Pakistan is gearing up for another general election, or is it? With the security situation in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa becoming untenable, it is likely elections even if they are held are unlikely to be free and fair. This combines with the fact that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PML-N chief in all probability will win the elections with the tacit backing of the military. Thus, to sum up, Pakistan will have an election, but only Allah knows how free and fair it will be! With the elections less than a month away, Pakistan’s Supreme Court set to rest (8 January) any doubts whether candidates disqualified under Article 62 (1) (f) of the Constitution could contest the election in the light of amendments in the Elections Act 2017. In this situation, one wonders why Pakistani Senate passed a non-binding resolution demanding a delay in the national general elections, scheduled on 8 February?
The Senate of Pakistan’s Parliament approved the resolution at a session attended by only 14 of the 97 senators, with one member voting against the resolution. While passage of the resolution is significant, that it was passed by only 14 members citing the plea of the “prevailing security conditions” as well as the cold weather indicates a certain political direction. Independent Legislator, Dilawar Khan in his resolution said Pakistan’s Interior Ministry had “conveyed serious threats to [the] lives of prominent politicians” and highlighted an increasing number of security incidents, mainly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. He further said the harsh winter made it difficult for the political parties to campaign, which might also affect voter turnout in the polls. The text of the inter alia reads, “The elections scheduled for 8th February 2024 may be postponed to facilitate effective participation of people from all areas of Pakistan and belonging to all political shades in the electioneering process”. Pertinently, of 11 previous general elections in Pakistan’s history, three (1985, 1997 and 2008) took place in the month of February.
Notably, Pakistan’s Supreme Court (8 January) scrapped lifetime bans on contesting elections for people with criminal convictions, paving the way for Nawaz Sharif to run for prime minister for a fourth time. Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is considered to be the front runner to win the 8 February election, with Sharif’s main rival, former prime minister Imran Khan, in jail and barred from contesting for five years. In his ruling, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, said the life bans “abridge the fundamental right of citizens to contest elections”. The court’s decision was six to one in favour of overruling a previous 2018 decision that imposed life bans on politicians convicted under certain provisions of the constitution.
Recently, Imran Khan’s nomination papers for the 8 February elections were rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on account of his conviction in a corruption case. The papers of thousands of other opposition candidates were also rejected by the commission. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is also fighting a legal battle to save its election symbol a cricket bat, from a possible ban. More recently, on 10 January, the PTI received a boost when a court reinstated – for the second time – their electoral symbol, the cricket bat. The two-member bench of the Peshawar High Court held that the ECP decision to strip the party off its symbol last month was “illegal”. This clears to rest any doubt about Nawaz Sharif making a political comeback in the elections. With Imran Khan remaining in jail and under judicial pressure a free and fair election in Pakistan is highly improbable! However, a perusal of the security situation makes it amply clear that Pakistan is equally unprepared for the elections, just under a month away.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Pakistan, till October 2023 had recorded the highest number of Security Force (SF) fatalities in Pakistan in a year since 2014, when there were 508 such fatalities. After reaching a recent low of 137 in 2019, fatalities have been on a continuous rise proportionally to the rise in the number of attacks. On 19 October 2023, three Army personnel were killed in North Waziristan. On 8 October 2023, two Army personnel, including Major Syed Ali Raza Shah, were killed in the Sambaza area of Zhob District in Balochistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed the attack. On 4 October 2023, two SF personnel were killed and three sustained injuries when a SF vehicle in a convoy was targeted with explosives in the Chaghi Bazar of Chagai District in Balochistan. Earlier, on 28 September 2023 four soldiers were killed during a clash with infiltrating terrorists along the Pak-Afghan border near Sambaza in the Zhob District of Balochistan.
The surge in attacks on SFs and resultant fatalities coincide with the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Kabul in August 2021. With the collapse of the talks between the TTP and the Pakistan Government on 28 November 2022, there was a significant escalation of attacks on SFs. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), an Islamabad-based research organisation, the security situation in Pakistan has also deteriorated, with 2023 witnessing more than 600 attacks by armed groups, an increase of more than 60 percent from 2022. The PICSS data states that almost 93 percent of those attacks took place in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Pakistan was scheduled to hold the general elections in November last year after the National Assembly was dissolved in August. A caretaker government under Prime Minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar was then set up to oversee the vote. But the Election Commission of Pakistan said it needed more time to redraw constituencies based on the country’s population census, which concluded last year. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, leader of the main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been in jail since August where he is being tried for allegedly leaking state secrets. His party, faces a severe crackdown from the previous government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, with many PTI leaders deserting the party, allegedly under the pressure of the powerful military, which has directly ruled over the country for nearly half of its independent history through coups. The political landscape in Pakistan just became murkier with the Army deciding to back former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the election. With the Election Commission dictating terms to Imran Khan and the PTI, it is clear that the deep s tate will continue to target the former cricketer, even though he remains perhaps the most popular politician in Pakistan today. Even if the PML-N comes back to power, the PTI will probably retain its popular base. The challenge is that with the security situation deteriorating in KPK and Balochistan, a question mark over transparency and credibility of the polls does arise. Given this situation, one wonders why the US expects the upcoming election to be free and fair?