The two leading countries in South Asia, India and Pakistan, are both approaching the main event in their state calendar, namely their upcoming general elections. And Pakistan has finally set a (provisional) date for its election, which is scheduled to take place in the last week of January 2024.
These upcoming parliamentary elections have a special significance for a number of reasons, first of which is the tense domestic political situation in both countries, the almost hostile relations between the two countries, and the fact that both have nuclear weapons.
Significantly, given the highly strained nature of their relationship, this last factor is very rarely mentioned in the public rhetoric of either country. This is remarkable when we consider the continuous bloodthirsty calls heard in certain other countries to strike (or “blast” or “take out”) their foes using nuclear weapons. Calls clearly coming from someone who has drunk too much coffee.
Nevertheless, the very fact that both India and Pakistan have such weapons, combined with the other factors already mentioned, can only heighten international interest in the extremely important, though seemingly purely domestic affairs of both countries.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, almost all aspects of the growing turbulence in the country are affected in some way or other by the approaching general elections. To judge by the rhetoric of the most prominent politicians from the country’s opposing factions, more is at stake now than at any time in Pakistan’s recent history. It looks very much as if the winners will blame the losers for everything that is going wrong in the country, and above all for its dire financial and economic situation.
If the currently ruling bloc, led by the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party, wins, then the previous ruling party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (whose leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been in jail since early August) will also be held responsible for the grave consequences of the conditions imposed by the IMF this summer, when it agreed to allocate $3 billion to the country over a period of nine months. A sum which will only be enough to service Pakistan’s national debt and keep the economy afloat for the period in question. Even today, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leaders are already claiming that this move has been forced on the country “because the previous government allowed the disease to take root, engaged in populism and failed to take the necessary, but inevitably difficult and unpopular, measures to reform the economy in time.”
Meanwhile, the first immediate consequence of Pakistan’s compliance with the IMF’s unvarying and vague demand – that the aid recipient “live within its means” – was to cancel the state’s obligation to provide subsidies to electricity consumers. As a result, not only individual consumers but many companies found themselves unable to pay for the services provided by the electricity supply companies. As a result many businesses suffered huge losses. There were mass protests, in which members of the public burned their electricity bills in public.
In the current situation, it is not realistic to talk about the prospects for economic development. As for now, Pakistan continues to live in the hope of investments continuing to come in from abroad, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As for the IMF, along with promises of an initial tranche of $1.2 billion first tranche, it also gave some facile advice – namely to raise taxes on the rich in order to offset the increased costs to electricity consumers and suppliers. Which, given Pakistan’s current circumstances, is scarcely feasible.
For a number of reasons, including those outlined above, if the DZS were to win (which, in view of the current political situation in the country, is certainly possible) the currently ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) would inevitably be blamed for everything. That is, the “political vendetta” factor, which all too often underlies the uncompromising struggle between modern Pakistan’s opposing political clans, would once again come into play. The leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) Party would likely be reminded of how the Pakistan Movement for Justice and the then Prime Minister Imran Khan had been forced out of power a year and a half earlier.
In the present author’s opinion, that is why the government is doing everything it can, including sponsoring various legislative initiatives in recent months, to prevent this latter party (which enjoys unqualified support in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, as well as in certain other regions) from taking part in the upcoming elections.
In relation to the elections, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the country’s interim prime minister, made a significant remark in late September, on a trip to New York, where he traveled to attend the regular UN General Assembly. He stated that he did not see any reason to question the legitimacy of the upcoming election, unless Imran Khan himself or the hundreds of other Pakistan Movement for Justice officials who are currently under arrest participated in the election. Those officials are accused of organizing the anti-government protests of May 9, which took place primarily in Punjab Province. Nevertheless, according to Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, “thousands” of ordinary members of the Pakistan Movement for Justice will have the right to participate in the upcoming elections.
In fact, the sheer scale of Pakistan’s problems, briefly referred to in this article, and the radical nature of the measures proposed to resolve these problems, are alarming, to say the least. Especially since the statesman proposing those measures is an interim leader – appointed for a period of just three months – who came to power more-or-less by chance following the dissolution of Parliament following the expiry of its mandate on September 14, and the consequent resignation of the government. By contrast, the last (“permanent”) Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, did not permit himself to propose any such measures. Moreover, the radical political statements issued by Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar cover almost all aspects of state activity, from lawmaking to the status of the army, economic reforms and foreign policy.
Particularly worth of note are his highly complimentary remarks about the United States, which he made during a speech at the Council on Foreign Affairs, where he was invited during his stay in New York. These remarks are in stark contrast to the comments Imran Khan made about Washington during his tenure as Prime Minister. As for Imran Khan’s successor, Shehbaz Sharif, he also expressed his wishes to establish better relations with the US, but in much more cautious language.
However, despite his publicly expressed “pro-Americanism,” Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar has insisted that there is no possibility of Pakistan joining a certain political grouping, and has expressed his intention to continue to maintain “cast-iron” relations with China, and his pro-US stance may turn out to be purely self-interested, and be based on the significant role that Washington plays in international financial organizations. As already hinted, it is in its links with these organizations that Islamabad now sees its best chance of emerging from its financial crisis.
Moreover, another important factor may be Pakistan’s desire to slow down the rapprochement between the US and India, Pakistan’s main regional opponent. And, it seems, Washington has now taken the bait that Islamabad has been dangling in front of its nose for the past year.
This is suggested by the trips that, since last fall, a number of US politicians have made to the Pakistani part of Kashmir (typically referred to by India as “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” or simply POK). These include the Somali-born congresswoman Ilhan Omar and even Donald Blom, the US ambassador to Pakistan. When the news that the latter had recently made another week-long (“secret”) tour to POK hit the headlines in India, the resulting awkwardness in Washington’s relations with what is potentially its most important partner had to be resolved by the American ambassador to New Delhi.
Maybe here it is worth emphasizing, once again, the special significance of the upcoming general election in Pakistan, due to the extremely tense domestic situation. In recent months, leaders of the now ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) have linked their continued hold on power to the imminent return to Pakistan (which, it has been announced, will take place on October 21) of the Party’s founder, Nawaz Sharif, the older brother of the last Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Nawaz, who has already served three terms in office, is due to return from London, where he has been staying since 2017, officially on health grounds but in reality fleeing prosecution on corruption charges.
In summer 2018 he briefly returned to Pakistan in order to participate in the general (parliamentary) election. But at that time Pakistan’s all-powerful military decided that the way forward for Pakistan lay with Imran Khan. Back then Nawaz Sharif was jailed for two weeks, thus leaving him in no doubt that he was an unwanted guest at this “celebration of democracy.” After that, he returned to London, again for “health reasons.”
Today, however, the members of his party insist that the veteran politician, now aged 74, has been miraculously cured of all his ailments and is “ready to lead the country out of its disastrous situation.” However, even some members of the ruling coalition say that he should first attend a number of court hearings, as there are still certain questions.
So, the next “celebration of democracy” in Pakistan promises to be every bit as colorful as the previous one.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.