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Pakistan’s disillusioned voters wonder if new polls will change a country mired in political feuding

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan is holding parliamentary elections this week but many voters are disillusioned and wonder if the balloting can bring any real change in a country mired in political feuding, a seemingly intractable economic crisis and resurgent militancy.

Forty-four political parties will compete on Thursday for a share of the 266 seats in the National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, with an additional 70 seats reserved for women and minorities.

After the election, the new parliament will choose the country’s next prime minister. If no party wins an outright majority, then the one with the biggest share of assembly seats can form a coalition government.

WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE A SURE BET?

Many experts agree that in Pakistan’s political landscape today, there really seems to be only one top contender for the post of premier — Nawaz Sharif, a three-times former prime minister who has returned to the country and been absolved of past convictions.

Sharif came back last October after four years of self-imposed exile in London to avoid serving prison sentences. Within weeks of his return, his sentences were thrown out and his convictions overturned.

His archrival, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a cricket hero turned Islamist politician who was ousted in April 2022, is behind bars and banned from contesting the vote.

And although Khan has a significant grassroots following, it’s the intensity of his downfall and the ease of Sharif’s return that have led many to believe the outcome has been already decided.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and an unpredictable Western ally. It borders Afghanistan, China, India and Iran — a region rife with hostile boundaries and tense relations.

For the international community, a strong and stable Pakistani government means a better chance of containing any unrest, addressing economic challenges and stemming illegal migration.

And though anything can happen on election day, both Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf have led lackluster campaigns over the past few weeks — something experts say only feeds into the general apathy among some 127 million eligible voters.

That could come back to haunt Pakistan’s next government and set the stage for an even more intense brain drain and more political trouble ahead, as well as violent protests. And that in turn would only benefit Islamic militants.

A GROWING BACKLASH AGAINST THE ELITE

Khan’s May 2023 arrest triggered destructive rampages on a scale unseen since the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Khan’s supporters blamed the military for his demise and set about wrecking military buildings and property — a strong message of defiance in a country where the army wields huge influence.

The authorities responded with mass arrests, a crackdown on Khan’s party, and the introduction of military trials for civilians. The clampdown appears to have broken some of that spirit, though a recent pre-election rally in the southern city of Karachi, where police were forced to disperse Khan’s supporters with tear gas, showed that some were ready to fight for him.

Military affairs scholar Ayesha Siddiqa warns of more instability as the anti-establishment sentiment grows. “People are angry,” Siddiqa said. “The dislike of the army has increased tremendously, and it’s more noticeable.”

THE DANGERS OF DEJA VU AND APATHY

A year ago, Khan was still a free man rallying for a comeback while Sharif, ousted in 2017 over corruption allegations and banned for life from holding public office, was in London, seemingly out of the picture.

Now the tables have turned. Khan is in prison while Sharif’s return and the absolution that followed — compounded with an election campaign he only launched on Jan. 15 — positioned him as the security establishment’s preferred candidate.

Pakistan isn’t known for holding free and fair elections. Ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation and other forms of electoral fraud have been commonplace in the past.

First-time voter Noreen Khan, who works in an Islamabad beauty salon, said she holds little hope for a free vote and believes there is no way Khan’s “party will be allowed to win” — despite its popularity.

Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says much seems “all too familiar” in this election.

“Nothing is shocking to those who have followed Pakistani politics,” she said and added that although there is a strong sense of déjà vu, she cannot remember so much division in the runup to an election.

“The political climate is the most polarized we have seen in Pakistan’s history,” she said.

Shaikh underscored the “systematic and vicious ways” in which the judiciary and security establishment have moved against Khan and his party.

But four criminal convictions so far — with sentences of three, 10, 14 and seven years for Khan, to be served concurrently — and more than 150 legal cases still pending may be too much for anyone to overcome.

A REVERSAL OF FORTUNES

Sharif’s and Khan’s sharp reversal of fortunes fits the nation’s cutthroat pattern of power-seeking politics.

Candidates from Khan’s party have been forced to run as independents after the Supreme Court and Election Commission said they can’t use the party symbol — a cricket bat on voting slips — to help illiterate voters find them on the ballots.

The undoing of Khan and the resurrection of Sharif have given the impression of a predetermined outcome, and “it may be too late to change that perception,” Shaikh said.

Political scientist Samina Yasmeen at the University of Western Australia envisions negative repercussions for the already troubled economy if voters come out thinking Thursday’s vote was unfair. “They won’t trust the government,” she said.

Talha Ahad, the founder of The Centrum Media, a Pakistani digital news network, said young people are not taking the election seriously. They believe “everything is fixed” and think there must be a deal with the military, and that why Sharif is back, he said.

“People have less belief in democracy,” Ahad added. “Everyone is like, we don’t want this because all of them are same.”

A CHANCE FOR MILITANCY TO FLOURISH

Clerics and militant groups have long wanted to impose their interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, on everyday life in Pakistan, claiming Western ways and democracy don’t work.

With mounting political divisions, a loss of trust in the government and the system, radical Islam could benefit in a country with a history of militancy, said Yasmeen, the political analyst.

Pakistan needs a government that can regain public confidence, create jobs and deliver basic services, she said.

“People need that sense of safety,” she added. “Without that, we’re on a slippery slope.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Riazat Butt, the news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Associated Press, has reported from the region since joining the AP in 2022.

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