On July 25, Pakistanis will elect a parliament and provincial assemblies, only the second time in the country's 70-year history that an election occurs after the completion of the assemblies' full five-year term. However, despite that encouraging sign of greater stability, events preceding the elections have raised worrying questions about how durable the stability will be, and about the credibility of the vote itself.
Among the three parties who dominate the polls, the Justice (PTI) grouping led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is emerging as a favorite to form a government after the polls. Although Khan has political support among the masses, his real strength is his alleged backing from Pakistan's powerful security establishment.
Nawaz Sharif, three times prime minister of Pakistan, was Khan's leading opponent. However, he was disqualified by the Supreme Court in August 2016 as prime minister and in July this year he was convicted on corruption charges. Sharif, who used to head the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is now serving a 10-year sentence in Pakistan's infamous prison of Adiyala. He alleged that the judiciary was used by the security establishment to remove him from the electoral battle and claimed that the country's powerful military establishment is clearing the way for Khan, its favored candidate.
Sharif is not the only one who is complaining of alleged injustice. Top legal minds in Pakistan have questioned the grounds on which Sharif was disqualified by the court. Sharif was found guilty of not revealing, in his election nomination forms, salary that he was owed by his son's company in the United Arab Emirates. The court decided this owed salary was an "undeclared asset" and disqualified Sharif for life from politics.
Last week, Justice Shoukat Aziz Siddiqui, a serving judge of Islamabad's High Court, alleged that Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency ISI is putting pressure on judges to secure judgments against Sharif. In response to Siddiqui's allegations, the chief spokesman of Pakistan's army has requested the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court to investigate.
It is not only Sharif who is facing questionable verdicts from the judiciary but also some of his party members. On Saturday, Hanif Abbasi, a PML-N stalwart who was contesting elections in Rawalpindi, was sentenced to life imprisonment and disqualified. There were six other people charged with Abbasi in the case but all were acquitted. This decision by the lower judiciary was once again seen by some as partisan.
The treatment meted out to Sharif and his party workers has started to shift public opinion in his favor, at least in his support base of Punjab. Large numbers of people have appeared at the election rallies of PML-N, whereas Khan's PTI is sometimes facing problems pulling in the crowds in Punjab. Independent pre-election polls carried out in Pakistan show that both PTI and PML-N are neck and neck and the election is too close to call.
Alleged meddling in the election is not the only problem Pakistan is facing. The 2018 elections are proving to be the most violent in recent times. So far, three candidates have been killed in suicide bombings. In one of these attacks, 153 people were murdered by an Islamic State group suicide bomber who targeted an election rally in Mastung district near the Afghan border. Akram Durrani, former Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, survived two assassination attempts during his election campaign. There are concerns that more terrorist attacks may be carried out on Election Day.
If there is no tampering with ballots on the day of the polls, then analysts believe it is likely that a hung parliament may be the result. This will mean a coalition of multiple parties which will be weak and will struggle to take tough decisions.
A hung parliament will also threaten the pace at which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key Belt and Road initiative, will develop. CPEC is a $62 billion Chinese-sponsored economic development plan for Pakistan which was backed by the PML-N from its inception in 2015. If the PML-N is forced out of power and there is a weak government in Pakistan, the CPEC is less likely to find favor.
Finally, if a PTI majority government comes to power amid allegations of election manipulation, the consequences could be very serious. There would be protests in central and northern Punjab, Sharif's support base and Pakistan's most populous areas. A PTI government elected amid questions of impropriety would struggle to last, generating more instability.
Pakistan's political stability depends in no small part on the fair and undisputed conduct of the elections being held on Wednesday.
Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher. Follow him on twitter @iAdnanAamir. Email: Adnan.Aamir@Live.com