Widespread allegations that the military is working behind the scenes to swing Pakistan’s election this week in favour of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan are threatening to sully what is only the country’s second democratic transition of power.
The vote on Wednesday is expected to be a two-way race between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), the party headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is now in jail and has for decades had tense relations with the army. “The military has little desire to see the PMLN return to power,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, “and it is willing to engineer actions behind the scenes that undercut the PMLN’s electoral prospects in a big way.”
Members of the PMLN have complained of a campaign of harassment and arrests. Many senior leaders say they have been threatened by the military’s intelligence agencies to force them to join Khan’s party. Criminal cases have been opened against nearly 17,000 party supporters, and corruption investigations launched against several senior party members. Members of another major party, the Pakistan People’s party, also allege military officers have pressured their candidates to switch allegiance.
The country’s leading English-language newspaper Dawn, which is considered sympathetic to the PMLN, says its distribution is being blocked. Many journalists and online activists say they are under pressure to promote the PTI and mute criticism of the army or coverage of the PMLN.
The army has directly ruled Pakistan for about half of its history. But journalists, politicians, analysts and rights activists say this is its most brazen foray into civilian life in recent years. “This will be the dirtiest, most dishonest and rigged election that Pakistan’s beleaguered public has ever faced,” journalist and author Ahmed Rashid said. “There is a growing cacophony of voices from major political parties, human rights groups, academics, civil society groups, and minorities that this will turn out to be a fraudulent election.” The ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, convicted of corruption, returned to the country earlier this month.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, convicted of corruption, returned to the country earlier this month. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images
Sharif was ordered to be jailed in a corruption trial stemming from 2016 Panama Papers revelations that showed he had bought expensive London properties through offshore companies. Sharif and his family have called the proceedings a conspiracy,