Pakistan prepares for pivotal election as one of the leading candidates serves jail time
Pakistan heads to the polls Thursday with one of the leading candidates languishing in prison as some reports claim that voter enthusiasm is lacking among the country’s nearly 128 million voters.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, founder of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been barred from contesting the national parliamentary elections. Khan was ousted as the country’s 22nd prime minister after a no-confidence vote in April 2022. The former cricketer-turned-politician is currently serving more than 30 years in jail. Three out of Khan’s four sentences were delivered last week. Khan has been imprisoned since August 2023.
Khan’s party has raised fears of pre-poll rigging, something seemingly shared by voters. A recent Gallup poll revealed 70% of Pakistanis lack confidence in the honesty of their elections. The current election cycle has been marred with violence and harassment, casting a long shadow over the proceedings.
Forty-four political parties are to compete for a share of the 266 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The newly elected parliament will then choose the country’s next prime minister.
Despite many surveys having Khan as the favored leader, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to return to power. Like Khan, Sharif is no stranger to the military establishment’s wrath and legal cases, which prematurely ended his past three terms as prime minister. Sharif, 74, had his last premiership cut short in 2017 over corruption allegations.
As a politician, Khan has been known to advocate for liberal ideas while simultaneously catering to Islamic principles and sentiments. During his tenure, Pakistan witnessed a notable surge in Islamist militancy and the fortification of positions held by religious radicals.
Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) took control of the country under his brother’s leadership in 2022. At the time, Sharif had exiled himself abroad to avoid being jailed at home.
The PML-N has been campaigning largely on Pakistan’s dire financial situation. The country faced the threat of default last June and is suffering from rising poverty levels. The International Monetary Fund has warned of persistent inflation hovering around 24% this year.
A third major party and PML-N ally, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), is unlikely to garner enough support to secure the premiership. However, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari still stands a chance to be a part of a coalition government under Sharif.
Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari, a former cabinet member and adviser to Khan, told Fox News Digital that Khan is wrapped up in more than 190 cases. Bukhari said all charges are politically motivated to keep Khan out of the election. Khan’s PTI party alleges a coordinated effort to obstruct their participation in the elections. ‘Draconian’ measures against the party include arrests, home raids, and internet disruptions and freezes, Bukhari said.
Government suppression has led to numerous detentions and heavy-handed tactics have forced PTI leaders to abandon the party. The United Nation’s leading human rights body recently warned of a ‘pattern of harassment’ against members of Khan’s party.
A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Office has urged Pakistani authorities to ensure a free and fair election. In an effort to uphold this standard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that there will be as many as 92 international election observers. These observers will include European Union members and several foreign embassies.
Both the military and Pakistan’s caretaker government have denied suppressing Khan or the PTI, despite the party’s complaints of being marginalized and muzzled. Nonetheless, the PTI has pressed on, even leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) in its strategy.
With Khan confined in isolation, his party has heavily relied on social media. The PTI party’s Instagram, X and TikTok accounts boast several million followers, outstripping Pakistan’s two other main parties combined. The party has utilized generative AI to create Khan-approved content; Khan’s preliminary AI-generated speech debuted at a first-ever virtual rally.
Bukhari says the party’s strategic use of ‘social media seems to be doing the trick.’ The PTI has also cautiously and quietly been conducting covert canvassing operations to avoid further crackdowns. The PTI has stayed steadfast in the face of adversity and is ‘hopeful to scoop an easy win,’ Bukhari told Fox News Digital.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.