Pakistan’s political dynasties fight for control in Imran Khan’s absence

Analysts say pre-election manoeuvring amounts to some of the most overt manipulation of politics by the army in years

Pakistan’s leading political dynasties are poised to retake control of the government in elections this week after authorities crushed the party of jailed ex-prime minister Imran Khan, sparking some of the worst turmoil in the country’s recent history.

The general election on Thursday will pit the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) of three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif, who has returned to Pakistan from four years of self-imposed exile, against political scion Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is also fielding candidates. But the populist former cricket star’s party has been severely weakened by a crackdown orchestrated by the military, which controls many political decisions behind the scenes in the nuclear-armed country of 240 million people, after Khan led a vocal campaign against the generals.

“If one were to have free and fair elections, Imran Khan would win by an absolute landslide,” said Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the New Lines Institute think tank in Washington and a former adviser to Khan, who said the election was “about the erosion of democracy and the military consolidating its power even further”.


Khan, who was removed by parliament in a no-confidence vote in 2022 and was widely considered the favourite to return to power, was sentenced to three multi-year prison terms last week on allegations ranging from leaking state secrets to getting married illegally.

He denies all of the charges against him, but remains in jail, and is ineligible to contest the vote under a separate corruption charge. Authorities have also detained hundreds of PTI leaders and their supporters and have in effect barred the party from openly campaigning.

By contrast Sharif, who was convicted of corruption in 2018 and who analysts say is most likely to head the next government, has had his own legal woes eased by favourable court decisions.

Last month, the supreme court overturned a lifetime ban on people with criminal convictions from contesting elections, a decision widely seen as paving the way for Sharif to return to power.

Analysts warned that the pre-election manoeuvring amounted to some of the most overt manipulation of Pakistan’s politics by the army in years, and risked increasing support for Khan while leaving the incoming government unpopular and weakened before it had a chance to take office.

“There’s trust deficit, there’s polarisation and already there is a widely held view that the process is flawed and there’s no transparency,” said Huma Baqai, a Karachi-based political commentator.

Pakistan’s caretaker government, which has been in power since August to oversee the polls, has defended the preparations, with information minister Murtaza Solangi on Saturday promising “to ens­ure peaceful, free and fair elections”.

The PML-N and PPP make up a political old guard that dominated Pakistan’s politics before the rise of Khan, who served as prime minister from 2018 until he was removed from office in 2022.

The two established parties then formed an unpopular coalition government led by Sharif’s brother Shehbaz that was beset by PTI-led protests and an economic crisis marked by runaway inflation and eroding standards of living.

Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, hopes to become the nation’s leader for the first time after serving as foreign minister under the recent coalition.

National public opinion data is scarce, but a Gallup Pakistan survey in December in Punjab, the country’s largest province, found 34 per cent of respondents planned to vote for the PTI. Support for the PML-N had climbed to 32 per cent, however, up from 24 per cent in March. The PPP were front-runners in the smaller province of Sindh.

Whoever comes to power next faces a formidable to-do list. Pakistan narrowly avoided default last year thanks to a $3 billion (€2.8 billion) emergency rescue loan from the IMF agreed in June.

But that package will end in April, meaning that the new government will quickly need to go back to the IMF for further support, which will probably be contingent on unpopular austerity measures.

Such steps, analysts said, would require a popular mandate which the upcoming elections are unlikely to provide.

“One party is completely forced out. The others are saying what they have said before. They have nothing new to offer,” said Jamil Khan, a farmer in Punjab province. “Elections will only give power once again to politicians who will misuse it.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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