Political: Pakistan will go to the polls on 25 July 2018 to elect a new National Assembly. There is a total of 342 seats to be filled. 272 are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting, while 60 seats are reserved for female candidates and 10 for ethnic and religious minority groups. Both sets of reserved seats are allocated using proportional representation with a five per cent electoral threshold, based on the number of seats won rather than votes cast. A party needs to carry 137 seats to win a majority in the National Assembly.
The election period has seen the sentencing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, barring him from politics; he claims this to be a conspiracy. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), currently leads the government and will go up against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and a host of smaller parties.
The election may mark only the second democratic transfer of power in the nation’s history. Pakistan will also be undertaking provincial elections on the same date. A combined total of more than 12,000 candidates have been registered for both the national and provincial votes, with 105 million Pakistanis eligible to vote at 85,307 polling stations.
The corruption scandal involving Nawaz Sharif hangs over this election. The former Prime Minister has been sentenced to 10 years in prison (and his daughter to seven years) and a $10.5 million fine in a case relating to the ownership of four apartments in the upmarket area of Park Lane in London, United Kingdom. The 2016 release of the “Panama Papers”, showed that the Sharif family secured a $13.8 billion loan using the apartments as collateral, while not naming Sharif himself specifically. The anti-graft court in Pakistan asserts that the apartments were acquired through corrupt means. Sharif, in London at the time of publication, has alleged that the trial was politically-motivated, with the judiciary and military working together to keep him from returning as Prime Minister after he was dismissed in July 2017. When the Supreme Court removed him from office last year, they claimed that Sharif had been dishonest to Parliament, to the judiciary, and that he was no longer fit to serve. Sharif, his daughter, and his son-in-law have all been banned from running for office, but they have promised to return to Pakistan to face their punishment. Large pro- and anti-Sharif protests should be expected when they do so.
Corruption has long been ingrained in Pakistan politics, partly explaining the rise of the PTI, which has made anti-corruption a key part of its platform. Led by former cricket player Imran Khan, the PTI has been holding regular demonstrations against the PML-N, alleging corruption in the party. It was also active in leading widespread demonstrations in 2014 over alleged poll-rigging. However, the PTI itself has been dogged by corruption allegations around infrastructure projects in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where it has ruled for the past five years.
Polls for the election suggest that the vote will be tight, with the centre-right PML-N and the centrist (and populist) PTI in a close battle for the greatest share of the vote. The PML-N is currently led by Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shebaz Sharif, who is expected to become the Prime Minister if his party wins enough seats in parliament, though, with party infighting, this is not guaranteed. The younger Sharif was Chief Minister of Punjab, the country’s largest province (in terms of population) and is viewed as a capable administrator. However, his detractors allege that he is involved in the same corruption cases as his brother. The likely third party in the election is the centre-left PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto Zardari is unproven and inexperienced in national politics. The PPP also has a poor record in Sindh where it has been in power for a decade. A coalition of some sorts seems likely unless polls change significantly before the 25 July vote.
Free and Fair?
There are genuine concerns over the freedom and fairness of the election. The military and security services have long held a significant position in Pakistan’s political life. For many years, the country has been run by the military and coups have blighted the country’s past. Nawaz Sharif is not the only entity to accuse the military of working against him and his party. Some media outlets have complained that their circulation or broadcasts are being interrupted and workers harassed if they do not fall in line with the positions of the nation’s intelligence agencies. Intelligence officials have also been accused by a PML-N candidate of coercing him to run as an independent (though his allegation was subsequently withdrawn by the candidate in question). Other officials at the party’s upper echelons have also been banned from running in the election. Pakistan’s human rights commission has criticised the “unprecedented” levels of army interference in the election. Other commentators have highlighted that Imran Khan’s PTI has not been subjected to the same scrutiny as the PML-N by the courts or security services, with many suggesting biases against Sharif and his party.
Security During the Election Period
Pakistan maintains a complex and challenging security profile. The country is beset by militancy, political violence, crime, unrest, challenges in development, and difficult geopolitical relations. During the election period, militancy is set to be the primary threat at rallies, political events, and polling stations. Indeed, on 10 July 2018, a suicide blast killed 20 in Peshawar including a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), a smaller leftist and secular party, Haroon Bilour. Bilour was addressing a campaign event at the time; 62 others were injured in the attack claimed by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistan Taliban). In 2012, Bilour’s father was also killed in a Taliban suicide attack at am ANP event in Peshawar. In a separate case, Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister, was shot in the arm by an Islamist gunman in a suspected assassination attempt in early May 2017. Intelligence reportedly suggests that Imran Khan is a most high profile potential target for assassination during the campaign period, with the ANP and other secularist groups also high on the list. The National Counter Terrorism Authority had only released this warning on 09 July 2018. Due to this, security is set to be tight at all political rallies and the Pakistan army has announced that it will deploy more than 371,000 personnel during the election period to ensure a free, fair, and transparent vote. Militant groups maintain the abilities and inclination to conduct mass casualty terror events in Pakistan, despite the weakening impact of terror attacks since the heights of 2009.
Travellers should prepare for enhanced security measures countrywide during and after the election period. If travelling within the country at this time, it is vital that travellers adhere fully to the instructions of security forces; opposition may result in a forceful response. Political rallies will occur before and after the vote, while protests are likely after the election. All such events should be avoided as violent clashes frequently occur at such events and, as previously mentioned, they can be, and have been, targeted by militant groups.
Travellers should follow local media and use the Solace Secure app to stay up to date with security-related events including political protests. It is also important to maintain a heightened level of situational awareness and implement sensible security provisions.
For most travel to Pakistan, Solace Global would advise clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet and a security-trained driver for all travel. It may also be advised that this level of security is increased depending on the areas of the country to be visited or for specific client profiles. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed for all travel in Pakistan. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.