With a population of 241 million, Pakistan is grappling with unprecedented inflation and a stalled economy, struggling under the stringent conditions of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.The country is also experiencing a surge in Islamist militancy, and its relationships with neighboring countries – India, Afghanistan, and Iran – are strained.
Despite these issues, the electoral battle has primarily focused on the contest between the parties of Khan and Nawaz Sharif, another ex-prime minister, with other significant concerns largely overlooked.
Here is all you need to know about Pakistan elections.
How Pakistan elections work
- Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy and voting will take place for seats in the federal legislature, called the National Assembly, and four provincial, or state, legislatures.
- 128 million Pakistanis out of a population of 241 million are eligible to vote – all those above 18. Polling booths are open from 9am to 5pm (0400 GMT to 1200 GMT) usually but time can be extended in exceptional individual circumstances.
- On election day, voters will cast their ballots for two legislators to represent their constituency – one federally and the other provincially. There are 5,121 candidates contesting for the federal legislature and 12,695 for the provinces.
- The National Assembly consists of 336 seats – 266 are decided through direct voting on polling day, while 70 reserved seats – 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims – are allotted according to the strength of each party in the house.
- Victorious candidates become members of the National Assembly. Independent candidates have the option to join any party after the elections.
- Once constituted, the National Assembly holds a parliamentary vote to select a leader of the house, who becomes the prime minister.
- A successful candidate must show a simple majority in the house – that is, the support of at least 169 members.
- Once a prime ministerial candidate wins the vote in the National Assembly, they are sworn in as prime minister. The new prime minister picks cabinet ministers, who form the federal government.
Who are the major players in this election
- Army chief Munir: The current chief of army staff,
Gen Asim Munir, known for his dedication to fitness and previous role as a spymaster, may not appear on electoral rolls, yet his influence as the military’s leader is significant. He was the key figure in sidelining Imran Khan. Elections apart, Munir will play the role of ‘chief selector’ in picking next PM after elections. No surprises why some observers have called this election as “mother of all selections”.
- Nawaz Sharif: A prominent figure in Pakistani politics, business tycoon, and three-time prime minister, Sharif comes from one of the two leading families that have significantly influenced the country’s political landscape for years. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League, secured overwhelming victories in the 2007 and 2013 elections. However, despite his electoral successes, the 74-year-old Sharif has never managed to complete a term in office, having been removed from power by the military, the Supreme Court, and the presidency at different times. Following the overturning of his convictions and sentences after he came back to Pakistan last October, Sharif is now poised for a potential fourth term as prime minister.
- Imran Khan: Supported and “selected” by Pakistan army, the cricketer-turned-politician won the 2018 election on a platform opposing corruption and the establishment, leading to the formation of a coalition government. However, in April 2022, Khan was removed from office by a no-confidence vote. Currently, Khan is dealing with over 150 legal charges and has been imprisoned since August, receiving multiple sentences for corruption, revealing state secrets, and violating marriage laws, which cumulatively prevent him from participating in elections. Despite these legal and political setbacks, Khan maintains a significant grassroots support base, and his party continues to compete in the political arena.
- Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari: Bilawal, 35, the youngest candidate for Pakistan’s prime ministership, carries a significant political legacy as the son of the late Benazir Bhutto and the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, both revered former leaders of Pakistan. Following his mother’s assassination in 2007, he quickly ascended to leadership within his family’s political party. Despite the strong support base in Sindh, his party may not secure enough votes for him to become prime minister, though it could play a crucial role in a potential coalition government led by the Sharifs.
Record discontent before elections
In a stark revelation ahead of Thursday’s election, Gallup’s latest surveys illuminate the profound discontent among Pakistanis, facing severe economic, political, and security challenges. This sentiment, at its highest in decades, underscores the electorate’s grave concerns as they head to the polls.
- 70% of Pakistanis believe their economic conditions are worsening, the most negative outlook in 18 years of Gallup polling.
- Only 53% of Pakistanis feeling secure in their neighborhoods at night, marking a decade low
- A staggering 88% perceive government corruption as widespread, maintaining near-record levels of distrust
- 70% of the population expressing doubt in the honesty of elections, a sentiment that mirrors past peaks of skepticism
- The nation’s tolerance for migrants has notably declined, with only 37% viewing immigration positively
- According to the latest opinion polls, the PTI is leading the race with about 40% of the vote share, followed by the PML-N with about 30%, and the PPP with about 15%. However, the polls also show a large number of undecided voters, who could swing the outcome in any direction.
- The PTI is expected to perform well in the northern and western provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, where it has a strong presence and has delivered on some of its promises, such as health and education reforms. The party is also hoping to make inroads in the urban areas of Punjab and Sindh, where it has a sizable youth and middle-class support.
- The PML-N is expected to dominate the rural areas of Punjab, where it has a loyal base of farmers, traders, and industrialists, who have benefited from its development projects and subsidies. The party is also hoping to retain some of its seats in the federal capital Islamabad and the eastern province of Gilgit-Baltistan, where it won the recent local elections.
- The PPP is expected to sweep the province of Sindh, where it has a strong hold on the rural and urban voters, especially the Sindhi-speaking and ethnic minorities. The party is also hoping to gain some seats in the southern parts of Punjab and Balochistan, where it has forged alliances with local parties and leaders.
- But ultimately, the ‘Establishment’, an euphemism for Pakistan army, would decide the final winner.
What is the likelihood of a single party gaining a majority?
Analysts predict that no single party will secure a clear majority, indicating the probable formation of a coalition government. This scenario may lead to complex decision-making processes, especially when swift action is needed to tackle the nation’s pressing challenges.
How is Imran Khan influencing the election from jail?
Imran Khan’s PTI is conducting a two-pronged campaign involving covert canvassing and the use of generative AI technology. This includes distributing campaign materials discreetly and creating AI-generated footage of Khan delivering speeches from prison. Despite the challenges, Khan’s party aims to maintain a strong presence in the political discourse.
What are the challenges facing the incoming government?
The new government will inherit a nation grappling with high inflation, economic stagnation, and a complex security situation marked by rising Islamist militancy and strained relations with neighboring countries. Addressing these multifaceted issues will require robust and decisive policymaking.
How are the elections viewed in terms of democratic norms?
The elections are seen as a critical test for Pakistan’s democracy, especially considering the nation’s history of military influence in politics. The ability of the electorate to freely exercise their voting rights amidst the current political climate will be a significant indicator of the strength and maturity of Pakistan’s democratic institutions.
(With inputs from agencies)