Pakistan: Will elections take place on time?

Friday, 1 December 2023 (11:16 IST)
Pakistan's caretaker government, led by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, was originally mandated to organize a general election in the country within 90 days of taking charge this August. However, the vote has been delayed due to security concerns and protracted economic turmoil in the country.
The South Asian nation's election commission has since set the date of February 8, 2024, for the vote, but many uncertainties remain over meeting that February deadline. 
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been incarcerated on corruption and other charges for several months, as have many of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI) top officials. This has put a question mark behind the issue of election fairness. At the same time, Pakistan continues to grapple with acute economic turmoil amid soaring inflation.
The situation has prompted the interim government to attempt to 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," Prime Minister 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 authorities argue the country is going through a tough time, and that they need to fix many issues before elections 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 [the 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 2022 in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The 70-year-old cricket star-turned-politician, who has been demanding fair elections since his removal from office, was later arrested and jailed on corruption charges on August 5, 2023.
When Khan was previously arrested on May 9, 2023, his supporters took to the streets in protest, reportedly attacking public property and military facilities, putting the former prime minister 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 the caretaker government will intensify the crackdown on PTI in December and January to ensure election results to its liking.
"The political space is shrinking for the PTI. The government should release those [PTI officials and supporters] who were not involved in the May 9 attacks, or they should be given the right to fair trials," journalist Asma Shirazi said.
Are fair Pakistani 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 political analyst Maleeha 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 Prime Minister 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.

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