The year 2024 is a year of crucial elections in the South Asian region; however, the political reality is unlikely to change in the countries holding elections. The upcoming general elections in Pakistan on February 8th are no different. This election is marred by several security concerns and the attempts to decimate the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party by keeping its Chairman, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, behind bars with multiple charges. Political commentator Nadeem F. Paracha terms it “pre-poll rigging” or manipulation to favour a certain party.
At present, a caretaker government is in charge after the dissolution of the country's parliament on August 9, 2023. Before the dissolution, the Shehbaz Sharif government hurriedly passed a number of bills that suppressed public voices and criticism and curtailed civil liberties.
The election in numbers
In a country of 234 million people, there are over 128 million registered voters and over 18,000 candidates. As per the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) data, there are a total of 41,403 combined polling stations, with 25,320 designated for male voters and 23,952 for female voters.
The National Assembly of Pakistan, the lower house of the bicameral Parliament of Pakistan, has a total of 336 seats out of which 266 are directly elected by general vote seats. The Remaining 70 special seats, divided into 60 for women and 10 for minorities, are designated in the electoral system. If a party secures 134 seats, it achieves a simple majority. There are also 749 Provincial Assembly seats up for voting.
Journalist Wajahat Kazmi shared on X (formerly Twitter):
Pakistan Army has been deployed across the country for assistance in holding elections according to Article 245 of the constitution. Police will have the top responsibility followed by Civil Armed Forces, Rangers and Frontier Corps. The Army will be at the third tier. pic.twitter.com/YUzHTMYRG4
— Wajahat Kazmi (@KazmiWajahat) February 3, 2024
According to the Elections Act, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is required to publish official results within 14 days of the election.
Pakistan political parties encompass a spectrum of ideologies. In the 2018 general elections in Pakistan, Imran Khan’s centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly but fell short of a majority. The party subsequently formed a coalition government with several smaller parties. PTI's ideology centres on populism, welfarism, egalitarianism and Islamic democracy.
Imran Khan could not complete his term as he lost a no-confidence vote in April 2022, resulting in his ousting as Pakistan's prime minister. Later that same year, Khan was targeted in an assassination attempt during a protest march against the government.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is a centrist party led by three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who could not compete in the 2018 general election as he was sentenced to 10 years in prison just before the election. PML-N took control of the government after the impeachment of Imran Khan in April 2022, and Nawaz’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif became the Prime Minister. During his 16-month tenure before handing power to a caretaker government to prepare for the upcoming elections, he faced challenges of hyperinflation and widespread protests led by PTI.
The other main contestant is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by its young Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari. The party’s ideology is centred around Islamic democracy, social democracy, and progressivism.
The other smaller players include the centre-left, The Awami National Party (ANP); Social liberal, Muhajir nationalist, and secularist political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P); right-wing religious Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, and right-wing Islamic fundamentalist Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) party.
The Baloch National Movement has urged the Baloch people to boycott the upcoming elections in Pakistan.
“Your vote would betray the thousands of Baloch mothers who have lost young sons to the cruel and oppressive state,” the party said in a pamphlet on Friday.
— Balochistan Times (@BaluchistanTime) February 2, 2024
Repressions and judicial harassment against the PTI
There is strong support for Imran Khan in Pakistan, and independent surveys on YouTube have indicated a potential major win for the PTI. Fearing his return with a simple majority, the court decided to ban his election symbol — a cricket bat — based on the allegation that PTI didn't conduct democratic party elections. As a result, all PTI candidates now have to run as independent candidates, utilizing amusing election symbols such as Brinjal, Urinal, and Bed.
In a mockery of justice, former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife were sentenced to seven years in jail on February 3, 2024, for violating Islamic marriage laws. This unprecedented move to push him out of the race for power has turned Pakistan into an international laughingstock.
Academic and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said:
Illustrating the Pakistani military's determination to sideline Imran Khan on whatever absurd ground that it can, he and his wife are given seven-year prison sentences on the pretext that they didn't get married the right way. https://t.co/V4eeALLejw
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) February 4, 2024
While the country grapples with terrorism, the potential threat of bankruptcy, and an economic meltdown, the establishment's choice to target popular leaders in such a manner doesn't surprise many, particularly given its history of such tactics.
Beginning in early 2023, the Shehbaz Sharif government launched a crackdown on Imran Khan and leaders of the PTI party, who were advocating for early elections as a way to come back to power. The country experienced widespread protests in May 2023, triggered by Khan's arrest on corruption charges, leading to significant destabilization.
On August 5, 2023, Imran Khan was arrested again after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) pronounced him guilty of corrupt practices. Despite the Islamabad High Court ordering his release in August 2023 by suspending his trial, Khan remained detained on various other charges.
Social media and internet shutdowns
The PTI is prohibited from running election campaigns on TV, and mentioning Imran Khan's name is banned in Pakistan. Despite these restrictions, PTI, with its robust presence on social media, is making efforts such as organizing social media rallies and utilizing AI technology. Many middle-class individuals sympathetic to the PTI are creating songs and contributing funds to support its election campaigns on platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.
Several times during PTI's “virtual” election rallies in January 2024, millions of Pakistanis could not access YouTube, Facebook, X, Instagram and other social media apps due to apparent internet shutdowns, while the government labelled these as technical glitches. The Human Rights Council of Pakistan condemned these moves:
Such a ban on social media is tantamount to restricting freedom of expression. We strongly condemn this move
Human rights council pakistan #hrc_Pakistan #Election2024 #HumanRights #FreedomOfSpeech #socialmedia @UNinPak @InternationalOb @_FAFEN @ECP_Pakistan https://t.co/pmCXNFKsxl
— Human Rights Council of Pakistan (@HRCPakistan) January 20, 2024
There are reports of a possible internet shutdown in Pakistan on February 7 and 8, 2024, aimed at spreading panic and chaos and stopping the flow of information. While the government denied it again, recent internet blockages have already caused huge economic losses in the country.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has initiated a text message service enabling individuals to determine their respective constituencies. They have also established an active WhatsApp helpline to facilitate citizens in promptly registering election-related complaints.
Khan mentioned in a recent interview about the need for free and fair elections in Pakistan and asked for voter support.
If Pakistan’s elections are held under the current circumstances, “they would be a disaster,” the former prime minister warns. “The only viable way forward for Pakistan is fair and free elections,” he argues in a guest essay https://t.co/rflLNeAodb
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) January 30, 2024