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Pakistan’s 2018 election, explained

The election has been threatened by violence and the looming presence of the country’s military.

Pakistani rally
More than 105 million Pakistani voters will decide the country’s next prime minister on Wednesday, July 25.
SS MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images
Madeleine Ngo covers economic policy for Vox. She previously worked at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pakistani voters will head to the polls on Wednesday to decide who the country’s next prime minister will be, in an election that’s been plagued by controversy and violence.

There’s a lot at stake for Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of more than 193 million people. Whoever ends up winning will take on a faltering economy, threats from domestic terrorism organizations, and a disintegrating relationship with the US.

There’s also the looming presence of the military. The country’s armed forces have directly and indirectly ruled Pakistan since it declared independence from British India in 1947, and have staged several coups to overthrow the government. Some people have even referred to this year’s election as a soft coup because of the military’s alleged interference.

Pakistan has also been criticized for allowing candidates backed by militant groups, like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, to run for public office. In the weeks leading up to the July 25 election, armed groups have carried out a series of deadly attacks intended to destabilize the election, leaving citizens concerned about security.

Pakistan rally
Pakistani religious party supporters wave flags during a rally held at Greater Iqbal Park in Lahore in May 2018.
Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In January, US President Donald Trump openly criticized Pakistan for being soft on terrorism, and froze $1.3 billion in military aid to the country.

Put together, this election will likely have a significant impact on the future of the country’s democracy and its stalling relationship with the US.

Here’s a short guide to what you need to know.

The election is shaping up to be close

On Wednesday, Pakistani citizens will vote on 272 members of the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament, the National Assembly. (Voters will also elect candidates to more than 500 general seats in the Provincial Assembly, which covers four provinces. Each province’s governing system acts like a state government.) The party that wins a majority in the assembly will form a government, then appoint a prime minister.

The two main competing parties are the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, which has been plagued by corruption scandals, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which is backing a political newcomer, Imran Khan, for prime minister.

Khan is a populist running on an anti-corruption and nationalistic platform, and he’s well known in Pakistan because of his former career as a cricket player. Critics say he’s light on concrete policy issues, but his anti-corruption promises have made him popular; there’s a lot of fatigue with Pakistan’s ongoing political scandals.

Khan lacks significant political experience, but he’s believed to be backed by Pakistan’s military, which could be a serious advantage given their widespread influence. He’s made his allegiance to the military blatantly clear, telling the New York Times in an interview, “I will carry the army with me.”

Imran Khan
The PTI party’s candidate, Imran Khan, has largely run on a nationalistic and anti-corruption platform.
AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Khan’s main adversary and the PML-N party candidate, Shahbaz Sharif, is a political veteran who previously served as the chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province. But Sharif’s party has been plagued with corruption scandals, mostly surrounding his brother Nawaz Sharif, the country’s last prime minister. Nawaz was ousted last year and barred from running for parliament again because of corruption allegations against him.

Nawaz Sharif was also known for clashing with the military over foreign and security policies while he was in power, so some speculate that the military has purposely tried to discredit the PML-N party. Earlier this month, he returned to Pakistan from London to rally voters, but he was arrested and found guilty of illicit real estate financing overseas. The former PM is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.

And even though Shahbaz Sharif is seen as an experienced, competent candidate, his elder brother’s corruption allegations have made voters suspicious of the party. The military has denied claims that it’s interfering with the election, but analysts believe they’re backing Khan.

The third major party of note, the PPP, is seen as a long shot. But if neither of the two major parties wins a majority in the country’s parliament, the elected members may have to form a coalition with other political groups — and the PPP could still be a key player. The PPP is backing Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as the country’s next prime minister, who has vowed to take on domestic terrorism.

However, Khan, the populist candidate, has openly said he would not form a coalition with the other two parties, which could further complicate matters.

PML-N supporters
The PML-N party still holds strong support in the Punjab province, which is Pakistan’s largest province.
Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Coverage of the election has skewed away from domestic or foreign policy issues and focused instead on the characters involved. Joshua White, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a political think tank based in Washington, DC, told me, “This is an election in which people are probably going to vote on the basis of personalities, or who they think is going to win.”

Some of the candidates are controversial for other reasons, however.

Candidates from militant groups are allowed on the ballots in this election

Candidates with ties to militant and extremist groups are also joining the election fray this year, and they’ve been approved by Pakistan’s courts.

One new party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, is running on a platform that includes points like “punishing those who blaspheme Islam,” according to the New York Times. Some of the political candidates are also on Pakistan’s terrorism watchlist. The courts are allowing them to run anyway, however, because they believe there aren’t enough valid complaints to prevent them from competing for public office.

In addition, a spate of violent attacks, some of which have been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, has also shaken up the elections.

On Sunday, PTI candidate Ikramullah Gandapur was killed by a suicide bomber in an attack that also wounded four others. And earlier this month, a bombing at a political rally in the northwestern town of Mastung killed 151 people and wounded 177 people.

Another bombing at a Baluchistan election rally earlier this month prompted PPP’s candidate for prime minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, to cancel his campaign activities for two days out of respect for the families of those who were killed.

It’s possible that the militant groups are targeting people across the political spectrum in an effort to destabilize the election — in 2013, the Pakistani Taliban said it regarded the general elections as “un-Islamic.

“If somebody doesn’t have a lot of security and they’re conducting a rally, that’s an easy target,” Madiha Afzal, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. Afzal added that the groups will “target whoever they possibly can,” including “politicians who are most opposed to the idea of an Islamic Pakistan.”

Given the heightened risk, thousands of soldiers will be stationed at polls across the country on election day. But this fact in itself is controversial due to the military’s long history of election interference.

The military is a looming presence over Pakistan’s election

Some see the fact that the military is deploying 371,000 soldiers to help guard the elections as a necessary precaution, given the recent wave of violence. Others, though, see it as a way for the country’s armed forces to assert their control.

In Pakistan’s 70-year history, the military has successfully staged several coups and has directly and indirectly controlled the country for years. Many analysts also believe the military censored major news outlets and was responsible for ousting former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistani soldiers
Thousands of Pakistani soldiers will be stationed at the polls to provide additional security on election day.

The country’s armed forces have denied interfering in this year’s election. But some political candidates have reportedly defected from Sharif’s PML-N party because they claim they’ve received intimidating threats from military officials. “They’ve been trying to intimidate people from Nawaz Sharif’s party in particular, to try to switch over to either Imran Khan’s party or to declare their candidacy as independents,” Afzal, the Brookings fellow, told me.

In regard to Pakistan’s relationship with the US, the tensions between the two nations will probably get worse if Khan, who is reportedly backed by the armed forces, becomes the next prime minister. “Imran Khan does not see the United States as an actor he thinks [Pakistan] should partner more closely with,” Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

Pakistan’s military has been accused of working with terrorists, and the country’s government has also been accused of aiding the Afghan Taliban. In January, Trump tweeted, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” He later suspended up to $1.3 billion in military aid to Pakistan.

The military has always held a powerful role in Pakistan, even under civilian rule. Last year’s election was the first time the country experienced a peaceful civilian transfer of power, and elected leaders will have to work hard if they want to stave off the military’s influence going forward. Given the threat of militant groups and the government’s failure to crack down on the extremists, this promises to be a challenge.

No one knows how this election will turn out, but we do know one thing: Pakistan’s next prime minister and the governing party will have their work cut out for them.

Correction: This article previously stated that no prime minister in Pakistan has ever finished a full term without being ousted from power by the military. Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court.