Rawalpindi, Pakistan – Muhammed Iqrar stands outside his small shop in Muslim Town, a commercial area in Rawalpindi. Something is amiss, he says.
“We have general elections in less than a month, but I don’t recall our area being so dead before,” the 46-year-old says.
“We used to have buntings, banners, flags, music blaring from the speakers put up by different candidates. … It used to be a festival. Now, it’s just so quiet.”
Pakistan, a country of 241 million people, is scheduled to hold its delayed national elections on February 8. But the vote has been tainted by allegations of rigging made by the main opposition party, headed by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan, by many accounts the country’s most popular politician, has been behind bars since August under various charges. He is also barred from standing in the elections due to his conviction in cases he says are part of a military-backed crackdown on him and his party.
Last week, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was stripped of its election symbol, a cricket bat, through a Supreme Court order, leaving its leaders with no choice but to fight as independents with their own individual symbols. In a country with a literacy rate of 60 percent, election symbols are necessary to help voters identify the parties they support on the ballots.
Two days after the top court’s decision, Maryam Nawaz, daughter of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, kickstarted her party’s campaign on Monday with a rally in the city of Okara in Punjab province, the deciding region in the polls.
‘People are not interested’
But the absence of any real opposition has turned the run-up to the election into a lukewarm affair – something Iqrar says he never experienced in the past.
A supporter of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party, he recalls participating in campaigning, going door to door to distribute flags and inviting people to street meetings.
“We used to get into the swing of things some two or three months before the elections. We put flags of our leaders and tried to engage people. But now it appears as if people are not interested at all,” he says.
Maqbool Sharif Toor, a retired government employee, agrees. A resident of Babu Mohalla, a densely populated neighbourhood in central Rawalpindi, Toor says he is uncertain if the elections would be held as scheduled. Earlier this week, Iran fired missiles at Pakistan, allegedly targeting ‘terrorist’ bases, and prompting retaliatory strikes from Pakistan. Those tensions have further injected uncertainty over whether the elections will indeed proceed as planned on February 8.
“One party has been completely sidelined, ruining the competition. We loved the ‘halla gulla’ [cacophony] during the campaigning, but now there is hardly anything here,” he says.
The 12th general election in Pakistan is being held under a cloud of political and economic instability and a deteriorating security situation.
The vote was originally scheduled in November, but the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said it needed more time to redraw constituencies based on the population census conducted last year.
Political instability in Pakistan began in April 2022 when Khan was removed from power through a no confidence vote in parliament. The former cricketing icon accused the “establishment” – a euphemism for the country’s powerful military – for orchestrating his removal.
Since his ouster, Khan has been in the crosshairs of the military, once considered his patron and architect of his rise to power in 2018.
Chaudhry Mussadiq Ghumman, a PTI candidate in Rawalpindi, says the state’s cases against his party has disenchanted a large number of voters.
“The court cases against us meant we never knew if we will be allowed to contest or not, and now our leader is in jail and our symbol has been taken away. In such an environment, it’s difficult to prepare for an election campaign,” he says.
Ghumman also claims the rallies and public meetings being held by PTI opponents have met with a muted response from the people.
Analysts say that despite clear directions by the Supreme Court and repeated assurances by the ECP, the prevalent sentiment among voters is of “uncertainty” over whether the vote will take place or will be further delayed.
“There is so much scepticism among people. It appears that a deliberate tactic has been deployed to keep the electoral temperature down,” says political commentator Zaigham Khan.
While the PTI had been dealing with legal hurdles and cancellations of candidate nominations, candidates for the two other major parties, the PMLN and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were finalised only last week.
Ahsan Iqbal, a PMLN candidate from Narowal city in Punjab, says the delay was due to an “exhausting process of scrutinising the names to be nominated”.
“We wanted to ensure transparency in our selection process,” he says. “In the coming days, our campaign will pick up more speed.”
Waleed Ashfaq, who runs a printing business in Lahore’s Anarkali Market, says his constituency used to have so many banners and posters hanging on the streets that the municipal authorities would have to remove them every week, only for new banners to appear the next day.
“People used to book us out two, three months in advance. This time, we even placed advertisements on the road, but nobody has come,” he says.
“Political parties, their candidates and workers would print flags, shirts, keychains and other memorabilia, but there is hardly any order in the market this year. It appears that the people are just bored and uninterested.”
‘Imagine if Imran Khan was not in jail’
Muhammad Meeran Mohmand, a furniture shop owner in Tarnol, a suburb of Islamabad, says his neighbourhood always saw a spirited contest during the elections but no political activity has started there this year.
“I think the politicians are gauging the mood of the public. They know that we have no trust in the system or even in those politicians. They have nothing to offer. They cannot give us water or employment or help generate businesses. They cannot fix our roads, let alone the country’s economy,” he says.
“I don’t think people will come out to vote. They are so disillusioned.”
Hamza Ali Haroon, an independent candidate in the same area, says he has been campaigning for a week but people are “sick and tired” of the politicians.
“Most of the candidates are the same old faces. These candidates from PMLN and PPP used to contest when I was eight or 10. Who will listen to them today?” asks Haroon, now 33.
Islamabad-based analyst Ahmed Ijaz thinks the subdued political campaigning could be a deliberate ploy by the PMLN and the PPP.
“If the campaign would have been in full swing and relatively free, given the situation in the country in the last two years, there could have been sloganeering against the military establishment. Perhaps the idea is to control the nature of the campaigning,” he says.
This tactic, Ijaz says, may see a relatively low voter turnout and may perhaps favour the PMLN, the party that many in Pakistan believe is being backed by the military this time around.
“Imagine if Imran Khan was not in jail or his party was not facing the crackdown which it is. I am certain we will not be having this conversation right now. The campaigning would be at its peak.”