The Pakistani General Election: A Chance To Reform?

With elections offering the possibility to reset the country after six years of turmoil, the new Pakistani government should wait to take immediate action to address urgent issues facing Pakistan.

Pakistan is planning for general elections on February 8th, 2024. It will mark the third consecutive power transfer to civilian governments from 2008. In contrast to the polls in 2018, the election is not going to be won by the promise of change but with practical solutions to urgent economic, political, and security issues that have been steadily worsening since 2022.

A shocking clash of drone and missile attacks between Iran as well as Pakistan on the 16th and 18th of January 2024, which targeted the cross-border militant group, made the news headlines with the prospect of a war between Israel and Hamas creating greater regional instability. Still, it did not cause any disruption to the election process off the track. 

Pakistan’s strongly worded condemnation of the Iranian attack could also serve as an opportunity to remind India of the possible consequences of any breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

A Contested Ballot

The frontrunner for the election is former three-time premier Nawaz Sharif. His capacity to run for office (running with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)) was made possible after his previous corruption verdicts were dismissed. 

Imran Khan was removed as the prime minister in 2022, which is the biggest challenge to the opposition, despite having been barred from running in prison on corruption charges. In the meantime, Khan’s Tehreek-eInsaf (PTI) party was removed from its symbol for campaigning. This cricket bat allows illiterate voters to cast their votes and could force candidates to be independent by using their symbol.

Khan blamed his demise on the military’s power and tacit support for Sharif. As the prime minister, Khan had a rocky relationship with his army in the domestic arena, including the management of the economy, foreign policy stances on Taliban-run Afghanistan, and economic relations with Pakistan’s giant friend, China.

PTI Popularity

The PTI maintains popularity, especially among young voters (18 to 35), who comprise 44.2 percent of the population in 2024). Suppose Sharif’s party cannot gain a clear majority in the National Assembly. In that case, the adverse effects of polarization within the political system will need to be overcome to win the support of other groups. 

However, violent violence has been increasing during the lead-up to the polls. This, along with the risk of a low participation rate (particularly among the 23 million people who have turned the age of voting in the last year) and the spread of online information disinformation as well as legal challenges and horse-trading between parties to form a coalition may compromise the credibility of the vote. It is reported that the US State Department has expressed “concerns” asking for elections that are ‘free and fair’ without violence, fear or harassment.’

The Way Forward

If the Sheriff is elected, the government will face many issues. Apart from addressing Khan’s ongoing political fray from the back, they will also have to deal with reforming the economy that came close to defaulting in 2023, dealing with an increasing threat of insurgents and terrorists, and reviving relations between Pakistan, China as well as China, the US, Afghanistan, and India to ensure that it is in line with its foreign policy and security goals.

The elections in Pakistan offer an excellent chance to improve the stability of Pakistan’s fragile security and political situation; however, in practice, it is only achievable by cooperation with the military’s top leaders.

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