After months of delays and amidst a backdrop of political, economic, and judicial turmoil, Pakistanis head to the polls on February 8th to elect a new government. The upcoming elections are highly anticipated, yet many voters remain sceptical about whether they will bring about any meaningful change in the country’s trajectory. This sentiment stems from a year marked by political instability, economic hardship, and even legal challenges, leaving many unsure if the ballot box will truly offer a solution.
The election pits seasoned politicians, Nawaz Sharif, seeking a historic fourth term, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, against each other. However, young voters, comprising almost 40% of the population, feel disillusioned and unheard. With Khan sidelined and questions over the process’s fairness, Pakistan faces a difficult path regardless of who wins, as no elected leader has ever completed a full term. Former cricket star and ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, once seen as a frontrunner, is disqualified due to convictions and imprisonment. His absence fuels accusations of pre-poll rigging, while economic hardship and frequent attacks create a sense of despair among many.
In the lead-up to Pakistan’s elections, pre-election peace was shattered by violence in Balochistan and Karachi. Several attacks, including hand grenade throws and explosions, targeted political parties and election offices. This alarming trend continued recently with a bomb blast outside the Election Commission of Pakistan office in Nushki District. Recognizing the seriousness of this incident, the Election Commission has requested reports from local authorities in Karachi to investigate the explosion outside its office there. These events highlight the growing concerns about security and potential voter intimidation surrounding the upcoming elections.
Ten police officers were killed and six others injured in a late-night attack on the Chodwan police station in Dera Ismail Khan on February 05. The attack, which took place three days before the general elections scheduled for February 8, involved over 30 attackers who exchanged fire with police for over two hours. The attackers briefly seized control of the police station before being repelled. Officials said the attackers used hand grenades, which caused many of the casualties. Funeral prayers for the slain officers were held in the evening, attended by senior officials who praised their bravery and vowed that their sacrifices would not be in vain. The attack comes amid heightened security concerns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, but both the Election Commission and security forces have affirmed that the elections will be held as scheduled. Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar condemned the attack and offered condolences to the families of the victims while directing officials to provide the best possible medical treatment to the injured.
In a related development, some conservative Pakistani clerics have issued a Fatwa banning women from campaigning. While Pakistan has a history of female leaders, including Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a new challenge confronts women running for office in conservative areas. In the northern region of Kohistan, three women are running for the Provincial Assembly for the first time. However, their campaigns are threatened by a fatwa, a religious ruling, issued by conservative clerics. Signed by 18 clerics (with estimates ranging up to 400), the fatwa doesn’t explicitly ban female candidates, but it prohibits them and their supporters from campaigning, particularly by visiting voters’ homes, a crucial practice in rural areas like Kohistan. This severely limits their chances of getting elected. Despite vowing to defy the fatwa, the women face the risk of violence and intimidation. This incident highlights the ongoing struggle for political female emancipation in Pakistan, where even basic campaigning rights remain contested in certain regions.
Although all Pakistani women enjoy the right to vote on paper, it is often held back by conservative men in the community, especially in rural areas. According to a report in the Dawn, in the conservative Punjabi village of Dhurnal, for example, 60-year-old former headmistress Naeem Kausir and her daughters long to vote in the upcoming election. However, like all women in the village, they are forbidden by male elders, reflecting a deep-rooted patriarchal system across rural Pakistan. Despite voting being a constitutional right, cultural norms and fear of backlash keep women from the polls.
While the Election Commission vows to invalidate elections where women are barred, progress is slow. In Dhurnal, elders meet quotas by bringing women from neighbouring villages, and those allowed to vote often face pressure to choose a male relative’s candidate. Religious decrees in other areas further restrict women’s participation.
Moreover, religious minorities in Pakistan propose to boycott the forthcoming elections. According to a report in Al Jazeera on February 06, the half million strong Ahmadi community, has choosing to boycott. The decision came after a spike in attacks targeting their members, institutions, and even cemeteries in recent weeks. For many Ahmadias, this escalation follows a brief period of calm after a September meeting, highlighting their belief that the government could intervene if it chose to.
The boycott also stems from decades of entrenched discrimination, including within the electoral system itself. Despite being part of a joint electorate, Ahmadis face a separate voter list solely based on their faith. Along with other instances of discrimination, this has led the community to feel disenfranchised and unwilling to participate in the upcoming elections. As their spokesperson told Al Jazeera, “There is, however, a separate voter list prepared only for Ahmadi citizens due to their faith,” effectively highlighting the exclusion they experience.
The Ahmadiyya community, who identify as Muslim, face a complex and challenging situation in Pakistan. Despite this self-identification, they were officially declared “non-Muslim” through a constitutional amendment in 1974. Since then, they have endured decades of persecution, including hundreds of attacks, murders, and desecrations of their religious sites and even cemeteries. In an attempt to protest this ongoing discrimination, the Ahmadiyya community has largely boycotted elections for nearly 40 years. Their latest boycott announcement was prompted by three separate incidents of grave desecration within just two weeks across different towns in Punjab province, highlighting the continued struggle they face for recognition and basic rights in the country.
The elections face challenges also from various disgruntled communities such as the Baloch. Elections in Quetta face disruption due to potential violence, highlighting the complex political scenario in Balochistan. On February 04, a bomb exploded outside the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) office in Nushki District, Balochistan, though no casualties were reported. Investigations are ongoing. This follows a similar explosion the previous week outside the Karachi ECP office. Separately, several hand grenade attacks injured six people, including PPP workers, across Balochistan, further muddying the pre-election atmosphere. These incidents highlight the growing security concerns surrounding the upcoming elections.
Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, faces a potential security threat during its upcoming elections. Due to intelligence warning of a possible suicide attack by a woman, the Deputy Commissioner has issued a temporary ban on election campaigning by several political parties in the region. This measure aims to prevent “untoward incidents” during the critical dates of February 4th, 5th, and 6th. This heightened security comes amidst tensions surrounding the elections in Balochistan. The local population has expressed opposition and reluctance, with nationalist groups carrying out attacks on party offices and candidates. One such group, Baloch Raj Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), claims responsibility for recent attacks and views the elections as a way for Pakistan to solidify its control over the region. They urge the public to boycott the vote, which they consider a way to legitimize this “occupation.”
The February 8 Pakistani elections also raise concerns about the military’s potential influence through the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a controversial Barelvi religious group known for its anti-minority stance and use of blasphemy accusations. In the 2018 elections, TLP surprisingly garnered 4.1% of votes, primarily in Punjab, impacting traditional parties like Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN. Now, they field candidates across the country, potentially acting as a spoiler again.
This time, with Imran Khan’s party weakened, TLP could influence government formation if they repeat or improve their 2018 performance. The group benefits from Imran Khan’s prosecution on religious grounds, aligning with their core issue of enforcing strict blasphemy laws. However, TLP faces challenges. Their popularity has waned since 2018, partly due to their association with another extremist group and the death of their charismatic leader. Their new leader’s capabilities remain untested. Therefore, whether TLP can swing the elections in the military’s favour remains to be seen. Their influence rests on maintaining their support base and navigating internal and external pressures.
Pakistan’s electoral history has been tumultuous, shaped by periods of civilian rule punctuated by military interventions. Early elections established a federal structure but also sowed the seeds of division, culminating in the secession of East Pakistan. Military figures have often controlled or led the country, while Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif emerged as prominent but unstable civilian leaders in the 1990s. Hope and setbacks defined the early 21st century, with General Musharraf’s regime marked by constraints, followed by a democratic revival culminating in free and fair elections in 2008. Subsequent power transfers solidified the system, and Imran Khan’s 2018 victory on an anti-corruption platform marked a watershed moment. However, his removal through a no-confidence vote in 2022 plunged the country into political uncertainty. The upcoming 2024 elections hold immense significance as Pakistan grapples with economic woes, security concerns, and the yearning for responsive leadership and effective governance.