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Pakistan election 2024: What are the key issues of South Asian nation as it heads to elect new PM

Pakistan elections: The South Asian nation of 241 million people is reeling from decades-high inflation and an economy that has come to a grinding halt as it navigates a tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout programme.

Edited By: Ajeet Kumar @Ajeet1994 Islamabad Updated on: February 07, 2024 9:52 IST
Pakistan elections 2024: Women supporters cheering up for their leader
Image Source : AP Pakistan elections 2024: Women supporters cheering up for their leader

Islamabad: Pakistan goes to the polls on Thursday with the jailing of popular former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the winner of the last national election, dominating headlines despite an economic crisis and other woes threatening the nuclear-armed country. The South Asian nation of 241 million people is reeling from decades-high inflation and an economy that has come to a grinding halt as it navigates a tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout programme.

Key issues in Pakistan

Islamist militancy is on the rise and relations with three neighbours - India, Afghanistan and Iran - are frayed. But these matters have been mostly absent from the election fray, in which the parties of Khan and Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, are the main rivals.

"This election cycle has had little discussion of issues," said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, currently a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute. "It has been a campaign dominated by personalities."

Millions of supporters of the jailed Khan are looking to rally behind him despite what they call a military-backed crackdown on him and his party. The military wields enormous power in Pakistan but maintains it does not interfere in politics. Analysts say Sharif is being backed by the generals this time after they preferred Khan at the last election in 2018. Both former prime ministers say they were ousted at the behest of the military, which it denies. "There seems to be a clash of victimhood," said Haqqani. "Nawaz Sharif having been victimized from 2017 until 2022 and Imran Khan claiming victimhood after that."

Sharif's party ran full-page advertisements on the front pages of major newspapers hours before campaigning ended on Tuesday declaring him "the PM".

Another contender in the fray is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Zardari. He told a rally in the southern city of Karachi on Monday that if the city voted for his party, he was guaranteed to become prime minister.

But despite being in jail and his party decimated by legal cases, Khan and his candidates, running on independent platforms, remain a force.

Economic crisis and the possibility of hung Parliament 

Most analysts predict that no single party will come out with a clear majority in parliament, which will necessitate the formation of a coalition government. That means an incoming administration's decision-making will be hobbled at a time when swift and decisive policy-making is required to tackle multiple crises. Foremost among them is the economy, with the current short-term IMF bail-out running out in March, and the incoming government needing to negotiate a new extended programme.

But the election rivals have spoken little about that.

"The 'economic programmes' articulated by the three major contenders for power in their respective election manifestos show that none has an actionable short- to long-term strategy to tackle the daunting economic challenges," Pakistan's English language paper Dawn said in an editorial.

Border tensions with India, Iran and Afghanistan

Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert on South Asia security at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, said neither Khan's nor Sharif's candidates had spoken about resurgent violence in the border regions with Afghanistan. Recent tensions with Iran and India were also absent. "Neither political party has offered robust foreign and security policy positions," he noted.

The threat of low participation in the election also looms large, and could further undermine the credibility of the exercise. "Given the current environment and wave of repression across the country, many may not even bother coming out and exercising their right to vote," said Uzair Younis at Washington-based advisory firm Asia Group. "That of course would be a terrible outcome for a country that professes to be a democracy."

Military interference in 'selecting' PM 

Although Asim Munir is not a candidate for the upcoming elections, his role is considered as the most powerful. Pakistan’s military has always cast itself as the ultimate arbiter in key government decisions, though often one behind the scenes. The current army chief, General Asim Munir, a fitness fanatic and former spymaster, is not on the ballot but as the head of military, he still wields huge influence.

Munir has kept a lower profile than his predecessors but has orchestrated military trials for civilians and a crackdown on foreign nationals living in the country illegally. The move, denounced by international and local rights groups, has mainly targeted 1.7 million Afghans living in Pakistan. Munir, who is in his 50s, was also behind a retaliatory airstrike inside Iran in a tit-for-tat series earlier this month that sharply escalated tensions between Tehran and Islamabad.

His uncompromising stance has a profound impact on bilateral relations, political stability and regional security. He also has a personal stake in keeping imprisoned Imran Khan out of the picture. Munir ran the country’s spy agency during Khan’s term in office but was fired without an explanation by the then-premier.

Here are some facts about how the electoral system works in Pakistan

- Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy and voting will take place for seats in the federal legislature, called the National Assembly, and four provincial, or state, legislatures.

- 128 million Pakistanis out of a population of 241 million are eligible to vote - all those above 18. Polling booths are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0400 GMT to 1200 GMT) usually but time can be extended in exceptional individual circumstances.

- On election day, voters will cast their ballots for two legislators to represent their constituency - one federally and the other provincially. There are 5,121 candidates contesting for the federal legislature and 12,695 for the provinces.

- The National Assembly consists of 336 seats - 266 are decided through direct voting on polling day, while 70 reserved seats - 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims - are allotted according to the strength of each party in the house.

- Victorious candidates become members of the National Assembly. Independent candidates have the option to join any party after the elections.

- Once constituted, the National Assembly holds a parliamentary vote to select a leader of the house, who becomes the prime minister.

- A successful candidate must show a simple majority in the house - that is, the support of at least 169 members.

- Once a prime ministerial candidate wins the vote in the National Assembly, they are sworn in as prime minister. The new prime minister picks cabinet ministers, who form the federal government.

- A similar process is followed at the provincial level to pick a chief minister and a provincial government.

(With inputs from agency)

Also Read: Pakistan Elections 2024: From Nawaz Sharif to Bhutto, a look at key candidates and players of February 8 polls

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