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Wed 25 Jul 2018 11:22 AM

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Pakistan heads into its most controversial election in years

Imran Khan, the celebrated former cricketer turned anti-corruption crusader, had the momentum heading into the election

Pakistan heads into its most controversial election in years
Shabaz Sharif, the younger brother of ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the head of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), prepares to cast his vote during Pakistan's general election at a polling station in Lahore on July 25, 2018. Polls opened on July 25 in a tense, unpredictable Pakistani election that could be former World Cup cricketer Imran Khan's best shot at power, after a campaign marred by allegations of military interference and a series of deadly attacks.

Pakistanis are voting today in a closely fought election that will determine the course of the nuclear-armed nation central to US anti-terrorism efforts and China’s global infrastructure ambitions.

Surveys show none of the top three parties winning a majority, paving the way for horse-trading to form a government after results come in late tonight. Pakistan’s powerful military -- which has ruled for much of the nation’s history -- has faced accusations during the campaign of intimidating critics and reporters to elect a pliant government. It has denied the allegations.

Imran Khan, the celebrated former cricketer turned anti-corruption crusader, had the momentum heading into the election, and is seen as the military’s top choice for prime minister despite his denials.

His main rival is a party helmed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has clashed repeatedly with the military over the years and was jailed this month on corruption charges, which he is appealing.

No matter who triumphs, Pakistan’s next leader will need to grapple with the generals over control of foreign policy and national security -- two areas that determine relations with the US and China.

They must also deal with a mounting economic crisis: four currency devaluations since December have made it likely the next government will need to seek another International Monetary Fund bailout.

“While the army will continue to retain control, a pliant civilian government, which it will get in Khan, will allow it to have nearly unchecked power,” said Shailesh Kumar, Asia director with political risk firm Eurasia Group. “This is consequential given that relations with India -- and the world -- are at all-time lows, and could be a catalyst for further bad behaviour, and in turn cause additional security challenges in the region.”

Pakistan’s army has long worried that a civilian government could make overtures to India and Afghanistan, ultimately reducing the need for a powerful military -- and the largesse that comes with it. Under President Donald Trump, the US has suspended military aid amid allegations Pakistan’s army supports proxy groups striking inside India and Afghanistan, complicating America’s longest war.

Pakistani voters stamp their ballots at a polling station in Rawalpindi on July 25, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan’s military denies those claims and has sought to keep ties with the US from deteriorating further: It still allows the American military overland access to Afghanistan, for instance. Even so, any party that wins is likely to shift ever closer to China, which has offered more than $60 billion to finance Pakistan infrastructure projects.

Vote counting is likely to stretch into the early-morning hours. There are 270 seats parliamentary seats out of 342 up for grabs, with 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for minorities. A party or coalition needs 136 seats to form government.

A Gallup Pakistan poll in early July showed Khan closing the gap with Sharif’s party, which is campaigning on its record of boosting infrastructure spending, improving security and reducing power cuts. Khan has pledged to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic welfare state” by building five million affordable homes within five years, while raising tax collection and improving the business environment.

“If you asked me six months ago, I would have said Imran Khan has no chance of winning” but it’s now a “neck-to-neck election,” said Mattias Martinsson, a money manager overseeing a total of $420 million of assets at Stockholm-based Tundra Fonder AB. Khan represents uncertainty for investors, particularly if he comes down hard on businesses, he added, but in the long run change might be beneficial for the country.

Pakistan’s rapidly deteriorating finances will be top of the agenda for the next government. The currency -- the worst performer in Asia -- has been devalued 15 percent since December. The central bank has raised interest rates, the current-account gap has widened by 43 percent in the last fiscal year and foreign-exchange reserves are dropping.

“The economy is facing extreme stress,” said Asad Umar, a member of Khan’s party favoured to be finance minister if he forms a government. “There is a need for urgent structural reforms.”

A Pakistani soldier checks a voters information during Pakistan's general election at a polling station in Islamabad on July 25, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

Short terms measures include going to the IMF or seeking fresh funds from China, Umar said, while boosting industry and agriculture over the long term. Miftah Ismail, a former finance minister from Sharif’s party, said in an interview he would tap the bond market first before going to the IMF.

Khan’s party -- Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice -- has struck a chord with voters in part due to its track record governing the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“PTI should be given a chance,” said Syed Qasim, 23, a security guard in Karachi. "The schools, education and health system there are the best now."

Still, future civilian-military clashes are inevitable and will limit a new government’s ability to enact reforms, according to senior diplomats in Pakistan who asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive matters. They said the military’s meddling heading into the election has been unprecedented since the end of army rule in 2008. An army spokesman didn’t respond to a phone call or email request for comment.

“The current military crackdown in Pakistan appears intended to limit the ability of any civilian actors to challenge the military’s autonomy or its policy goals,” said Paul Staniland, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who has written about Pakistani politics.

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