1707381514 Pakistan goes to the polls in a climate of violence

Pakistan goes to the polls in a climate of violence and political division

In this super election year marked by a possible chip change on much of the geopolitical chessboard, Pakistan is one of the countries taking part in the elections. The nuclear-powered nation and the world's fifth-most populous country – about 250 million people – is holding general elections this Thursday that will produce parliament and must choose the next prime minister. In summary, the scenario is turbulent. The election campaign was marked by the prosecution of Imran Khan, the winner of the last elections, who was disqualified as a candidate, and the return of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, previously convicted and now rehabilitated, as the likely winner. In the background are the tremors of a growing spiral of violence. On the eve of the election, two explosions near candidates' offices in the volatile Balochistan region bordering Iran and Afghanistan killed at least 26 people and injured more than 50. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Another five people were injured in another attack in Khyber Pashtunjuá province, which also borders Afghanistan.

The political environment is tense and polarized in one of the most turbulent states in the world. Around 700,000 security forces and organs are expected to be deployed. According to the Portal agency, the border crossings with Iran and Afghanistan remain closed. More than half of the country's voting centers, where regional legislative assemblies are also elected, are considered at risk of violence or attacks, reports the Efe agency; up to 80% in Balochistan, a key province for China's growing interests in the country – it is a transit area for the New Silk Road, Beijing's mega infrastructure program – but where militia activity has increased recently. In January, a tense missile exchange between Iran and Pakistan targeting insurgents in these border areas left the world holding its breath for several days and threatened to export the Middle East crisis to Asia.

The nearly 128 million citizens called to the polls are choosing between options that bring with them a turbulent legacy of political unrest, accusations and convictions for corruption. The country, which also has border disputes with India, although recently silenced, remains mired in a post-pandemic economic crisis with rampant inflation and, as the Chinese presence increases, is in the phase of redefining relations with the United States, after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021.

Explosives experts are investigating the site of one of Wednesday's attacks in Balochistan. Explosives experts are investigating the site of one of Wednesday's attacks in Balochistan. Naseer Ahmed (Portal)

The likely winner of the vote is recently returned Nawaz Sharif, 74, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz candidate who was prime minister three times but never managed to complete a term. He resigned from office for the last time in 2017, surrounded by corruption investigations that ended with a prison sentence and a lifetime political ban. After fleeing Pakistan and spending four years in self-imposed exile, he returned to the country last October, where the political tide had now turned and the winds had become more favourable. He appealed his convictions, which were overturned in December, and soon after submitted his candidacy to the National Assembly for Thursday's elections.

The imprisoned candidate

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The second party in the race, the Pakistan Justice Movement, is like a shadow. Their leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, 71, a former national cricket star, is in prison and still collecting sentences. Many of the party's candidates have also been jailed on criminal or terrorism charges that they say were politically motivated. Those running are doing so as independents after the electoral commission banned the party from using its iconic symbol, a cricket bat, in the election (the image is crucial in a country with high illiteracy rates). The rallies they hold are broken up by the police. His victory would be a surprise. The group has been blurring since the elections he won in 2018, although Khan remains a valued politician, particularly among the young population, and his electoral influence is projected.

With the leader behind bars and disqualified, the party has used a groundbreaking formula to get its message out: campaign videos in which Khan speaks from prison, using a voice cloned by artificial intelligence. “Our party is not allowed to hold public rallies,” he denounces in a clip collected by Portal. “Our people are being kidnapped and their families are being harassed,” he added.

Among the forces in the fight is the Pakistan People's Party, the heir to a political dynasty. It is led by Bilawal Bhutto, 35, son of Benazir Bhutto, the country's first woman prime minister who was assassinated in 2007, and grandson of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also a former prime minister.

The elections are partly reminiscent of those of 2018, but in the opposite sense. Then, when Nawaz Sharif was pursued by the judiciary and fled abroad, Khan won the elections after managing to excite much of the electorate, particularly the young and educated sections of Pakistani society. But once in command, he came into conflict with the country's powerful military, whose influence remains crucial. He was removed from office in a parliamentary no-confidence motion in 2022 and replaced by the previous prime minister's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, which would pave the way for a return to exile. In his overthrow, Khan spread an alleged plot to overthrow the military with the approval of the United States. There was a wave of protests that led to riots and thousands of arrests. He entered prison in 2023 and has amassed multiple sentences for corruption, treason and illegal marriage. In the last week alone he was convicted three times and there are still various cases pending before the judiciary.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern about the elections. The spokeswoman for the High Commissioner, Liz Throssell, condemned this Tuesday at least 24 attacks by armed groups on members of political parties in the period before the elections. And he expressed “concern” about “the pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detention of leaders of the Pakistan justice movement and their sympathizers,” as well as the numerous legal cases against Khan. “We hope that the higher courts will carefully consider these findings in accordance with due process and the right to a fair trial,” he said.

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