240 million inhabitants, but only one conceivable election result: former politician Sharif is ready. Popular former Prime Minister Imran Khan is not allowed to contest.

Pakistani protesters holding a poster of politician Imran Khan

Supporters of unelectable Imran Khan's PTI party demonstrate with a photo of him behind bars in Peshawar on January 29. Photo: Hussain Ali/Zuma Press/imago

MUMBAI | taz | The electoral campaign began months late. The mood is depressed. Although the times are historic: on Thursday a civil parliament will be elected for the third consecutive time. There are 128 million registered voters, nuclear power Pakistan has more than 240 million inhabitants. The winner of the election is considered a foregone conclusion: Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former prime minister and last deposed by the Supreme Court in 2017, is about to take office for the fourth time after his return from exile.

“I have always supported the Sharifs,” says Farah Ali, 30, from the megacity of Rawalpindi, near the capital. But this time he's not sure who he wants to vote for, the office assistant says. In any case, the poorest population is left empty-handed. The establishment always plays the main role and whoever comes to power always needs the support of the military.

Nawaz Sharif is a prime example of this. His supporters are betting that the 74-year-old, as an experienced politician, will be able to lead Pakistan out of the crisis. During the election campaign he promised jobs, lower food prices and free basic electricity supplies.

As a result of the demand for debt restructuring from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), prices had to increase significantly: not only are there a lack of financial resources, but also availability of electricity even for the richest. Current inflation also threatens to plunge the lower middle class into poverty.

Sharif's imminent return does not mean a long-term liberation of the country from military control, nor the end of the massive influence of the political dynasties that have ruled Pakistan for almost half a century. Sharif himself belongs to an influential family that leads the conservative PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League). He is trying to win at the polls against the PPP (Pakistani People's Party), led by the Bhutto family.

No chance for former Prime Minister Imran Khan

In fact, one of the most popular candidates would be jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The former cricket star, whose PTI (Pakistan Justice Movement) party won the last elections in 2018, is excluded from the elections this time. This fuels accusations of electoral manipulation. The 71-year-old, who lost his position in 2022 and went on trial in 2023, was sentenced last week to several long prison terms, including for corruption, alleged leaking of secret documents and illegal marriage, after his last wedding. illegal.

In Pakistan's last election in 2018, Khan was still in favor with the military. After his victory, the populist promised to stop terrorism and strengthen the economy. Instead, he continued to concentrate power within himself. Recently, he began to criticize the military more and more clearly, thus angering the political brains of the world's fifth most populous country.

In April 2022, he was removed by a parliamentary vote of no confidence and replaced by a coalition government led by Nawaz Sharif's younger brother Shehbaz, who had occupied the fort during Nawaz Sharif's exile. The Sharifs prevailed with the support of the elites. The Bhutto family also participated and represented the foreign minister in the hope of having a political voice.

Khan's arrest sparked protests across the country. Numerous supporters were arrested for their alleged involvement in attacks on military installations. Khan was about to divide the army into two sides.

The cricket bat as an electoral symbol

Khan's PTI now accuses the authorities of denying them a fair participation in the elections. Experts still assume that the PTI still has appeal. Many young Pakistanis support the PTI, says Farhan Zaheer of the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University. They were dissatisfied with the treatment given by the military. “Therefore, there is a lot of frustration,” Zaheer told taz. The party “could establish itself as a respectable opposition party.” If the discontent of the population does not have a too negative impact on electoral participation.

However, the PTI lacks its electoral symbol – the cricket bat that many associate with Khan. Many PTI candidates will formally contest as independent candidates. But that is not an obstacle, says Zaheer, describing PTI supporters as tech-savvy and well-informed. Laraib, 29, from Lahore in Punjab, has not yet ruled out the PTI: “I will vote for your party's candidate,” he says.

One thing will be crucial: “Whoever forms a strong government in the largest state of Punjab will also form a strong government in Pakistan,” says expert Zaheer. Currently, it is more likely that Nawaz Sharif can do this. Both the army and Sharif depend on each other. However, this pact poses a high risk for Sharif: all of his previous terms ended prematurely after his relations with military leaders broke down. No elected government in Pakistan has ever served a full five-year term.

Evidence of electoral manipulation

However, the military is interested in maintaining a civilian government. In preparation for the elections, a military-affiliated interim government took power in the summer of 2023. At the time, Nawaz Sharif was preparing to return after years of exile in London. He was acquitted of corruption charges just in time for the election and is now running for his Muslim League.

Meanwhile, there are increasing signs of electoral manipulation by the military. The government is restricting the Internet in the crisis region of Balochistan and blocking news websites. Candidates of the opposition PTI face harsh repression and street protests are being suppressed, observers say.

Imran Khan, who cannot speak in public due to his imprisonment, has become a symbol against the political establishment. That does not promise times of tranquility. Pakistan needs a stable government. Not only to address the current conflict with Iran, but also to ensure continued financial aid and investments. Last summer, Pakistan was able to avoid national bankruptcy thanks to a $3 billion IMF bailout package. Lender support expires in March.

Collaboration: Annam Lodhi, Islamabad