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Can Pakistan afford to hold general elections?

Shamil Shams in Karachi
March 7, 2023

Opposition leader Imran Khan is demanding fresh polls to steer Pakistan out of a protracted political crisis. But holding general elections is a costly affair, and the South Asian country's coffers are empty.

A police vehicle guarding a polling station for the local government elections in Karachi
The security situation, with the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ramping up violent attacks in various parts of Pakistan, has worsened in the past few weeksImage: Yousuf Khan/AA/picture alliance

The demand for general elections is gaining momentum in Pakistan. Supporters of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan believe that it is the only way to drag the country out of the acute political and economic crises it is confronting. A fresh mandate for a political party, or a coalition, will do the country good, they argue.

Holding elections is easier said than done, though. The incumbent Pakistan Democratic Movement government, headed by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, is reluctant to accept Khan's demand, possibly fearing that the former premier could return to power.

Khan was ousted from office in 29022 by a no-confidence vote in Parliament. He accused the then army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the US of orchestrating his ouster.

The former cricket star, who heads the center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has been riding high in the public opinion polls ever since. The Muslim-majority South Asian country is also facing a crippling economic crisis, with the government struggling to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The economic chaos, soaring inflation, and an acute shortage of gas and electricity in the country, has made Sharif's government quite unpopular among the masses.

Pakistan's economic crisis

The shortage of fuel and other essential goods, as well as a record inflation, has put many basic food items out of people's reach.

Pakistanis struggle to make ends meet amid economic turmoil

Long queues of cars can be seen outside gas stations in major cities, including Pakistan's economic hub, Karachi. Many households currently have no gas to cook food, while factories are struggling to maintain operations amid power outagesand a lack of fuel. 

There are all kinds of other shortages right now in Pakistan.

On January 26, the Pakistani rupee fell 9.6% against the dollar, which is the biggest one-day drop in over two decades. The balance of payments crisis is so severe that hundreds of foreign containers carrying food and medical supplies have been stranded in ports for weeks as authorities do not have the money to make payments.

Sharif's government is now facing a difficult task to convince the IMF to renew its loan for the country to avoid a default.

A costly affair

Could fresh elections take Pakistan out of this crisis?

"The country's economic situation is a big mess, and we have run out of money. Holding general elections is a costly affair, and I think Pakistan can't afford it right now," Zia Rehman, an investigative journalist and political analyst, told DW.

"The ideal way forward is that all stakeholders, including politicians and the army top brass, sit together and agree on a national consensus government, whose main job should be to fix the economy," Rehman said.

Some political observers in Pakistan are of the view that the biggest hindrance to a national dialogue is Khan, whom critics accuse of being "inflexible."

"Khan treats politics as sports, where the sole objective of a sportsman is to defeat the opponent at any cost. Politics don't work like this. Politicians have to engage with everyone, even with their opponents," Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior journalist, told DW.

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Khan's PTI believes that national dialogue is not possible with senior party leaders being targeted by the government. Several party officials have been rounded up in the past few months, and Khan, too, is facing an imminent arrest on corruption allegations.

Fawad Chaudhry, a PTI leader, recently said the government was making excuses to delay the general election, adding that its "days are now numbered."

Security issues

Economic crisis is not the only obstacle to holding general elections in Pakistan. The security situation, with the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ramping up violent attacks in various parts of the country, has worsened in the past few weeks.

In February, five people died after a Taliban suicide squad attacked a police compound in Karachi.

In January, a bomb at a mosque often frequented by police personnel in Peshawar killed more than 80 officers.

A suicide bombing killed at least 10 officers in southwest Pakistan on Monday, a police spokesperson said. More than a dozen others were wounded in the blast, which targeted a police truck near Sibi, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Quetta in Balochistan province.

"Pakistan does not have funds to deal with the security challenge. This poses a great risk to the country's stability," the analyst Rehman said.

The situation is worrisome for the powerful military, which has also come under sharp criticism from Khan and his supporters. Against this backdrop, observers say, early elections alone might not end the political tug-of-war, resolve Pakistan's economic issues and overcome security challenges. Things could get even worse.

Imran Khan: Pakistan's most polarizing politician

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru