Pakistan elections: Polarised terrain

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

Pakistan gears up for heated elections in a complex political and economic landscape.

Polarised terrain


Pakistan is gearing up for one of its most polarised elections since its separation from India in 1947 following independence from British occupation in 1946. Pakistani elections have never been without tension, but the 8 February polls stand out as especially intense owing to the challenging economic conditions.

With a population of over 240 million, Pakistan’s economic crunch is fuelled by soaring inflation. Additionally, a third of the country’s agricultural lands remain submerged or damaged since the summer floods of 2022. Meanwhile the political conflict has escalated to unprecedented levels. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan became prime minister following the victory of his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), only to face a vote of no confidence in April 2022 orchestrated by a coalition of traditional parties, leading to his removal from office.

It currently appears as if his opponents, now part of the ruling coalition, are on the brink of victory. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Muslim League Party, is close to winning the premier’s position for the fourth time. Vying for the top government position too are Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the People’s Party, and cleric Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the hardline Pakistani Islamic Scholars Association.

For the past 50 years, Pakistan has grappled with an enduring conflict between the parties of the Bhuttos and Sharifs. Their rivalry seems to have played a role in their collaboration to unseat Khan, an outsider to the traditional political landscape.

In 1979, a coup led by then army chief Mohamed Zia-ul-Haq toppled prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, resulting in Bhutto’s execution in a contentious legal process a year later. Nawaz Sharif too, though not executed, was ousted by a coup led by Pervez Musharraf during his second term as prime minister in 1999. Later, in his third term, following the 2013 elections, Sharif was ousted by a vote of no confidence.

The military’s stance on Islamist parties appears inconsistent, fluctuating with local, regional, and international factors. Islamist parties like the Association of Islamic Scholars, led by Fazal-ur-Rehman, find themselves in a precarious position.

Meanwhile, Khan’s opponents argue that his rise to power was orchestrated by the military establishment, while his supporters counter that the army played a role in his removal. The Pakistani military, however, has consistently denied any involvement in national politics since the end of Pervez Musharraf’s rule in 2009.

Khan is presently behind bars facing corruption charges, including selling gifts to a relative while serving as prime minister, and accusations of violating Islamic marriage laws by marrying his wife, Bushra Bibi Khan, before the end of the prescribed wait following her divorce. Khan was convicted in both cases, and his imprisonment not only bars him from participating in elections but also sees hundreds of members of his PTI party detained.

Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz, Khan’s successor, faced charges of corruption related to concealing millions of pounds sterling and buying luxury real estate in London. However, the court acquitted them of these charges a few weeks ago.

For decades, Pakistan’s development plans have faced obstacles, attributed to corruption within political and social circles, internal conflicts, and heightened tensions in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia. According to the government’s 2023 report, GDP growth remained stagnant at 0.3 per cent, with the agricultural, industrial, and export sectors falling short of their interim targets.

The global economic slowdown, coupled with escalating energy costs resulting from the war in Ukraine, dealt a severe blow to the Pakistani textile sector, which constitutes 60 per cent of exports and employs 20 million workers (40 per cent of the country’s industrial workforce). Pakistan saw massive layoffs as factories grappled with the impact.

Compounding these challenges, the 2020 and 2022 floods disrupted domestic cotton production, and the textile industry faced import difficulties due to the foreign exchange crisis. Political conflicts in the last few years, both in support of and against Khan, further discouraged investors from engaging in the Pakistani market.

“Despite contributing less than one per cent of environmentally polluting emissions, Pakistan finds itself among the countries most profoundly impacted by the adverse effects of climate change,” stated United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during his solidarity visit to Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2022 summer floods.

The melting glaciers in Tibet and escalating monsoon rainfall have submerged over two million agricultural feddans in Pakistan, affecting 33 million people and damaging hundreds of thousands of homes. The provinces of Sindh and Balochistan bore the brunt of the devastation. The 2020 floods damaged the cotton crop, but the unprecedented 2022 floods had a more pronounced impact on food production.

