More than 105 million Pakistanis are eligible to vote on July 25 for a new lower house of parliament, and, in doing so, usher in a new prime minister – an office whose term no elected representative has been able to complete.
Pakistan is set to hold general elections on July 25 at a time of growing security risks and political instability surrounding the ouster and conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif, whom the courts also removed as the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was arrested on July 13, over corruption charges in the Panama Papers case and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Tensions between the PML-N and the country’s powerful military have also increased ever since Sharif was ousted by the supreme court.
Less than a week to the elections, the country suffered a string of attacks on politicians and elections rallies that left 173 people dead.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is expected to be PML-N’s main challenger in what could be the country’s second democratic transition.
What are people voting for?
Pakistan is an Islamic parliamentary republic with a bicameral legislature. The federal government operates from Islamabad; the head of the government is the prime minister. Each of the four provinces is governed by a chief minister who is the head of the provincial assembly.
Just over 105 million Pakistanis are registered to vote for a member of the National Assembly and a member of the provincial legislature from their respective constituencies. The party with the most seats would nominate a prime minister.
The lower house of parliament or the national assembly has 342 seats. But not all are open to direct election; some are reserved for women and religious minorities. A total of 137 out of the 272 directly elected seats is required for a governing majority.
There are four provinces represented in the national assembly: Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan as well as two territories: the capital Islamabad (three seats) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas pr FATA (12 seats).
A bill was passed in March 2018 to merge the semi-autonomous northwestern tribal region FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, integration is most likely still some years away.
Punjab, the largest province by population, has 148 seats, Sindh 61, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 35, and Balochistan 14.
Religious minorities have 10 reserved seats for them and women have 60. With every 4.5 directly-elected seats in parliament, political parties get one seat reserved for women and with 27.2 seats, one for minority representatives.
However, women and people from other religions can also contest the general seats.
The current prime minister of Pakistan is former chief justice Nasirul Mulk in a caretaker capacity until a new government takes over.
The president is elected by the parliament for a five-year term.
Who are the Pakistani voters?
In a country of 208 million, 106 million are registered to vote. Just over 44 percent or 47 million of the eligible voters are women.
Registration has been made easy over the years. Anyone with a computerised national identification card (NIC) is automatically registered and can verify their status by texting the Election Commission of Pakistan.
To register to vote, Pakistani residents can fill out the relevant form and submit it to an ECP display centre with a copy of their NIC.
So who are the political heavyweights?
Although only a handful of political parties are household names, there are 120 registered with the ECP. Prior to each election, the ECP weeds out parties and candidates and then assigns the former a symbol.
From ostriches to huqqahs, the candidates' symbols provide a rich source of campaign material. For example, Nawaz’s tiger symbol has been the object of a great many puns and insults.
These are the parties expected to dominate the election:
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), now led by Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif.
PML-N won the 2013 election giving Nawaz a third term though he did not manage to complete any of his three stints in office.
Shehbaz became president of the PML-N after his brother was ousted. Although he occupies a key position in politics, having spent more than 10 years as chief minister of Punjab province, he is better known as a capable administrator who changed the face of Lahore.
With his brother in jail and in direct conflict with the military and judiciary, Shehbaz is tasked with leading the party out of a crisis and into another term.
Shehbaz is contesting his home base, Lahore, and is also taking his chances in Karachi, a megacity of nearly 15 million people.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), co-founded by Imran Khan.
Imran Khan’s party has governed the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since 2013, but has long had to settle for a handful of seats nationally. The party’s leader, a legendary cricketer who decided to try his hand at politics after cricket and philanthropic initiatives, has acted mostly as the political opposition at the national level for the past several years.
His party’s social media presence mobilised the previously disenfranchised youth vote for the 2013 election and its supporters see hope in its anti-corruption agenda. Khan was one of Nawaz’s most vocal opponents and started rallying for his disqualification over corruption soon after the 2013 election.
However, Khan is widely criticised over his repeated calls for talks with the Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest attacks on Pakistani soil, including during the last and upcoming election. This stance resulted in some calling him "Taliban Khan."
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which was founded by Zulfikar Bhutto.
Led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the party has ruled Sindh for 10 years. The Bhutto family has often dominated Pakistani politics since the 1960s. The party’s members say it will focus on tackling extremism and intolerance.
Bhutto’s father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, spent over 10 years in jail on charges of corruption and murder, though he was never convicted of any of the offences.
His mother, two-time former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on a campaign trail in 2007 while his grandfather Zulfikar, also a former prime minister, was hanged in 1979 after a military coup.
Zardari was also thought to have been integral in the country’s first democratic transition of power in 2013, after his government completed its term although some believe Zardari has been building ties with the military.
(Read more about Pakistan’s history of interrupted governance here)
Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM), founded by Altaf Hussain.
The MQM has dominated Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, since the 1980s.
Hussain has lived in self-exile in London for over 20 years after a government investigation in Karachi over terrorist and criminal elements.
The party’s top leaders, including Hussain, have been accused in 68 cases of murder, 30 cases of attempted murder and 10 cases of kidnapping. Hussain alone has been accused in 31 murder cases.
Analysts and commentators say that even from exile in London, Hussain controls the city through a powerful network.
In the last elections, the MQM won 16 of Karachi's 20 seats, and critics say they were aided by a campaign of intimidation and violence.
Hussain has denied charges in the past of exhorting his supporters to violence and has said hundreds of MQM members have been arrested and killed in extrajudicial operations.
In 2016, MQM leaders in Karachi announced a split from Hussain and his inner circle in London amid infighting and a leadership struggle, leaving the party in disarray with three competing factions.
