties avoid holding large public rallies and meetings”. Orakzai said further that there are high chances of increased violence on the polling day.