The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) yesterday announced a general election for January, almost three months later than scheduled, removing political uncertainty over the timing to help salvage a falling economy.
Elections in the politically and economically troubled South Asian nation were due to be held in November but were delayed due to fresh demarcation of constituencies under a new census.
An ECP statement said the vote will take place late in January after the conclusion of a process that includes filing nomination papers, appeals and campaigning.
Pakistan is currently being run by a caretaker government under interim Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar that is meant to oversee a general election. Originally, elections were to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the lower house of parliament in August.
Kakar, in New York for the annual UN General Assembly, told an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that the process of delimiting constituencies by the Election Commission of Pakistan and public consultations on this would probably take another three, or three and a half months.
“That’s where we are looking for, and probably somewhere by the end of January, we’re going to go and vote for the new government,” he said.
Odds against Khan
The election commission has already questioned the impartiality of the caretaker government led by Kakar, who comes from a pro-military party, saying it appears to be aligned with the opponents of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan.
With the odds heavily stacked against the defiant former premier Khan, the country’s most popular political leader by a country mile according to several opinion polls, it appears unlikely he would be able to contest after being barred from public office for five years after a controversial and hotly disputed corruption investigation.
Asked at CFR if all parties would be able to take part in the election, Kakar said: “I do not have any confusion in my mind, or in the government, that all the parties who are registered with Election Commission of Pakistan are legally, politically, morally, allowed, and they will participate in the political process.”
The powerful armed forces have ruled the country for over three decades of its 76-year history and wield enormous influence in politics, including making and breaking civilian governments.
Election results are rarely accepted across the board in Pakistan and perceptions of bias could cast a further shadow over the credibility of the process.
Despite the delay, the announcement eases political uncertainty about when the polls would be held as the country struggles to stay on a narrow stabilisation path under a $3bn bailout plan by International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Analysts and political parties have been demanding that the elections be held as soon as possible to boost confidence in the ailing $350bn economy, which is currently suffering from high inflation, low growth and a weak currency.
The Asian Development Bank also endorsed this view in a report this week, saying a smooth election process would help bring the economy back on track.
Pakistan’s benchmark index KSE100 shot up more than 550 points immediately following the announcement, closing up 0.7%.
“News on the election is a major positive, which is expected to restore investor confidence in the system,” said Fahad Rauf, head of research at Ismail Iqbal Securities.
Conversely, Pakistan’s dollar-denominated government bonds slipped by as much as 1 cent yesterday after the announcement that the elections will be delayed.
The main contenders
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) will hope to ride on a popular wave and repeat its 2018 victory. But amidst a continuing standoff with the military, the PTI’s prospects hinge on a detente with the generals, which looks unlikely.
There are two other main contenders to lead the next government: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of the last prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 34, the young chairman of the PPP and son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is another key candidate.
Shehbaz Sharif is currently in London consulting with his brother Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former premier, who is expected to return to Pakistan next month following four years in exile after being granted medical bail from his own jail sentence.
But with a corruption conviction against Nawaz still in force, Shehbaz remains a front runner to return to power.
The ECP announcement cheered political analysts and the business community.
“The announcement of a date is a positive and significant sign, however Pakistani politics is so unstable that one can’t predict what will happen after three months,” political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told AFP.
“But all the sufferings of the common people due to inflation and price hikes will have a direct bearing — provided all parties are allowed to campaign and contest elections,” he said. Pakistan Business Forum official Ahmad Jawad told AFP the announcement came as a relief.
“It’s been a demand of the business community to announce the election date to overcome the instability which is eating us like a termite,” he said.
“Pakistan’s economy needs complete political stability.”
Khan’s controversial ouster as prime minister in April last year sparked months of political drama, with the former international cricket star staging a defiant campaign against the powerful military culminating in a major crackdown on his party.
Two normally feuding dynastic parties — the PPP and PML-N — teamed up to form the next government, but cracks are already showing in their shaky alliance and they are likely to be bitter opponents in the next election.
With much of Khan’s PTI leadership in jail, in hiding, or having abandoned the party, it remains unclear how much of a threat they will pose.
Teacher Ijaz Ahmad, 25, said it was vital all parties were allowed to contest the election.
‘Let the people decide’
“It is also important to release all political leaders and let everyone be given a chance to participate in the elections,” he told AFP in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“Let the people decide which party they want to see in power next time.”
The election commission said an official campaign period would last nearly two months.
“The final list of constituencies will be published on November 30. After that, the elections will be held in the last week of January 2024, after a 54-day election programme,” it said in a statement.
Information Minister Murtaza Solangi told private TV channel Dunya: “We will provide all the resources to the Election Commission and ensure that all registered political parties have equal opportunities.” — Reuters, AFP
UNDER A CLOUD: Former PM Imran Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf are currently out of favour with the powerful military despite riding a popular wave.