Pakistan Bulletin

An up-to-date and informed analyses of key issues of Pakistan.

Potential Impacts of Election Environment on Pakistan’s Democratic Transition

November 2023

Pakistan is set to hold elections after a gap of over five years. A number of policy decisions and actions, however, cast doubt over the credibility and fairness of the polling process.

Pakistan, a country with a tumultuous political history, stands at another crucial juncture in its democratic journey. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has scheduled the general elections for February 8, 2024, a decision that has elicited both optimism and scepticism among stakeholders. Many democracy advocates perceive the Election Commission of Pakistan’s announcement of the election as a positive step, celebrating the continuity of the democratic process. They believe that holding elections will ensure a peaceful transition of power, strengthen democratic institutions, and foster a political culture rooted in the rule of law. Given Pakistan’s historical struggles with military rule and political instability, adhering to democratic norms, even amidst procedural irregularities, is seen as a significant achievement. Pro-democracy advocates argue that the celebration of the election date signifies a commitment to democratic principles and a rejection of authoritarian tendencies.
However, deep concerns persist among various political stakeholders regarding the fairness of the electoral playing field and potential challenges to the credibility of the general elections. The deviation from the constitutional requirement of holding elections within ninety days of the National Assembly’s dissolution raises questions about the ECP’s independence and its ability to conduct free and fair elections. Sceptics express worries that such deviations could erode the credibility of democratic institutions and lead to a normalisation of extra-constitutional measures in the future.

Sceptics are also concerned about last-minute changes in the delimitation of constituencies and amendments in electoral laws, which prevented the finalisation of electoral rules (by-laws) before the announcement of the election date. The delimitation process, following population census, has already been challenged by major political parties for flawed population counting. The hurriedly done exercise is expected to be complete by mid-December, leaving little or no time for effective access to judicial remedy against ECP decisions. Ideally, the electoral legal framework and delimitation of constituencies should be complete at least a year before the polling date.

The deviation from the constitutional requirement of holding elections within ninety days of the National Assembly's dissolution raises questions about the ECP's independence and its ability to conduct free and fair elections.

Even as Pakistan is moving towards elections, the silent role of the country’s establishment in political management is far too evident. Out of the three popular mainstream political parties that have generally taken turns to take the seat to power, the former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political party Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) seen as the new victim and Nawaz Sharif’s party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) again turning into the new favourite of Pakistan’s establishment. Both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by the husband and son of the slain popular leader Benazir Bhutto, and PTI are openly critical of the caretaker government’s overt and covert support of PML-N and lack of a level-playing field in the pre-election campaign environment.
However, when it comes to election preparedness, none of the three major political parties seem fully prepared. Party manifestos serve as crucial documents in an election campaign, playing a pivotal role in informing voters about the party’s vision, goals, and proposed policies. New party manifestos are yet to be finalised and announced by the major political parties.
The prevailing scepticism about fairness is further deepened by the military-led establishment’s influence over the electoral process. The establishment is seen as pulling the strings behind the scenes, persuading PTI candidates to switch allegiance or quit politics. Under pressure from the establishment, PTI is divided into three groups/parties, with over two hundred former lawmakers abandoning the party and more likely to do so in the next few weeks. Many others are hiding or in detention, facing charges that are largely viewed as politically motivated. There is an undeclared ban on PTI’s political activities, and it is still unclear whether the party and its top leadership will be allowed to participate in the elections.
Another critical challenge is the restriction of free media reporting. Media outlets and journalists continue to suffer from undue restrictions on freedom of expression, which have resulted in widespread self-censorship. Regulatory measures included the approval of the Personal Data Bill and E-Safety Bill, criticised by rights groups. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) recently issued directives, including a ban on airtime for “hate mongers” and restrictions on content about judges and terrorist attacks. The outgoing National Assembly has approved an amendment to the legislation governing the media regulatory authority. While the amendments seemingly seek to address issues such as timely salary payments and disinformation, there have been concerns about the potential misuse of the law to suppress critical reporting. Despite initial withdrawal, the amendment was signed into law in August 2023.
Between January and September 2023, the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) documented 157 attacks on the media in Pakistan, including arrests, assaults, property damage, legal actions, censorship, harassment, and violence against media professionals. Additionally, there were cases of journalists being abducted, some of whom returned later, while the whereabouts of others have remained unknown for weeks. Several events since the May 9 riots, following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, pointed to the shrinking space for free speech and genuine pluralism.
A recent blog published by the Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine has pointed towards a new emerging challenge posed by increasing use of AI. The magazine notes that as the general elections draw near, the convergence of disinformation spread through social media and the integration of generative artificial intelligence (AI) into political discourse also present formidable challenges. The multifaceted impact of AI, ranging from creating realistic celebrity images to generating clones of news anchors and even political leaders, raises concerns about the potential manipulation of electoral processes in a country marked by intense political divisions. Despite these concerns, the ECP and caretaker governments appear oblivious to the need to inoculate the masses against electoral disinformation and countering fake news ahead of the 2024 elections.

The multifaceted impact of AI, ranging from creating realistic celebrity images to generating news anchors and even political leader clones, raises concerns about the potential manipulation of electoral processes in a country marked by intense political divisions.

Another major challenge is the worsening security situation since September this year, which can potentially impact electoral campaigns, and restrict public assembly and voter participation. Although Pakistan may not be experiencing the mass-casualty terror attacks witnessed a decade ago, militants are asserting their presence through frequent and deadly assaults, particularly targeting security personnel. Recent attacks in Southern Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Mianwali, resulting in civilian and security personnel casualties, underscore this ongoing threat.
Ahead of the start of the election campaign, Pakistan’s upcoming general polls are shrouded in uncertainty and scepticism as serious concerns persist about the fairness of the electoral playing field, the influence of the military establishment, and the security situation. Pakistan desperately seeks a stable tomorrow. Despite the flaws of the election process,  a politically elected government is the only way forward for the country.

Quraysh Khattak


Quraysh Khattak is a democratic governance specialist who has worked with various international organisations including UNDP and Democracy Reporting International.

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