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What to know about Pakistan’s election

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is heading to the polls on Thursday in a parliamentary election that has been dominated by economic woes, fierce political clashes and rising security concerns.

The front-runner, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has vowed to restore stability and chart a path toward prosperity. But even if he is able to form a government, Sharif would still have to contend with an emboldened military that has long played an outsize role in Pakistani politics.

Looming large over the vote is Imran Khan, the populist opposition leader who was recently convicted in three cases and has been in prison since his arrest in August. Khan’s party views the legal cases as part of a campaign to neutralize him and his allies, and the United Nations’ top human rights body on Tuesday condemned a “pattern of harassment” against members of his party and his supporters.

Pakistan’s caretaker government has rejected accusations of a state crackdown, portraying the arrests and raids on offices of Khan’s party as necessary to maintain stability.

What is at stake in this election?

The past two years have been turbulent for Pakistan, and the country’s establishment hopes the election will restore predictability and calm.

Khan’s ouster as prime minister in April 2022 resulted in months of rising tensions with the military, which he has blamed for his political downfall. Pakistan has a history of arresting and imprisoning former leaders who ran afoul of the military, but efforts to arrest Khan on corruption charges early last year proved extraordinarily complicated and resulted in clashes between security forces and his supporters.

Pakistan’s government compared the riots that ensued, which authorities say also targeted military installations, to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of Donald Trump.

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Pakistani authorities have all but dismantled Khan’s party, jailing many of its leaders and arresting thousands of rioters. But Khan remains popular and his supporters enraged. Virtually none of them thinks their party has a realistic chance of being part of the next government. But one of the key questions is how they and their party leadership will respond to the results.

Why do supporters of Nawaz Sharif feel so confident?

While Khan has faced an avalanche of court cases, Sharif’s legal woes have disappeared one by one.

Sharif’s three terms as prime ministers all ended prematurely amid tensions with the military, including his most recent one, when he was ousted in 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges. Authorities later allowed Sharif to leave for London, and he remained there in exile until last fall.

Amid signs of a rapprochement between him and the establishment, Sharif in October staged a choreographed return to Lahore, his hometown.

Ousted three times before, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif may get another shot

“Clearly, he is back in the good graces of the military, which is obviously very advantageous if you are a civilian leader and want to become prime minister” in Pakistan, said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center. “He could not have come back to Pakistan and seen so many legal charges melt away if he had not worked out some sort of arrangement with the military.”

Could there be any surprises on election day?

“When it comes to making predictions about Pakistani politics, you can never rule out a surprise,” Kugelman cautioned.

Sharif’s party, the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), appears to have the clearest path to winning the most seats in Parliament and forming a government. The PML-N could form a coalition with the center-left Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who represents another major political family, or with a number of smaller parties.

In total, more than 5,000 candidates from around 170 parties are vying for seats in Parliament.

The candidates running on Khan’s ticket were stripped of their party symbol in the weeks leading up to the election, so they have to compete as independents. This opens up the possibility that the PML-N or other parties could try to persuade Khan’s allies to join them after election day.

What would a fourth Sharif term look like?

For Sharif, 74, a fourth term in office would be an opportunity to solidify his family’s sway over Pakistani politics and to turn around the PML-N’s fortunes, which appeared to wane in recent years.

Sharif has in past terms focused on infrastructure projects and economic growth, which have dominated his campaign over the past weeks.

But Pakistani economist Abid Qaiyum Suleri said whoever leads Pakistan’s next government will face tough economic choices. Sharif may see himself forced to back popular but “economically unwise decisions to provide immediate relief to the people,” Suleri said.

While Pakistan depends on international funds to keep its economy running and can hardly afford higher government spending, the next government may be lured into extending food and gas subsidies to keep social peace, he said. It could complicate future negotiations with international institutions over debt relief.

There could also be tensions between the next government and the military over Pakistan’s volatile relations with its neighbors. While Sharif has advocated closer ties to archrival India, for example, the Pakistani military has traditionally taken a tougher stance.

Pakistani analysts agree that the country’s next leader is likely to enjoy an initial honeymoon period. But odds are that things will get difficult fairly soon.

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