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Thursday Briefing: The Stakes of Pakistan’s Elections

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Pakistan is holding its national elections today. Experts say they will be among the least credible in the country’s history. Days before the vote, Imran Khan, who was ousted as prime minister in 2022, was sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison in two separate verdicts. The sentences were widely seen as part of a military-led campaign to sideline Khan’s political party.

Tensions are running high. Yesterday, two separate explosions outside election offices in an insurgency-hit area of Pakistan killed at least 22 people.

For more on the elections, I reached out to Christina Goldbaum, our Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief.

What is the mood in Pakistan right now?

Christina: The military’s crackdown on Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., has made this one of the most lackluster election cycles we’ve seen in Pakistan.

There hasn’t been the usual boisterous campaigning from political parties. Up until a few weeks ago, many people doubted that the elections would actually take place in February.

Right now, many people feel demoralized by the military’s intimidation campaign. A common refrain is that this is a “selection” — not an election — as in: The military has predetermined the winner. So why bother to vote?

How has the military intervened in the election?

The military has been much heavier-handed this time around, mostly because Khan managed to make a remarkable comeback after his ouster and stoked widespread anger at the military among his supporters that turned violent in May.

Ahead of this election, analysts tell me there was a sense among the top military brass that they needed to regain control.

They turned to their usual tactics: Arresting P.T.I. leaders and pressuring them to denounce the party. But the military also cast a much wider net, arresting members of the elite who have traditionally had strong ties to the military. They also arrested casual supporters of the party, like young people who posted pro-P.T.I. messages on social media.

That’s had a real chilling effect, including in places like Punjab — the political heart of Pakistan — that had never experienced such a heavy hand by the military.

Who is expected to win?

Most people expect a victory by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.N., which is the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif has been prime minister three times, but he’s had each term cut short after falling out with the military.

What will you be watching after the election?

The next prime minister is going to inherit an economic mess, not to mention a surge in terrorist attacks over the past two years. Once the election is over, many hope that the military will turn its attention to reining in the militant groups in the country’s tribal areas.

Since Khan was ousted, the military has also taken on a larger role in shaping Pakistan’s economic policy. That could lead to friction with Sharif, if he wins. He is known for being pro-business and built his reputation on reviving economic growth and building major infrastructure projects.

He has also pushed for more civilian control in government. That raises a lot of questions about how long his current relationship with the military will last.


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That’s it for today’s briefing. See you tomorrow. — Amelia

P.S. The Times added 300,000 digital subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2023. If you’re one of them, thank you.

We welcome your feedback. Send us your suggestions at briefing@nytimes.com.

Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter misstated the number of Israeli hostages captured on Oct. 7 who have died. A fifth of the remaining 136 hostages have died, not a fifth of the overall number, which was roughly 240.

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