One spin-off, the Pak Sarzameen Party, is led by former Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal who is also accused of ties with the military establishment.
MQM has formed two coalition governments, one with the PPP and one with PML-N, but withdrew from each.
What is the role of the military?
The run-up to the election has been dominated by allegations that the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its history, has been attempting to destabilise the ruling PML-N and pave the way to power for parties it sees fit, including Khan’s PTI.
The military has directly interfered with elections, a senior journalist in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TRT World, adding it also “has made some candidates change parties.” Many candidates who have a good chance of winning in their constituency have been forced by the military to join the PTI, and those who refused, were punished, the journalist said.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has raised several red flags, including allegations that members of the PML-N were "being pressured to switch political loyalties," while some of Nawaz’s candidates were being asked to step down.
Nawaz and the party have accused the military of interfering in politics and fabricating the charges.
Justice Shaukat Siddiqui recently accused Pakistan’s foremost intelligence agency of colluding with the judiciary to keep Sharif and his daughter, who has also been arrested, behind bars until at least after the elections.
But the military has denied all claims and has asked for a court investigation into Siddiqui’s accusations.
Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan has been requested to initiate appropriate process to ascertain the veracity of the allegations levelled against state institutions. pic.twitter.com/wiruWYNZre— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) July 22, 2018
Press freedom issues
Concerns have also been expressed over the press's ability to cover the elections.
Traditionally, Pakistan has enjoyed a high degree of press freedom, but pressure from the military to tone down coverage it doesn't like is increasing according to observers.
Geo TV, Pakistan's most popular TV channel and part of the Jang Group was taken off air in April 2018 "as part of the military's efforts for it to toe the line," TRT World was told.
Sale of the group's newspaper was suspended and only resumed after the Jang Group agreed to a set of conditions on what to publish and air, or not, the same senior journalist said.
Pakistan’s influential Engish-language Dawn newspaper was “punished” for publishing stories critical of the military, according to the same source.
Aliya Iftikhar, an Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told TRT World the CPJ has documented that media have not been able to operate freely.
“The CPJ has documented a number of cases of press freedom violations, from journalists being harassed, abducted, and attacked, to the army spokesperson accusing journalists of sharing anti-state and anti-military propaganda, and news distribution being restricted,” Iftikhar said.
She added that Pakistan’s military has interfered with the media and there have been attempts to intimidate those who have spoken against them.
Why is judicial independence in question?
Pakistan’s judiciary is also an extremely important factor in the July 25 election. The judicial system consists of the superior (or higher) judiciary and the subordinate (or lower) judiciary. The supreme court is the apex court in the system’s hierarchy.
Supreme court Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar recently said the country’s judiciary was independent and urged judges to make decisions according to the law and not their own preferences.
Since 2007, the upper judiciary has sometimes been seen as a crusader with a mission which can range from taking independent action on issues such as hospital hygiene to cases of violence. However, it is also currently being perceived by some as sympathetic to the military establishment’s political agenda.
Iftikhar said that the judiciary is not taking a lead in attacks against the press, but it’s also failing to defend press freedom.
“The judiciary has the power to take suo moto notice on issues, which it has done regularly this year, but it has failed to take notice of the distribution restrictions against Dawn and Geo TV or other press freedom violations,” she said.
The judiciary has also served “several media houses and journalists with contempt of court notices, which exacerbates a climate of censorship. The judiciary could and should be a much stronger protector of the media,” Iftikhar added.
The chief justice has become “a pawn in the hands of the military. He does what the army wants him to do,” the senior journalist interviewed by TRT World said
“The judiciary is not challenging any of the military's actions,” the journalist added.
What are the possible coalition outcomes?
Polls suggest the election will see Imran Khan's PTI and the incumbent PML-N emerge as the two biggest parties, but with neither able to govern without a coalition.
In the case of a minority government, an alliance of religious parties, the MQM, and the Pak Sarzameen Party are expected to come into play to help form a government.
The PPP's Bilawal, who is facing his first electoral battle, could join forces with the PML-N or PTI if either fails to win an outright majority. But this would require the PPP to sit with its traditional foes.
Instead of joining a government and compromising, the PPP could stay in opposition.
What happens on election day?
The election campaign has seen a deadly string of attacks targeting political rallies and candidates. As recently as July 22, a PTI politician died in a bomb blast claimed by the Pakistan Taliban.
On July 13, a suicide bomber hit an election rally of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) Balochistan Awami Party in Mastung in the southwestern province of Balochistan, killing 149 people and injuring more than 180.
The attack came three days after a suicide attack on a political gathering in Peshawar which killed an Awami National League candidate and at least 19 others. The same day a bomb attack on a rally in the northern town of Bannu killed at least four people.
There are fears of violence on election day too. The election commission said it will deploy over 371,000 security personnel outside as well as inside polling stations. But an unintended consequence could be voter intimidation, a criticism raised by Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.
Of most concern is a notice issued this month, in which the ECP give soldiers the authority of a “magistrate,” to hold on-the-spot trials of anyone breaking election laws and sentencing them.
In one scenario, those found guilty of the offence of “corrupt practice” could be imprisoned for up to six months.
“It is a new first,” Farhatullah Babar, a lawmaker from the PPP, told Reuters on July 20. “Governance, society and politics have already been militarised dangerously.”
Nonetheless, on election day, tens of millions of Pakistanis will go to the polling stations where they are registered, have their identities verified, and vote for their preferred candidates in an exercise of personal rights and universal suffrage in a vibrant and combative democracy.