Pakistan: Will elections take place on time?
The South Asian country is set to hold general elections in February 2024, but the imprisonment of Imran Khan and a crackdown on his party have raised questions over the vote's credibility
Pakistan's caretaker government, which is headed by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, was originally mandated to hold general elections in the country within 90 days after it took charge in August. However, the polls have been delayed due to security concerns and protracted economic turmoil in the country.
The South Asian country's election commission has since set the date of February 8, 2024, for the vote, but many uncertainties remain over meeting the February deadline.
Former PM Imran Khan has been incarcerated on corruption and other charges for several months, as well as many of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI) top officials. This has already put a question mark over the fairness of elections. At the same time, Pakistan continues to grapple with an acute economic turmoil amid soaring inflation.
The situation has pushed the interim government to try and steer the country out of multiple crises, even though, constitutionally, its only job is to organize and hold elections.
"We have tackled tough challenges in areas including economy, privatization, and connectivity," PM Kakar said earlier this month.
Ousted Prime Minister Khan remains the most popular politician in the country despite a crackdown on his party and supporters over allegedly targeting military installations during mass protests in May. A majority of Pakistanis are critical of the interim government.
A further delay in elections could make Kakar's bloc even more unpopular, analysts say.
Powerful but controversial
"The caretaker government's sole task is to supervise elections but, in many ways, it has acted beyond its constitutional role," Maleeha Lodhi, political analyst and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, told DW.
"It is barred [constitutionally] from taking major policy decisions except on urgent matters," she said, adding that these actions have made the caretaker government "controversial."
But the authorities argue that the country is going through a tough time, and that they need to fix many issues before polls can be held. They blame Khan's government for a faltering economy, and more importantly, the civilian institutions' clash with the powerful military.
The military leadership, which is at odds with Khan and his PTI party, claims to be neutral but insists that it won't allow further destabilization in the country.
"They [interim government] are more powerful than [many] previous governments. They are, thus, taking many financial decisions," Asma Shirazi, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW.
Crackdown on Khan's party
Many Pakistanis believe that if Khan was allowed to contest elections, he would easily win a majority in the next parliament. But Khan's participation in the February polls seems unlikely.
Khan was ousted in April last year in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The 70-year-old cricket star-turned-politician, who has been demanding fair elections since his removal, was jailed on August 5 on corruption charges.
On May 9, Khan's supporters took to the streets to protest his arrest and reportedly attacked public property and military facilities, which has put the former premier in direct confrontation with the incumbent army chief, General Asim Munir.
"The clampdown on the largest political party prior to the election is tantamount to pre-poll rigging," Zulfikar Bukhari, Khan's advisor on International Media and affairs, told DW from London.
"It is obvious that the polls won't be fair," he added.
Bukhari fears that the caretaker government will intensify the crackdown on PTI in December and January to ensure results of its liking.
"The political space is shrinking for the PTI. The government should release those [PTI officials and supporters] who are not involved in the May 9 attacks, or they should be given the right to fair trials," Shirazi said.
Are fair elections possible?
Analysts are of the view that Pakistan's political and economic stability depends on fair elections and not on the measures the interim government is currently taking.
"An election lacking inclusivity and credibility can spark political turmoil and set Pakistan back, both politically and economically. It is the responsibility of the caretaker government to ensure that the elections are held freely and in a fair manner," stressed Lodhi.
"The claims by two of Pakistan's three major political parties that there is a lack of a level-playing field in the upcoming polls do not bode well for the country," she added.
PTI official Bukhari agrees with this view: "We are not allowed to hold public rallies in Punjab province, and our leaders are not allowed to be seen in public," he complained.
Murtaza Solangi, the current minister for information and broadcasting, told DW that pre-poll rigging allegations are baseless and premature.
Analysts, however, believe that PM Kakar's government needs to take actions to shed the perception that it wants to keep Khan out of power by hook or by crook.
Published: 01 Dec 2023, 1:25 PM