Pakistan: Amidst deadly violence, Sharif emerges front-runner in crucial elections

The outcome may also prove important for the subcontinent since Sharif has historically displayed more of an openness toward India

Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif's prison days seem well and truly behind him (file photo)
Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif's prison days seem well and truly behind him (file photo)

NH Digital

Pakistanis will vote on Thursday to elect a new government for the cash-strapped country amidst a spree of deadly violence, with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, believed to have the backing of Pakistan's powerful military, emerging as the front-runner.

With another former prime minister Imran Khan in jail, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is tipped to emerge as the single largest party in the elections. Meanwhile, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidates are contesting the polls independently after Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld the ECP's decision to deprive his party of its cricket bat election symbol.

Sharif, 74, will be eyeing the premiership for a record fourth time in Thursday's elections. The contest also involves the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — son of slain former PM Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari — who has been declared the party's prime ministerial candidate.

Whoever wins the 8 February polls will find a daunting task ahead, thanks to the rapid decline of the economy and a fast-deteriorating security situation. In 2023, the country narrowly averted a default when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided it with a $3 billion short-term loan. Economic experts believe that the new government will need an urgent new IMF programme on more stringent conditions.

In the past, Imran Khan drew the world's attention to his country's dire economic situation when he as good as appealed for crowd funding from citizens to finance the daily workings of the government.

Pakistan’s over two-decade old fight against terrorism seems to also be unravelling with a resurgence in violence since 2021 after the Afghan Taliban came to power. The new government will find it tougher to deal with militancy by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch nationalists.

In the absence of a strong enough contender, the circumstances are favourable for Nawaz Sharif's political career to come full circle, putting his four years as an exile from 2019-23, and the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying him from holding public office for life owing to his involvement in the Panama Papers case of 2017, firmly behind him.

But given his health concerns (two open-heart surgeries so far) and his reputation as a relatively liberal — though devout — Muslim, how far will he be able to stretch himself to rescue his beleaguered nation? Of course, if the army continues its support of him, his task will have become easier.

The outcome of the elections may also prove important for India since Sharif has historically displayed more of an openness toward India in accordance with his earlier stance as prime minister, and even acknowledged India's global position. Officially, though, his party's election manifesto declares a readiness to make peace only if New Delhi reverts its decision to abrogate Article 370 and restore special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

The Indian Express has quoted geopolitical expert C. Raja Mohan as saying, “India has dealt with Pakistan’s generals who took charge of the country before. But General (Asim) Munir’s quest for greater control may not be the movie we have seen before. To be sure, the dominant assumption in Delhi is that nothing ever changes in Pakistan... Munir, however, is taking control amid the growing prospect that the old order in Pakistan is becoming unsustainable."

All campaigning for Thursday's general elections in Pakistan has now concluded after the country's election commission issued an advisory restraining political parties from further electioneering.

Campaigning ended on Tuesday midnight as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) issued a statement saying any candidate and political party participating in the general elections found attending any meeting, procession, corner meeting, or any event after the stated time will be dealt with according to law.

It also imposed a ban on the publication and telecast of all kinds of poll surveys on the media until elections are held, Xinhua news agency reported.

The ECP announcement comes against the backdrop of two separate explosions which killed at least 25 people and injured over 40 others on Wednesday in an apparent attack — the latest in an ongoing series — on election candidates in Balochistan province, according to local media reports.

The first attack claimed at least 15 lives while over 30 were injured after an explosion outside an independent candidate's office in Pishin, while the second blast took place outside the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) office in the province's Killa Saifullah district, Geo News reported.

Nearly 650,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country, with authorities busy setting up polling stations to enable more than 12.85 crore registered voters to cast their ballots.

The ECP had issued the election schedule in December 2023, and has kept the process intact despite the deteriorating security situation. On Wednesday, polling material was distributed to more than 90,000 polling stations under the supervision of polling officers, who were escorted by police personnel and soldiers.

On Thursday, polling will begin at 8.00 am and continue without any interval until 5.00 pm. A countrywide public holiday has been declared to enable voters to cast their vote without hindrance.

Punjab has the most number of registered voters with 7.32 crore, followed by Sindh with 2.70 crore, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with about 2.19 crore, Balochistan with nearly 53.72 lakh and federal capital Islamabad with 10.83 lakh.

According to ECP data, a total of 5,121 candidates are in the race for the National Assembly (NA) seats, including 4,807 male, 312 female and two transgender candidates. For the four provincial assemblies, 12,695 candidates are in the fray including 12,123 male, 570 women and two transgender candidates.

A total of 266 NA seats were up for elections out of 336, but polling was postponed on at least one seat after a candidate was killed in a gun attack in Bajaur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Sixty seats are reserved for women and 10 for minorities, and are allotted to the winning parties on the basis of proportional representation.

Another 593 seats in four provincial assemblies, out of a total of 749, were open for contest, but the ECP has delayed polls on at least three seats, two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Punjab, after two candidates died and one was killed.

A total of 132 seats in the four provinces are reserved for women in four provinces and another 24 for minorities. The reserved seats will be allotted to the winning political parties on the basis of general seats they win in the elections. Both women and non-Muslim minorities can also contest on all general seats in addition to the reserved seats set aside for them in the national and provincial assemblies.

Of the over 90,000 polling stations nationwide, 25,320 are for male voters, 23,952 for females, and another 41,403 are mixed. The ECP said 44,000 polling stations were normal while 29,985 had been declared as sensitive, and 16,766 as highly sensitive.

With inputs from agencies

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