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Politics

Pakistan election outlook worries neighbors as military plays hand

Opposition party gains ahead of this month's vote

Supporters of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif protest his 10-year prison sentence. The military is thought to have had a hand in his ouster by the Supreme Court.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- The Pakistan military's quiet support for the leading opposition party ahead of the general election this month is raising concerns that nascent progress on improving relations with India will stall.

The outcome also holds consequences for the country's worsening fiscal situation. Should the July 25 poll produce a political vacuum, Pakistan may become even more reliant on Chinese financing.

The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, is gaining ground ahead of voting for the National Assembly. Poling by local researchers in early July showed the PTI with 30% support and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz with 27%. A recent Gallup poll showed PML-N with 26% support to the PTI's 25%.

The outcome will determine Pakistan's next prime minister following the ouster of Nawaz Sharif.

The PML-N has held power in Pakistan on and off since the 1990s, thrice choosing its Sharif as prime minister. But Sharif was removed from office in July 2017 by the Supreme Court after the so-called Panama Papers revealed the family had undisclosed assets overseas. Last week, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The country now has a caretaker prime minister.

Dimming the party's prospects further are indications that Pakistan's military is supporting the PTI behind the scenes. The military has strong influence over the judiciary, and is thought to be behind Sharif's removal from office.

A PML-N-leaning television network, Geo TV, found its broadcasts suspended in 80% of the country in March after criticizing the military. Interior Minister Ashan Iqbal has denied that the government ordered the broadcasts shut down. Local media suspect the military to be responsible. Sharif said in May that "aliens" -- a coded reference to the military -- were pushing PML-N lawmakers to leave the party or join the PTI.

A PTI victory could have ramifications for Pakistan's improving ties with India. In December 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Lahore for an unannounced summit with Sharif, becoming the first Indian leader to visit Pakistan in about 12 years. Driven by their shared focus on the economy, the leaders sought to put the long-simmering Kashmir dispute to one side and improve overall ties.

But progress faltered soon after the meeting when a Pakistani terrorist group launched attacks in Indian-controlled territory. These were arranged by the Pakistani military to signal disapproval of Sharif's rapprochement with India, according to an Indian government source.

The situation in Afghanistan could also take a turn if the PTI triumphs. Though the Pakistani military is ostensibly working to stamp out terrorism, an Indian security analyst says the Islamic State group has been able to make rapid gains in Afghanistan because of support from the armed forces, who favor political instability in Southeast Asia. Other observers echo this view.

The election comes as debt-laden Pakistan's fiscal situation grows precarious. The construction of a Chinese-funded economic corridor has caused imports to surge. Foreign exchange reserves fell to $9.6 billion in June -- half of their peak in October 2016.

Pakistan received more than $5 billion in Chinese lending in the fiscal year ended June. While some expect the country to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund, greater dependence on Chinese is also a possibility.

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