Tens of millions of Pakistanis will go to the polls on Thursday to vote for a new government amid soaring inflation, rising violence and allegations of fraud.
The election comes almost two years since the previous prime minister, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, was ousted in a no-confidence motion.
Khan was subsequently jailed on corruption charges and banned from running as a candidate.
Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is on the ballot. Many analysts say it is Pakistan’s least credible election yet.
Strict rules on election coverage, including what can be said about the candidates, the campaign and opinion polls, remain in place until the end of voting at 5:00 p.m. local time (12:00 GMT). The results must be published within two weeks.
Up to 128 million people are registered to cast their vote, almost half of them under 35 years of age.
They will choose from more than 5,000 candidates, of which only 313 are women.
Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were considered the two main parties participating in the vote.
However, electing candidates from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has become more difficult after it was banned from using the cricket bat symbol under which all its candidates run. Electoral symbols play a key role in a country where more than 40% do not know how to read.
The PTI alleges that other tactics have been used to prevent its candidates from winning seats, including lockdown, banning rallies and forcing them to go underground.
Khan is serving at least 14 years in prison, having been sentenced in three separate cases in the space of five days last week. He still faces about 170 charges in different cases, his attorneys say. The PTI alleges interference from Pakistan’s powerful military, with whom Khan is said to have fallen out before falling from grace.
But people will be able to vote for Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N, who at the time of the last elections was beginning a sentence for corruption.
The former prime minister was overthrown in a military coup in 1999 and his third term was cut short in 2017, but he recently returned from self-imposed exile and his lifetime ban from holding office, along with his criminal record, was expunged at the end of his term. . last year, allowing him to run for what would be a record fourth term.
However, it is still unclear whether any party can win a majority, which requires 169 seats in the 336-seat National Assembly.
Millions of people have been severely affected by the country’s economic problems, which were exacerbated by the devastating floods of 2022. Inflation is rising and people are struggling to pay their bills.
The increase in violence is also a cause for concern throughout the country.
According to the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), violent incidents increased for the third consecutive year in Pakistan in 2023, with the highest number of deaths recorded, including security forces, militants and civilians, since 2017. .
Officials are also aware that there could be more attacks on the day of the vote.
Border crossings with Afghanistan and Iran will be closed to cargo and pedestrians on Thursday to “ensure complete security” during the elections, a spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry said. Tens of thousands of military troops and paramilitary soldiers have also been deployed to polling stations across the country.
The Election Commission of Pakistan has classified half of the 90,675 polling stations as “sensitive”, meaning there is a risk of violence, or “more sensitive”, indicating a higher risk. The rankings are based on the region’s security situation and history of electoral violence.
Many analysts say that a high turnout will be key to the PTI’s chances. How to address the country’s economic crisis and who to blame will be at the forefront of voters’ minds.