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Thursday’s Pak vote a referendum on military’s role in politics: Observers

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ISLAMABAD: With 128 million registered voters, Pakistan is set to hold its largest national and provincial elections on Thursday (Feb 8) amid heightened political tensions, economic instability and grave security challenges.
The interim government vows to conduct free and fair polls as many critics have already described the upcoming elections as biased, saying the entire exercise has been engineered by the powerful military establishment to keep jailed former prime minister Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), out of power. Many observers see this election as a referendum on the military’s role in politics.
The run-up to the polls saw Khan being sentenced to jail in at least three different cases, while his arch-rival, former three-time PM Nawaz Sharif, who was previously jailed and then went into exile, returned and emerged as a leading contender again. Hundreds of PTI leaders and workers have been kept in jails while the party has been deprived of its election symbol of cricket bat.
Despite all odds, the PTI has opted to take part in the electoral process and fielded its candidates as independents on oath that they rejoin the party if elected.
These elections are taking place in the midst of a persistent economic crisis marked by about 30% inflation and a declining value of the local currency against the US dollar — the Pakistani rupee has lost more than half its value in the past two years. Pakistan and the IMF had signed a $3 billion bailout agreement in July 2023; this will expire around the time a new government takes office.
Pakistan faces not just economic difficulties but also security risks. There has been a sharp increase in internal violence, with reports of terror attacks taking place on a daily basis.
Caretaker home minister Gohar Ejaz said an average of seven to eight security personnel would be deployed at each of the 90,777 polling stations throughout the country, which has been divided into three categories — normal, sensitive, and highly sensitive.
In a country of 241 millionpeople, women make up 46% (59.3 million) of the 128.5 million voters, and men 54% (69.2 million). Each voter will cast ballots for two legislators to represent his or her federal and provincial constituency.
Of the registered voters, 44 % are below the age of 35, making the youth vote more crucial these elections. The overwhelming majority of the youth, different surveys reveal, support Imran. It’s unclear if the ongoing crackdown against Khan’s party will result in a lower turnout or a surge in the form of silent protest votes for PTI-nominated candidates.
The age range of 36 to 45 comprises 22.3% of the electorate, making it the second-largest group of voters.
About 5,121 candidates — 4,806 men, 312 women and two transgender people — are contesting National Assembly seats and 12,695 in the fray for places in the provincial legislatures. The National Assembly consists of 336 seats; of these, 266 are decided through direct voting, while 70 reserved seats — 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims — are allotted according to the strength of each party in the House. The party that secures a simple majority — that is, the support of at least 169 members in the House — will form government.
Tuesday night marks the end of election campaigns nationwide. The electoral watchdog said it would announce unofficial results of all national and provincial constituencies on February 9.

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