A difficult poll: on Pakistan election

Pakistan’s military-judicial establishment has narrowed the choices before voters

The curtains came down on Pakistan’s election campaign on Monday, ahead of voting on Wednesday. It brought to an end a bitter political fight bloodied by brutal terror attacks, and darkened by the lengthening shadow of the military and judicial establishment. For more than 100 million eligible voters in Pakistan, the responsibility of upholding democracy hangs heavy. They have braved election rallies as terror groups killed dozens of leaders and supporters indiscriminately. Even as the month-long campaign came to a close, a candidate of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was killed in Dera Ismail Khan in a suicide bombing, while another’s convoy was attacked in Bannu. Earlier this month, over 145 people were killed at a rally in one single attack in Balochistan, while a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar killed the popular leader of the Awami National Party, Haroon Bilour. The choice before voters has also narrowed: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and several others have been disqualified from the election process on corruption charges, a move that is seen not so much as the outcome of the natural process of justice but of the growing civil-military divide. Polls put PTI chief and former cricketer Imran Khan slightly ahead of Mr. Sharif’s successor at the helm of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), his brother Shahbaz Sharif — but Mr. Khan also faces an embarrassing controversy on account of his former wife’s tell-all book that portrays him as unstable and dissolute. There were some worries that even the third contender, Pakistan Peoples Party co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto and his father, former President Asif Ali Zardari, could be disqualified over electoral misdemeanours. The mood ahead of the elections has been further vitiated by the rise of extremist and sectarian parties, including one led by 26/11 Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed. These groups may ultimately not fare well in terms of seats, but they have spread pro-jihadi, anti-minority poison through Pakistan’s polity that no political party has dared to contest.

The daunting task for the voter is to elect federal and provincial governments that will deal with the big challenges ahead: to steady an economy being crushed by debt to China and by UN financial strictures, to battle growing divides in society and the overwhelming influence of terror groups, to re-establish disrupted ties with neighbours, and to stave off the increasing military influence in the small space that the civilian leadership had been able to establish for itself. It is doubtful that Pakistan has a candidate or party that can hope to do any, let alone all of the above. The voter must also make her choice under unusual restrictions on the media. Yet, the one reason to celebrate these elections is that they are happening at all, marking only the second civilian-to-civilian electoral transfer in Pakistan’s history.

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