However, the distressing aftermath of the floods does not fully account for the alarming rates of inflation in the country, which, despite Pakistan being a major producer of various food items, soared to over 27 per cent on an annual basis in August; this, despite an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. That surge was driven primarily by substantial increases in fuel prices (petrol, diesel, and gas) and electricity.

Ranking among the largest Islamic countries by population, following Indonesia and Bangladesh, Pakistan exhibits both the advantages and challenges of national diversity, along with sectarian variations.

Comprising a quarter of the population, Shia Muslims are predominantly situated in the Urdu-speaking provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Additionally, the Pashtuns residing in Waziristan, in the northern part of the country, share affiliations with their Afghan counterparts north of the Durand Line, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan advocated for the removal of the British-drawn Durand Line to unite the Pashtun minority in Pakistan with their Afghan brethren. However, Pakistan rejected this proposal.

With Pakistani Pashtuns residing in the northern regions, the concerns of the two nations became intertwined. Peshawar served as a base for Afghan and Arab mujahideen fighting against Soviet presence in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Religious schools in the region, particularly the Deobandi Pashtun institutions, played a crucial role in shaping the Afghan Taliban and their counterparts, the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan has faced allegations from India that it utilised these groups, which it vehemently denies.

During Pervez Musharraf’s rule (1999-2009), the Pakistani Taliban, along with extremist Islamic forces, emerged as significant entities. This period saw an alliance with the US in the war against “terrorism” following the events of 11 September.

Khan’s government reconciled with the Afghan Taliban and recognised them as the ruler of the neighbouring country, following Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces from the country in 2021.

To the east, the Baloch resid; the group also has populations in Iran and Afghanistan. Despite their relatively small numbers in the three countries, the area of Balochistan is large and its coast extends from the southern Arabian Gulf to the Sea of Oman; it includes a variety of minerals suitable for a good mining industry.

With Pakistani Balochistan affected by the 2022 floods, the rebellious movements that Pakistan classifies as terrorist groups could escalate, and Islamabad is waging disciplinary campaigns against the region’s activists, in which hundreds were arrested and dozens killed.

The tension between the Baloch and Iran and escalating tension in Pakistani Balochistan resulted in an exchange of missile attacks between Islamabad and Tehran last month, which many fear will develop into something larger. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India, is currently ruled by the most right wing and extremist government in its history.

The extremist Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is engaged in brutal persecution of Muslims, unprecedented since the birth of their nation in 711 AD.

This persecution puts pressure on Pakistan. Islamists, leveraging the cause of “supporting Muslims in India,” seek to outbid the Islamabad government to maximise their advantages.

In response, Islamabad aligned itself with Beijing, India’s historical rival. Over the past two decades, Pakistan has received substantial Chinese investment and aid, positioning itself as a crucial component of China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative.

China also expanded the Gwadar Port in Balochistan, facilitating the transportation of energy and logistics to China through Pakistan. Beijing is working on establishing a road and railway network connecting Islamabad to the cities of eastern Turkmenistan, and linking with production and consumption hubs in central China.

However, Pakistan and the US share complicated relations, heightening concerns for China and Iran. Pakistan heavily relies on US weaponry, and there exists a longstanding security cooperation that spans 60 years.

The US is apprehensive about the potential deterioration of security and social conditions in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Such a situation could plunge the world into uncertainty, the extent of which remains unpredictable. Despite these concerns, Washington does not provide substantial economic assistance to Islamabad.

While relations with Saudi Arabia in particular and the Gulf in general are positive, Gulf aid is not without conditions. Islamabad has refrained from involvement in the Yemen war alongside the Arab coalition supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government for fear of exacerbating sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan.

Khan’s supporters argue that sidelining a highly popular politician, as indicated by local and international opinion polls, would dampen the electoral atmosphere. This is unlikely to happen, however, given the involvement of hundreds of Khan’s supporters in various election campaigns, which will allow them to secure dozens of seats in the 324-seat assembly, even though the PTI party currently holds more than 16 seats.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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