Pakistanis went to the polls today, February 8, 2024 for a parliamentary election marked by violence, concerns about manipulation and the government's controversial decision to cut mobile internet across the country. This news caused a barrage of indignation throughout one of the most populous countries in the world.
The Ministry of the Interior announced shortly after the opening of polling stations that mobile internet was "temporarily suspended" throughout the country "for security reasons". The announcement came just a day after a bomb attack near the candidate's office killed 28 people in Balochistan province.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks. Pakistan and Iran have been arguing over the province of Baluchistan for many years, and in recent months the border clashes have intensified. NetBlocks, an organization that monitors cyber security and internet governance, described the current blackout in Pakistan as one of the most severe and widespread they have documented in any country, calling it a "fundamentally anti-democratic" practice.
Something that no one has done in modern history during an election. With a population of 240 million, Pakistan, the fifth most populous country in the world, elects 336 members of its federal parliament and renews provincial assemblies.
About 128 million registered voters cast their ballots under the watchful eye of over 650,000 security personnel deployed throughout the country. This is a very important and complex event to create and control in a huge country like Pakistan.
However, the fairness of the election has already been called into question. Popular former prime minister Imran Khan, 71, sentenced to three separate prison terms for corruption, treason and illegal marriage, was barred from participating.
Observers believe the military may be backing Nawaz Sharif, 74, who could be elected to lead the country for a fourth term. Otherwise, whoever has the support of the army usually wins elections in the countries of this region.
Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has also been weakened by arrests and forced retreats, hampering its ability to campaign effectively. Dozens of its candidates were disqualified, while others were only allowed to run as independents.
The PTI has condemned the "non-elections" but refuses to boycott them. She expressed concern about her supporters not being able to vote freely and urged them not to wear party colours. After Khamosen Khan, his party colleagues and sympathizers suffered persecution and various tortures.
The election campaign was particularly challenging, reflecting the deep disillusionment of many Pakistanis. According to a Gallup poll, 70% have no confidence in the integrity of elections. This poll speaks volumes for the democratic backsliding in a country long ruled by the military, but which has shown progress since 2013, when it experienced its first transition from one civilian government to another.
While the military has always had significant influence, even under civilian rule, observers believe it is interfering more openly in these elections. Khan, who initially had the support of the military when he was elected in 2018, is now directly opposing them.
He accuses them of orchestrating his removal as prime minister in 2022 and of being responsible for his legal problems. This further weakened his position, and the party can be said to be destroyed, even though it will somehow participate in the elections.
His downfall benefited Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan in October after four years in exile in London. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader on his return overturned his previous corruption convictions. He is currently enjoying popularity in Pakistan, but when you have 128 million registered voters, no one can say with certainty that he is the favorite.
Although the PML-N appears to be the favorite in the election, its outcome could depend heavily on the response of the voters, especially among the youth.
In a country where 44% of the electorate is under the age of 35, Khan enjoyed huge popularity in 2018, especially among young people yearning for change after decades of dominance by corrupt, large family dynasties. Although his four years in power have not been exceptional, with a struggling economy, stifled opposition and weakened media, many young people believe the former cricket star deserves another chance.
An absolute majority may be an elusive goal for the PML-N, which means it will likely need to form a coalition. These elections are also crucial for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). At 35, he needs to show he has the potential to succeed his mother, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
Bhutto is one of the most famous female politicians of the 2000s and Bilawal has a difficult task for him. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state strategically located between Afghanistan, China, India and Iran, faces numerous challenges that have intensified over the past year.
Security has worsened, especially since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. The country's economy is struggling with massive debt and inflation of nearly 30%. The next government faces a difficult task if they want the progress of their country. Regardless of the election results, the longevity of the next government will be questionable.