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'Nothing Will Change': Pakistani Army's Alleged Election Meddling Dashes Hopes For Real Transformation

An armed policeman stands guard during an election campaign event in the southern seaport city of Karachi.
An armed policeman stands guard during an election campaign event in the southern seaport city of Karachi.

Over 128 million Pakistanis are eligible to vote in the general elections on February 8. But few believe the vote will bring real change in a country that is grappling with political instability, an economic crisis, and rising militancy.

Observers say voters have been disillusioned by the alleged meddling of the powerful army -- widely seen as the kingmaker in the South Asian nation -- ahead of the vote.

Pakistan’s generals have been accused of orchestrating the jailing of opposition figure Imran Khan -- the former prime minister who was ousted from power after falling out with the military -- and the crackdown on his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is languishing in prison and barred from contesting elections. (file photo)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is languishing in prison and barred from contesting elections. (file photo)

Experts say the military has cleared the path for another ex-premier, Nawaz Sharif, and his party to win the elections, although observers say the PTI could pull off an upset if it can get the vote out.

“Nothing will change,” said Zubair, a resident of the northwestern city of Peshawar, a PTI stronghold. “A few individuals will choose who will rule this country.”

Syed Irfan Ashraf, a university lecturer in Peshawar, said the elections are designed to keep the army’s grip on power. The military, which has directly ruled the country for nearly half of its 76-year history, has an oversized role in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign affairs.

"This means that a military regime is in power, and they want political leaders to sustain and reinforce their power," said Ashraf.

Underscoring the disillusionment among voters, a Gallup poll released on February 5 found that around 70 percent of Pakistanis “lack confidence in the honesty of their elections."

'Pushed Against A Wall'

The election campaign has been lackluster and marred by what the PTI has said is a military-backed nationwide crackdown against the party.

Candidates from Khan’s party have been forced to contest the elections as independents after the Supreme Court and Election Commission ruled that they could not use the PTI symbol, a cricket bat. Symbols appear on ballot papers in Pakistan to help illiterate voters identify parties.

Police have also violently dispersed pre-election rallies held by supporters of Khan, whose populist PTI is the leading opposition party in the country.

With Founder Imran Khan Jailed, Pakistani Opposition Turns To Technology To Boost Chances
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Last week, Khan was convicted and sentenced on charges of corruption, leaking state secrets, and unlawful marriage.

Khan’s party and supporters have said the convictions are punishment for his criticism of the military, widely considered a red line, when he was prime minister.

Khan lost a no-confidence vote in April 2022 after he fell out with the army, which was widely accused of bringing him to power through a rigged general election in 2018, an allegation denied by both parties.

Since his ouster, Khan has waged an unprecedented campaign against the army, accusing the institution of conspiring to oust him from power and then plotting to assassinate him. His arrest in May 2023 triggered deadly protests across the country.

The protests triggered a nationwide clampdown against the PTI. Hundreds of PTI members and supporters have been imprisoned. The party's leaders accused the military of forcing dozens of its senior leaders to abandon the PTI, which retains strong support among the youth.

"Our party is being pushed against a wall," said a PTI campaigner in the capital, Islamabad, who did not want to be named for security reasons.

A former PTI lawmaker, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is “deep-rooted interference in this election.”

"We do expect rigging,” the ex-lawmaker said. “But we are trying our best to counter it by bringing out our supporters to vote in large numbers.”

What Does Pakistan Want? 'Cheap Gas, Groceries, And Democracy,' Says One Peshawar Family
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The PTI has used social media and Artificial Intelligence to circumvent the crackdown and reach voters.

But many analysts and voters say the outcome of the elections for the National Assembly and four provincial legislatures appear to be already decided.

"The election is over," said prominent Pakistani journalist and commentator Cyril Almeida. "With PTI candidates forced to contest as independents, the next assemblies will be determined by the military's manipulation of winning candidates."

Almeida said an upset could be on the cards if there is a high turnout among PTI supporters.

"The rash of convictions [against Khan] last week suggest the military leadership itself isn't sure if the PTI voters will stay home and therefore needed extra deterrence," he said.

The Pakistani military has denied interfering in the elections.

'Past Mistakes'

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party heads into the elections as favorites.

The army fell out with Sharif, who looked to curb the military’s traditional dominance of politics. Sharif was removed from office in 2017 after his disqualification by the Supreme Court.

Sharif, who was sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges, denied wrongdoing and suggested collusion between the military and courts threw him from power. In 2019, he was allowed to leave the country and receive medical treatment in Britain.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) speaks as his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, looks on. (file photo)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) speaks as his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, looks on. (file photo)

Observers say the army, which backed Khan in the 2018 election, has now thrown its support behind Sharif.

The three-time premier, who returned to his homeland last year, appears to have a clear path to another term in office. The Supreme Court cleared him of all charges and removed a lifetime ban on political figures with criminal convictions from running in elections.

Observers say the so-called “hybrid plus” system in Pakistan, in which the army backs a political party in exchange for controlling policymaking, has harmed democracy in the country.

"All political parties are willing to seek the military's support to oust their rivals and run the government," said Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament. "No lessons have been learned from past mistakes."

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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